Strength Training for Runners: A Comprehensive Guide

Strength training is something runners often hear about and are told that they should be doing. But let’s be honest, many of us would rather not have to add in another component to our already busy schedules!

But the truth is, strength training is an important part of being a runner.

Regular strength training is crucial to your running longevity and long-term progress. Strength training will help you achieve your running goals and reduce your risk of injury. In short, this component will allow you to stay a runner for life.

Keep reading, and you’ll gain:

  • a solid understanding of why strength training for runners is so important,
  • how to incorporate strength routines into your schedule,
  • and what exercises you can do to maximize your potential as a runner.

Do Runners Need to Strength Train?

I know many runners don’t want to hear this but, YES! Runners need to strength train.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself: Really!? I run because I hate going to the gym!

And that’s okay! When you start strength training, you won’t have to reduce the amount that you’re running…and you also won’t have to spend hours in the gym.

Effective strength training for runners doesn’t have to complicated. In fact, it can be a lot shorter or a workout than you likely think it needs to be as long as you’re focused on the right exercises.

Do Runners Need to Lift Weights?

Resistance training (a catchall phrase for strengthening exercises using weights, resistance bands, body weight, and plyometrics) is necessary to become a stronger and more durable runner.

Lifting weights and other types of resistance training:

  • increases the strength of runners’ muscles, bones and soft tissues, and
  • improves the stability of runners’ joints,
  • facilitates a better range of motion,
  • and reduces fatigue induced by running.

Experts agree that one of the best ways to prevent injuries is to strength train. Any weakness in your kinetic chain can compromise your form, leading to gait changes that increase your risk of getting injured.

Runner’s World 2019

Generally, runners will get the most bang for their buck by lifting weights and progressively increasing the weight, sets, and/or reps of exercises over time.

But not everyone should start off lifting weights. As with running, you don’t want to do too much, too soon and hurt yourself by lifting weights when your body isn’t ready yet.

Newcomers to strength training, injured runners, and those who have not done any strength training recently should start with bodyweight exercises. (Always make sure to check in with and follow the advice of your doctor or physical therapist when it comes to adding strength training to your routine.)

Over time, you can add difficulty to your strength training routine by slowly incorporating resistance bands and weights.

Do I Need to Spend A Lot of Time Strength Training?

You may be surprised, but runners typically only need to strength train for a 20-30 minute per session, 2 to 3 times per week.

As runners, our primary focus is (and should be) on running. Incorporating effective strength work won’t add a lot of extra time to your already busy schedule, because runner-specific strengthening targets the areas of the body you use most while you run.

Why Is Strength Training So Important for Runners?

Here are four major reasons why you need to include strength training into your running regimen:

1. Injury Prevention

The #1 reason you should strength train is to prevent injury. No runners like to be sidelined for weeks or months by injury, especially when training for a goal race. Studies show that resistance exercise can reduce injury to runners.

According to Outside Online, strength training strengthens the muscles and connective tissues in your body to better absorb, produce and resist forces it encounters while running.

My physical therapist once explained to me that the repetitive nature of running can bring to light, and even exacerbate, subtle imbalances in the body. Over time, these imbalances can lead to injury.

By strengthening your body, you can reduce imbalances and weaknesses and increase stability so that your body is better able to withstand the high impact of running as your running distances increase.

2. Improved Running Performance

You want to be faster? Strength training will improve your running performance, period.

You will see improvements such as more energy when you run, faster race times, and better running economy (a.k.a. how efficiently your body uses oxygen at race pace), all thanks to strength work.

Many scientific studies confirm how strength training improves runners’ performances. A meta-analysis of several studies on elite runners found that their running economy improved when they incorporated resistance training and plyometrics (more explosive type strength work that can include jumping, pushing and kicking) 2-3 times per week.

A 2022 study found that recreational runners between the ages of 30 and 40 who did running-specific strength training exercises enhanced their maximum and explosive strength, as well as their running economy.

Finally, a 2016 study found that a six-week resistance training program significantly improved runners’ 5k time trial performances. The same study also found that eliminating strength training resulted in a loss of runners’ performance improvements.

3. Enhanced Metabolism

Metabolism is essentially our body’s process of changing food into energy. We need this energy to do everything from moving to thinking to growing. Having an adequate basal metabolic rate is important for being your strongest running self…and strength training will help with that.

According to a 2012 study, inactive adults lose 3-8% of their muscle mass per decade, have reduced resting metabolic rates, and increased fat accumulation, yet introducing strength training exercises raised study participants’ resting metabolisms by 7%!

The conclusion? “Resistance training is medicine,” according to the study’s authors.

4. Lasting Long-Term Health Benefits

In addition to benefits to your running now, strength training has long-term overall benefits for your health.

Strength training helps prevent declines in mobility and muscle strength related to aging. I don’t know about you, but the thought of being able to comfortably move well into my elder years is enough to motivate me to stay consistent with my strength exercises.

Other well-documented improvements that aging adults all can reap from strength training over time include better:

  • balance
  • core strength and stability
  • movement control
  • cognitive abilities, and
  • self-esteem.

What Are the Best Strength Exercises for Runners?

  • Hip and Glute strengthening exercises, such as clamshells and glute bridges
  • Lower Body compound movements, including squats, lunges, and dead-lifts
  • Single-Leg Exercises such as single-leg deadlift or single-leg squats
  • Plyometrics such as box jumps, jumping lunges or toe taps
  • Core work, such as planks, push-ups, and farmer carries, to name a few.

How Can Runners Add Strength Training into a Running Program?

Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how to incorporate strength training into your existing running routine. Remember, you don’t have to dedicate hours in the gym to reap the benefits!

I’m already running __ miles per week. How often and how long do I need to strength train?

Most runners should strength train 2-3 times per week. Obviously, this may differ if you’re currently recovering from an injury, in which case, follow your health professional’s advice for whether, and how often, you should strength train at this time.

Plan to spend 20-30 minutes for each resistance training session. That’s really all you need for effective results!

Avoid strength training on consecutive days. Your body will need at least a day to recover and repair itself between sessions.

Should I strength train before or after my runs?

If running is your main focus…

If you are currently training for a running goal (such as a completing a race or nailing a new PR), then the general rule of thumb is to prioritize running.

There will likely be at least one day in your week where you have to both run and strength train on the same day. On those days, go for a run first, then complete your strength training session either immediately after the run, or later that day.

The reasoning behind this rule of thumb is to make sure that you have enough energy for your running. When you strength train before runs, you might be too tired or sore to complete your runs afterward, as scheduled. Not being able to complete your runs may affect whether you can reach your running goals.

If running is not your main focus…

Feel free to mix up the order in which you incorporate strength training and running into your schedule. Be sure to re-prioritize running over strengthening if and when running becomes your main focus again in the future.

Where should I fit strength training into my busy schedule?

Ah, the age-old question as to where to fit strength training in!

As for the best day(s) to strength train, it really depends.

Many running experts and coaches encourage runners to “keep your hard days hard and easy days easy.” In other words, they advise runners not to lift weights or strength train on any days other than your speed work, tempo or long run days. This is part of a concept called polarized training.

“Hard days hard” can be great advice, especially if you’re prone to injury or burn-out. The adage ensures that you’re not overdoing it, because the majority of your time training will be spent at easy effort.

Check out our article on 80/20 Running here for more details on polarized training.

Practically, however, keeping hard days hard doesn’t always work. It can be difficult to carve out time for yet another workout on the same day, especially if running already took an hour or more out of your time. Sometimes your schedule will simply not allow time afterward for strength training. And sometimes, you’re just too tired after the hard running effort!

We recommend fitting in strength training to your schedule as best as you can, while keeping these two general rules in mind:

  1. DON’T strength train on back-to-back days, and
  2. Make sure you’re keeping at LEAST one or two rest days each week.

Your body needs time to recover from all its hard work. By following these two principles, you’ll be able to rest and recover well, and still find time for strength training.

Do I need to have a gym membership to get started?

You don’t need to join a gym to get in a great strength workout. The wonderful thing about strength training as a runner is that fancy gym equipment or machines are not required to get in an effective strengthening workout. And the fact that you can get it done at home makes it more likely that you’ll actually do it.

For beginners, the only equipment you’ll need is yourself (since you’ll be doing a lot of body weight work initially), and perhaps some resistance bands. Later on, you may consider buying some basic at-home gym equipment, such as a couple of sets of dumbbells or kettlebells, and a bench.

And if you do already have a gym membership and love to get your workout on there, that works great, too.

Am I supposed to feel sore after my strength training sessions?

If you’re new to resistance training, then you’ll probably feel a bit sore afterward for the first few times as your body adjusts.

If you’re strength training after a hard workout you completed earlier that day, you may also feel sore for a couple of days afterward.

A word of caution about your level of soreness, however: if you’re so sore that it’s difficult and painful to do everyday activities, such as sitting, or walking on stairs, then you may need to reevaluate the difficulty of your strength routine and back off a bit from what you’re doing.

It’s okay and normal to be a little bit sore, but you don’t want to get to the point where it’s difficult to complete your runs. Scaling back can be a simple fix for this.

More Tips for Strength Training Success as a Runner

Here are a few more helpful tips for your strength training success:

  • Keep water close at hand while strength training
  • Eat a little something prior to strength training. Exercising on an empty stomach makes it harder to complete!
  • Struggling to find time to fit in strength training? Try breaking it into short sessions throughout the day – do calf raises while brushing your teeth, for example.
  • Give yourself grace when your schedule gets hectic. In our view, 10 or 15 minutes of strength training is better than doing nothing.

3 Top Strength Workouts that Runners Can Do Each Week

Check out these 3 simple and effective strength workouts from the Running With Jane YouTube channel. These workouts can be done with minimal equipment at home.

Lower Body/Core Set #1

YouTube video

3 sets of 10-15 (single leg exercises are 10-15 each side). Rest between sets as needed. These can be bodyweight to begin with and then increase weight as time goes on. Just start where you’re at! You should be able to feel like you could do just a few more.

Lower Body/Core Set #2

YouTube video

Follow-Along Video with Running With Jane

3 sets of 10-15 (single leg exercises are 10-15 each side). Rest between sets as needed. These can be bodyweight to begin with and then increase weight as time goes on. Just start where you’re at! You should be able to feel like you could do just a few more.

Hip/Glute Strengthening

YouTube video

3 sets @ 15 reps each. Rest between sets. Adding resistance bands will make these exercises more challenging.

  1. Clamshells
  2. Glute Bridges
  3. Side-Lying Leg Raises
  4. Hip Flexor Bicycle (Dead Bugs)
  5. Fire Hydrants

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