UPDATED November, 9, 2022: After being injured and out of running for 2.5 years, I’m back to training and setting PRs and enjoying every run. How am I seeing improvement after less than six months of running? A big reason is strength training. Strength training for runners makes you run faster. It doesn’t make you bulk up. It doesn’t make you slow down. Instead, it improves your running economy so you can run faster, and longer.
One of the benefits of my hamstring injury and plantar fascia tear was that it forced me to start strength training as a runner. Slowly adding weights in helped heal my proximal hamstring injury and as I returned to running, my stride felt more powerful and effortless.
Employing weight training for runners has also improved my confidence as a runner: I know that my body is strong and can overcome future running injuries.
But strength training for runners can be confusing. How much should you lift? How often? When? Do you lift before a run or after? Should you do it the same day as a hard workout?
I’ve done the research and talked with the pros and answer all your questions about strength training for runners.
What is strength training for runners?
Strength training for runners is doing resistance training and weight lifting that increases muscular strength and endurance to enhance your running performance and prevent injury.
Why should a runner lift weights?
Strength training for runners improves running efficiency, maximal sprint speed, and overall performance.
Related: Kettle Bell Leg Workout for Runners
Here are 3 benefits of strength training for runners:
- Lifting weights makes you faster. Studies show that strength training for runners enhances running form, VO2 max, and running economy by improving neuromuscular coordination and power, and encouraging coordination and stride efficiency. Specifically, the research has found that by lifting weights, runners use 2-8 percent less energy and oxygen to run, improving time trial performance by 2 to 5 percent. Hello, PR city!
- Lifting for runners can also prevent injuries. Runners who lift weights have stronger muscles, connective tissues, and bones which can make them less prone to injury. This is something I have experienced firsthand as I have rehabbed my hamstring tear.
- Runners who lift have better overall health. Strength training helps you have more confidence, mental strength, along with improved health markers like blood sugar, BMI, and cholesterol. Did I mention it also increases your fat-burning capability?
Related: How I Stopped Being Injury Prone
The esteemed running coach Laura Norris adds:
“Runners should lift for a multitude of reasons. The first is general health and wellbeing: lifting increases lean body composition and delays muscle loss with age. The second is injury prevention. Strong muscles are less likely to tear; lifting can smooth out muscle imbalances; and resistance training is shown to strengthen your bones. The third and final reason is performance: strength training makes you a more efficient runner. Essentially, it increases your force production, which translates to an improved running economy. Even if a runner does not care about performance, they should lift for the first two reasons!”
Should a runner lift heavy or light weights?
Runners should lift heavy weights. Running itself is an endurance exercise much like light weights and high reps. So, there is no need to build muscle endurance in the weight room. Instead, to build strength, power, and muscle coordination, runners need to lift heavy with lower reps. According to a recent study runners should aim to do low reps (5 to 10) with heavy weights (about 75 percent of your max) at least twice a week.
Will weight training make runners bulk up?
No. For a long time, runners shied away from lifting heavy weights for fear they would bulk up and run slower. But there is something called a “concurrent effect” that shows a combination of heavy weights and running counteract one another, restricting muscles from getting too big.
How many times a week should a runner lift weights?
A runner should aim to lift weights 2-3 times per week, notes Dr. Stacy Sims, in her book ROAR. Three is ideal, but you can see gains from two times a week. And, one is better than nothing!
Should you lift weights before or after cardio?
Generally, you should run first and lift weights after running—unless you are in a strength and base-building phase, then lift first. Studies suggest it’s best to allow for three hours of recovery time between running and lifting, although this may be difficult as a mother runner.
Therefore, a general rule of thumb, according to Mary Johnson, run coach and founder of Lift Run Perform, is to keep hard days hard and easy days easy. So, runners should lift weights the same day as their running workouts like tempos or track workouts.
“If you’re just too tired to lift after running, it’s okay!” notes Mary. “Lifting the immediate day following a workout is fine, just make sure you give yourself a solid recovery day before your next hard effort.”
How do I fit lifting weights into my running schedule?
Running is already demanding of time and energy, so how do you fold lifting weights into your running schedule? You may be tempted to lift on your easy days. But this is a mistake. You want to concentrate stress and optimize rest. So, lift weights on your hard running days and rest on your easy days.
Here are some tips for how to work strength training into your running schedule:
- Lift on hard running days AFTER your run.
- Never lift before running unless you are in base phase and only doing easy running.
- Aim to wait at least 3 hours after running to lift, if possible.
The rules are to ensure you give running your best effort since strength training is supplemental to your running. However, by waiting until after you’ve recovered from your running workout, you’re giving yourself a chance to get a quality lift session in.
Sometimes, your schedule doesn’t allow for this. There have been times I lift right after my track workout or long run. Otherwise, I am way too exhausted to lift after running and don’t get it done or have to do a light session.
Do your best with the time you have, friend.
Should you lift before a running workout?
NEVER! Mary says to “never lift the day before a workout! You want to preserve your body/legs for the running.” Studies show that runners need 24-48 hours of recovery after strength training before a high-intensity running session. If you lift before a workout, you risk not nailing your workout and prolonging recovery time.
Learn more about how to fit weights into your running schedule in Laura’s post.
How long should my weightlifting session be?
Each weight session should be 30-60 minutes and involve 2-3 sets of 10 reps. A full-body session will take about an hour. Aim for a total of about two hours in the gym per week.
How much weight should I lift?
Pick a weight and lift it ten times. If you could lift it a couple more times, you found the right weight. Don’t pick a weight that you could lift 20 times. And don’t pick a weight that leads to failure at 10 reps.
“Heavy weights plus good form equal good results,” notes Dr. Sims. “Too little weight is a waste of time. Too much weight is counterproductive.”
What weight training equipment do I need?
Runners should have:
- one large loop exercise band
- a medicine ball of no more than 6 pounds
- a kettlebell of 20-35 pounds
- some dumbbells (you can start with adjustable dumbbells)
- an exercise ball or sliders (you can also use books),
- a bench or cinder blocks to put weights on,
- and their body weight.
Mary notes if you have trouble finding equipment due to short supply, consider going to an open-air gym (if you have the time).
What weight-lifting moves should runners do?
Mary says there are six fundamental movement patterns of lifting: push, pull, squat, hinge, carry, and lunge.
These are the moves runners should focus on. No need to get fancy. Simple moves like barbell squats, deadlifts, step-ups, lunges, and calf raises will do the trick.
Strength training moves for runners include:
- Push: Push-up or bench press
- Pull: Pull-up or dumbbell row
- Squat: Goblet squat
- Hinge: Deadlifts or single deadlift
- Carry: Suitcase hold or goblin hold
- Lunge: Lunge or split squat
Other running strength moves include:
- Plank variations
- Steps Ups
- Hamstring Curls
- Glute Bridges
- Calf Raises
- Clam Shells/Banded Side Steps
- Reverse Fly
- Dead Bugs
- Bird Dog
How can I mix up my weight training?
Your body is smart and will adapt to weight-lifting thereby wasting your time if you don’t mix it up. “Variety is your friend when it comes to making muscle,” writes Dr. Sims. So, change up your routine every 2-3 weeks.
You can find countless moves in Google or Pinterest. But you can also change the way you do the simple strength training moves by
- slowing down the lowering (eccentric)
- adding a hold at the bottom (isometric)
- adding more weights (progressive)
- changing the number of reps or sets, and
- altering the time of rest between sets.
Mary explains: Performing a Goblet Squat with a 5-second eccentric means you will slowly lower yourself down to your bottom position for 5 seconds, then return up to standing as quickly as possible.
In contrast, a Goblet Squat with 3-second isometric means you will lower quickly to your bottom position (with good form and technique), hold for 3 seconds, and then return to standing as quickly as possible.
Consistency is key with weight training for runners.
To reap and maintain the benefits of strength training, runners need to be consistent—much like running. The research shows that benefits improve as the weight-lifting program for runners continues and fall away within about six weeks after training stops. Just as you would lose fitness if you stopped running, you’d lose strength if you stopped lifting.
Here’s a sample training for runners schedule:
- Monday: Easy run
- Tuesday: Track workout in the am, lift session after or later in the day
- Wednesday: Easy run, core work
- Thursday: Tempo workout in the am, lift session after or later in the day
- Friday: Easy run
- Saturday: Long run
- Sunday: Rest
Here is a Sample Strength Training for Runners Plan:
- Plank (hold one minute)
- Squat (with weights on shoulders)
- Lateral box push-up
- Elevated split squat
- Bicycle crunch
- Single leg glute bridge
- Lateral step up with weight
- Single arm bent over row
- Kneeling curl to press
- Single leg Romanian deadlift
* Do 12 reps each 1-3 sets
Make weight lifting a part of your running training regimen and see the PRs come.
12 Strength Training for Runners Tips
- Lift 2-3 times for about 30-60 minutes per week.
- Use simple moves that require you push, pull, squat, hinge, and carry.
- Lift heavy weights where you could max out at about 12 or so reps.
- Do 2-3 sets of 10 reps.
- Don’t lift to failure.
- Don’t lift a weight that you could do 20 reps with.
- Remember your core.
- Lift AFTER you run.
- Lift on hard running days. (Keep easy days easy.)
- Never lift the day before a hard running workout.
- Mix up your routine about every 3-4 weeks.
- Keep at it. Consistency is key!
If you want guidance with your strength training or run training, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
- Postpartum Training Plan
- After a Break Training Plan
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- Strength Training Plan