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Essentials of strength training for runners

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Running enthusiasts often focus on clocking miles but the transformative impact of incorporating strength training should not be overlooked! 

In this post, we'll explore three compelling reasons why strength training is not just beneficial but crucial for runners and detail how to best integrate a weight routine into your training.

WIthout further ado, the magic of strength training lies in: 

Preventing Injuries:

Every mile you cover as a runner subjects your body to intense forces—approximately 2.5-5x times your body weight with each step, and you take ~1500 steps/mile!  By strengthening muscles and connective tissues, load is distributed more effectively, reducing stress on your cartilage, joints, and bones. Particularly important are unilateral exercises (focusing on one leg at a time) which correct muscle imbalances known to contribute to injuries. Furthermore, strength training bolsters bone density, a key factor in preventing bone-related injuries such as stress reactions and fractures.

Improving Running Economy:

The more economical (efficient) you are, the less energy you’ll require to run a given speed, meaning you can run faster for longer. By enhancing neuromuscular connections, strength training optimizes muscle fiber recruitment, allowing for greater force production with less energy demand. A well-designed strength training plan will also address posture and core stability, preventing issues like rounded shoulders that waste energy and can impede efficient breathing.

Improving Mobility:

Can’t touch your toes? You’re not alone! The repetitive nature of running often results in muscle tightness which is problematic when the range of motion required for running becomes impeded. Strength training, when executed with a full range of motion (ROM), is one of the best ways to improve mobility as it uses resistance to optimize the stretch potential.

Now that we’ve convinced you that strength training is helpful, let’s discuss how to put together a program! 

Exercise selection: Achieving a balance between bilateral and unilateral exercises is crucial. Bilateral exercises, like a back squat, focus on raw force production and acclimating to load. On the other hand, unilateral (single side) exercises reveal imbalances and train stability and coordination in a run specific way - you’re NEVER on two legs while running!  

Subtle shifts in where your weight is placed or how your body is moving can completely change the impact of an exercise. If you are inexperienced in the weight room, some “eyes-on” coaching can be very impactful for learning how to properly execute movements.

Programming: Understanding the relationship between reps, sets, and overall volume is key when putting together any strength program, but especially one with a specific goal, like improving run performance. Manipulating sets and reps can induce different adaptations (power, strength, hypertrophy, or endurance) and should be tailored based on the type of athlete, event, and time of the year.

Striking a balance between reaching muscle fatigue and maintaining adequate tension is crucial for effective strength training. The weight and tempo you lift depends on your specific goals—power demands fast contractions, while hypertrophy benefits from increased time under tension. 

One of the biggest mistakes that runners make is to train for “endurance” by doing lots of reps at a light weight. While this may work for some exercises, it’s important to be challenged. Don’t fear heavy weights (with good form!)

Strength training requires energy and it’s important to integrate it into your training regime strategically. Strength should not compromise the quality of your run days.  Ideally, strength training should take place on the same day as a hard run session (separated by ~7 hours), or the day after a hard run session. Aim for 1-3 sessions per week.

Not a gym member? No problem! Dumbbells and resistance bands can suffice, but make sure you have enough load to provide a challenge.

Barrier to Strength Training - The Rhino in the Room

Lots of runners fear “bulking up” by doing strength training, and fear that heavy lifting will shift them from a “runner” to “bodybuilder” physique. Rest assured, it’s VERY unlikely that you’ll turn into The Hulk if you hit the weight room! Running and strength training trigger competing hormonal and metabolic responses, making it very difficult for runners to put on muscle bulk - the majority of strength adaptations in runners stem from neuromuscular adaptations. Even during a traditional hypertrophy phase, high-mileage runners are unlikely to experience significant muscle bulk. Proper strength training HELPS, not HURTS running!

Closing Thoughts:

Incorporating strength training into your running routine requires a thoughtful and balanced approach. Remember, the goal is not to add complexity but to unlock your full potential as a runner. With a well-structured plan, seamlessly integrate strength training into your regimen and witness the positive impact on the track or trail.

Ready to get stronger?? We've got you! Check our our custom strength training options and our affordable Unstoppable: Strength Training for Runners app!

Blog by Faye Stenning bKin and Jessica O'Connell MSc CSEP-CEP OLY

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