Strength Training for Runners – Tips and Exercises for a Stronger Run
We frequently get questions from podcast listeners about things we talk about or running in general. Recently, we had a question from Sumo from Australia who wrote:
“My question is towards weight training and the days I run. At the moment I am doing two 30min weight sessions a week to strengthen up my legs and keep basic strength in my upper body. I train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. How would I go about adapting my weight training into the running plan or vice versa?? I live in a mainly flat area so hill repeats are out of the question.”
Sumo has great questions and we talked through the answers in Podcast 23, talking through the goals of strength training, some tips on getting the most out of strength training, and a 20-minute (or so) workout that incorporates everything you need as a runner. Below is a review of our conversation.
The Goals of Strength Training for Runners
There are really 2 main goals of incorporating strength training in to your training regimine:
Strengthen your Supportive Tissue – Joints and Bones
When you run, you strengthen your bones, ligaments, and tendons. So, just running can go a long way in making your joints and bones strong and reduce your risk of injury. However, running is a repetitive motion, which means you work the same aspects of these tissues every time you run.
Strength training can add additional support to your joints and bones by increasing the level of resistance placed on these tissues while maintaining low impact. It also introduces a fuller range of motion and instability, allowing those tissues to adapt outside of the normal repetitive motion of running. For example, while doing a squat, you are utilizing many of the same muscles you use during running, but with greater recruitment of muscle fibers. And with your joints in slight different positions, your ligaments, tendons, and bones get strengthened from different angles, making your overall joint stronger. All of these things contribute to a reduction of injury risk.
Increase your muscle strength
It’s common sense that the stronger your muscles, the stronger your running will be. Just like in a car, if you put a bigger engine in the same car, you go faster. Like mentioned above, the greater range of motion and recruitment of muscle fibers can build your muscles stronger, eventually impacting your speed.
But let’s clarify something here – your goal is NOT to build bulk. Bigger muscles are not necessarily stronger muscles, and in fact can even slow you down. So let’s go through some tips to ensure you are getting the most out of your strength training regimine.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Strength Training
Use Compound/Functional Movements
Compound exercises are ones that involve multiple muscle groups. In other words, you aren’t isolating just one muscle group. For example, Leg Extensions isolate your Quadriceps while Squats work your Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, and Calf muscles. Not only are you getting more bang for your buck with the Squat, but you are also doing a movement that you would do in real life (a.k.a. Functional Movement). When would you ever use just your Quadricep in real life? Rarely if ever. However, sitting down, standing up, running – all of these real life movements are supported by doing squats. So, the more Compound, Functional movements you can incorporate into your strength routine, the more supportive you are being to your running form.
Repetitions should be Slow, Purposeful
If you go to the gym and look over in the dumbbell section, you often see large guys and gals using large amounts of weight doing very quick repetitions. Does it look good? Well, yeah, it kind of does. However, they aren’t doing themselves any favors. What they are actually doing is using momentum of the weight itself to be quick, and only working a portion of the muscles they are targeting.
To get the most benefit out of your strength training, your repetitions should be slow and purposeful. Muscles contain muscle fibers, which are all or nothing. That is, each muscle fiber in the muscle itself is either being worked at its fullest potential or not worked at all. For example, if you lift a glass of water, your bicep is incorporating a certain amount of it’s muscle fibers. Since the glass of water is light, the amount of muscle fibers being used is low. It only uses what it needs to do the job. However, if you lift a gallon of water, more muscle fibers are needed to do the job. So, using fairly heavy weight is one way to incorporate more fibers.
You can also incorporate more muscle fibers by going through the motion slowly. This is because the initial fibers involved start to get exhausted by how long movement is, so they start asking for help. This allows your body to incorporate as many muscle fibers into the movement as possible by minimizing the amount of weight you need to use.
Tip – it is very important that you have good form during exercises for this to be effective.
Use full Range of Motion
According to Wikipedia, Range of Motion (ROM) “is the distance (linear or angular) that a movable object may normally travel while properly attached to another”. I don’t usually use Wikipedia definitions, but what I like about this one is how it defines it with the stipulations of “may normally travel” and “while properly attached to another”. To me, this alludes that full range of motion requires using good form, and that each of us has our own normal range.
When doing an exercise, using your own bodies full range of motion will ensure you get the full benefit of the movement, and recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. It also helps with your flexibility. If you don’t know what your body’s ROM are, consider working directly with a coach or physical therapist so you can avoid getting injured.
Build up slowly
I’ve heard many stories where someone gets a bug to get strong, over does it, then sits for days doing nothing because they are so sore. This is not the model you want to follow. In fact, being conservative with strength training may be of benefit as it will lower your injury risk, and make sure you can keep running.
So, how do you start and build? Everyone is unique, so here are a couple tips on building your routine:
- Start slow – start with one set, and only 8-10 repetitions of each exercise
- Start with 1-2 sessions per week
- Keep on this schedule until you feel you aren’t getting any more benefit – in other words, it gets real easy to do the routine (this could take weeks for some)
- Once the top three have been met, you can mix up your routine by ONE of the following:
- Increase the number of repetitions by 2-5 for each exercise -OR-
- Decrease the time of rest between exercises -OR-
- Add an additional day of strength -OR-
- Add a second set of the exercises
Continue to change things up to increase the challenge, but only once the current routine isn’t challenging anymore. The important thing is to take your time with progression – less is more. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself, so take it slow, and use common sense to guide you.
Do Just enough to get the job done
Adding strength to your training is supplementary. It can greatly improve your running, but it is not your primary objective. You can run without strength, you can’t run without running. So, make sure it doesn’t take over your training or create risk for not getting in your running workouts. A strength routine of 10-20 minutes 2-3 times per week can be very sufficient for most runners, so don’t over think it.
Avoid strength on easy or recovery days
Strength training puts stress on your muscles, which we want. Adding stress in combination with adequate recovery leads to adaption, and therefore strength. The key thing here is ensuring you have adequate recovery.
Recovery days or days where you have an easy run are days that you should be focusing on less is more. A good training plan will alternate harder workouts with easy ones (or full recovery) so your body can adapt. If you put your strength training on these days, you risk not getting enough recovery, and could lead towards Overtraining (see blog and podcast on that topic).
Instead, limit your strength training on the days you aren’t recovering. These are typically days where your harder workouts are, or so called “quality” workouts. In addition, you may be better off taking strength off the table for workouts above your anaerobic threshold (a.k.a. Lactate Threshold). See the study referenced in the next section for more details on that, and to learn about timing your strength on these days. In addition, use your head when determining whether to do it or not. If you’ve had a hard workout and are feeling too exhausted, skip the strength and recover.
Time your strength right
So, now you know what days to do your strength training on, but what about when in the day? In a study done at the Institute of Sport and Exercise Science, James Cook University, entitled The acute effects intensity and volume of strength training on running performance, findings suggest that strength routines should follow running workouts with a 6 hour recovery window between the two. This is because they found that doing the strength training before running significantly reduced the time-to-exhaustion where as doing the strength training 6 hours after had no effect on time-to-exhaustion. The study also suggested that caution should be taken with doing strength training on days where you run at intensities greater than your anaerobic threshold (things faster than tempo runs like VO2 max, intervals, sprints, etc).
In english, if you do strength before your workout, you are likely to be more exhausted during the workout. That can lead to poor form, a less effective running workout, and perhaps even not being able to finish it. So, instead, consider these take-aways from the study:
- Do strength after your running workouts
- Allow 6-8 hours after running before doing strength routines
- Consider skipping strength on days where you work above your anaerobic threshold
Sequence from bigger muscles to smaller ones
Once you know what exercises you want to do, what order should you do them in? A good rule of thumb is to work from biggest to smallest. That is, the exercises involving the most or biggest muscle groups should go first, and the exercises involving the smallest muscles should go last. There are several factors for this reasoning, including things like energy needed to complete the movements.
Doing Hill Repeats Without Hills
Hill repeats are great workouts to build your running specific strength. However, like Sumo mentions in his questions, not everyone lives in an area where hills are prevalent. So, what can you do? In addition to a good strength program, here are some alternatives to hill repeats (with full awareness that these aren’t all great options):
- Take to the stairs (or bleachers) – Not ideal, but stairs or bleachers can simulate similar responses. Run up, recover down
- Up the Incline on your treadmill – Maybe less ideal, use the incline function on your treadmill. Boring, but somewhat effective
- Do Bridge repeats – Find a bridge that has a peak and go over, back over, over again… Make sure it is safe before attempting.
- The Tire Drag – Take a tire or something else relatively heavy and strap it to yourself while you run your repeats on a flat surface
- Go Off-road – The increased drag of sand, mud, snow, or even heavy grass can give you some resistance. Again, be smart and safe about it.
Strength Training Workout – 20 Minutes to a Stronger Running Body
Finally, here is a workout routine that will only take between 20-25 minutes (depending on your recovery time) that should hit the areas you should focus on. Rather than confuse you with bad descriptions that aren’t helpful and rather difficult to write, any of these can be found in video format in an internet search. Follow the tips from above and apply them to this routine for a great stength routine.
Backwards heel walking
Dan Cuson – USAT level 1 Coach