The secret’s out. 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, longer.
One of the benefits of my hamstring injury 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.
Should a runner lift weights?
YES! Strength training for runners improves running efficiency, maximal sprint speed, and overall performance. Studies show that strength training for runners enhances 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 by strengthening muscles and connective tissues—something I have experienced firsthand as I have rehabbed my hamstring tear.
The Mother Runners Head Co-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.”
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 weight lifting 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.
- 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
Also, don’t forget your core. Plank variations are great exercises for working your core.
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 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
Make weight lifting a part of your running training regimen and see the PRs come.
Key Strength Training for Runners Takeaways
- 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.
- Keep easy days easy. Lift on hard running days.
- Never lift the day before a hard running workout.
- Mix up your routine about every 3 weeks.
- Keep at it. Consistency is key!
PS-I’d love to help you reach your running goals whether it be to run your first 5k or run competitively! Email me at email@example.com with questions or check out my Coaching Services page!