Strength Training For Runners

Running alone is not enough to reach your full potential as a runner. Successful endurance-training programs must include key elements to achieve optimal performance. One of the essential elements that is often neglected by runners is strength. Whether it is time requirements, facility access, intimidation or fear of unwanted bulk, runners try to justify not adding strength training to their program. We know, through studies and experience, that intelligent strength training provides the following benefits to the endurance athlete:

  • Improved running economy (1)
  • Improved muscle endurance
  • Reduction of fatigue in postural muscles (2)
  • Improved muscle capillarization (aids in oxygen transportation)
  • Improved neuromuscular coordination (3)
  • Reduced risk of injury (4)
  • Stronger bones
  • Stronger connective tissue

When you look at optimizing endurance you need to look at what variables need to be improved. Endurance is based on cardiovascular performance (heart rate, stroke volume and heart contractility), the strength of your skeletal muscles and how efficient your muscles are extracting and utilizing oxygen. While we know that aerobic training has certainly proved to be one of the best ways to improve cardiovascular performance, there are other ways to achieve the latter two variables and strength plays a large role.  

Efficient movement is one that allows you to activate your muscles as fast as possible. After all, strength is nothing without the ability for your body to control it. As runners we have to strive for efficient movement as our foot contact times are between .08 and .3 seconds during the stance phase. The better our neuromuscular control (brain-to-muscle communication) the better our efficiency. To get more from our nervous system we must utilize methods to recruit more muscle fibers to contract. One of the most effective methods for this is heavy (maximal) weight lifting. Not only do we get a huge increase in muscle fiber recruitment, but we do so without a  big cardiovascular or connective tissue training stress. 

Running economy (RE) is defined as the energy demand for a given speed of submaximal running (think marathon pace). So a runner with a good RE will use less energy (and less oxygen) than a runners with poor RE at the same speed. If we want to run faster, we inherently reduce our ground contact time and need to increase our force production. High end strength and power allows us to accomplish this. 

Intelligent programming focused on correct movement, muscle balance and coordination is important for injury prevention. Heavy strength training not only results in muscular strength, but mechanical strength of connective tissue structures surrounding joints and bone density. Think about this on your next run; each time their foot contacts the ground an "efficient" runner sees a vertical load of 2.6x bodyweight, a braking load of 0.5x bodyweight and a lateral load of 0.2x bodyweight. Now considering that this loading happens anywhere from 150-185 times a minute, you can see the importance of effective strength training. 

It is important to go ahead and define what type of resistance training is most effective for endurance athletes. Most training programs consider hill sprints, core work or circuit training to be sufficient for strength training but we do not. Maximal or explosive strength training was more effective in improving strength and neuromuscular performance and enhancing run economy in recreational runners than concurrent circuit and endurance training (1). Your strength program should be focused on neuromuscular performance and avoid hypertrophy. Strength training does not mean muscle mass. The thought of increased mass is one of the biggest deterrents for endurance athletes. Without a doubt, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to a runner building muscle. Proper training and nutrition will lead to strength, not unwanted bulk.

Your time in the gym should primarily be spent getting strong and developing clean and functional movement patterns that enhance balance, symmetry and stability - not pushing though several repetitions of an exercise with poor form competing for time. Most endurance athletes that are new to strength training will need to focus first on volume (lighter loads, high reps) and form to prepare the body for more intensive work. When sufficient work tolerance is achieved, the athlete can begin on neuromuscular recruitment and rate of force development (using heavier loads and more explosive movements). Most endurance athletes should strength train 2-3x/week. As an athlete progresses in their sport, the number of strength training days may be reduced to 1-2x/week.  

Looking to add strength training to your program? Contact us to schedule a free consultation!

  1. Taipale RS et al, 2010
  2. Dudley and Fleck, 1987
  3. Zatsiorsky, 1995
  4. Bompa, 1996