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Why All Runners Should Strength Train

What’s the key to staying injury-free? Running coach Jason Fitzgerald breaks down why strength training is so important for runners, the best exercises, and how to fit a resistance routine into a busy schedule.
Strength Training for Runners
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This piece was written by guest contributor Jason Fitzgerald, a running coach at StrengthRunning.com and 2:39 marathoner. He is also co-founder of Run Your BQ, a program dedicated to helping marathoners qualify for the Boston Marathon. 

Why All Runners Should Strength Train

In the old days, runners ran. (Seriously: Ask runners a few generations older than you what they did for their daily workout, and they’ll likely answer: “I ran.”). But no matter what race you’re preparing for, you might not want to stick to this old training routine. We’ve learned a lot over the last 30 to 40 years, and running has evolved.

Today, runners need to do more than just run.

Today, runners need to do more than just run. Runners need to be strong and athletic. If they’re not, they can get hurt even if they practice good running form. In fact, some injury statistics put the annual injury rate for runners at a staggering 66 percent. That’s higher than professional football!

Reducing the injury rate isn’t actually that difficult, though. In fact, runners can do so effectively with just 10 to 20 minutes of strength training each day.

Strength Training for Runners

The benefits of strength training for runners—for both injury prevention and performance—are real. Whether your goal is simply to run easier with less pain or to run faster in your next race (whether a 5K, a half marathon, or the full 26.2 miles), a few strength sessions every week can help.

Using runner-specific strength exercises will increase structural fitness—or the ability of your bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles to withstand the impact of running. While most forms of strength training can help improve overall performance, adding heavy resistance exercises, in particular, can make you faster during the final sprint of a race [1] [2].

Whether your goal is simply to run easier with less pain or to get faster in your next race, a few strength sessions every week can help.

Strength work is especially important for injury-prone runners and those who are putting in a lot of miles (For marathoners, that means at least three strength workouts every week!). While building your aerobic engine (read: endurance) through running, it’s key to counteract all that wear and tear with the right exercises.

Strength Training for Runners

Since many of us live fairly sedentary lives in front of a computer all day, it’s no wonder running injuries are so common—we’ve lost all our strength! Luckily, there are specific exercises that can counteract this strength loss and are highly effective for runners.

1. Compound Movements

The best exercises for runners train movements, not muscles—so stick to compound, multi-joint exercises in the gym (and make sure your form is correct!). Some of the classics include deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, chin-ups, bench press, and step-ups onto an elevated platform. These exercises target functional movements that we do in real life, like bending down, pushing and pulling things, and picking things up.

Bodyweight routines can help you recover from running while still building the strength needed to help prevent future overuse injuries.

2. Bodyweight Exercises

Complement compound movements with a good dose of bodyweight exercises you can do in your living room after an easy run (Need help getting started? Here’s an eight-week progression you can follow). Bodyweight routines can help you recover from running while still building the strength necessary to help prevent future overuse injuries. Other effective exercises you can do almost anywhere include lunges, planks, pistol squats, push-ups, side planks, bird-dogs, and side leg lifts. All of these build the core strength you need to prevent injuries and get stronger.

3. Hip Strengtheners

A majority of running injuries are caused by weak hips—a major problem area for runners who sit for most of the day. One solution is the ITB Rehab Routine, a series of exercises that treats and prevents IT band injuries but also works well for general injury prevention. It focuses on hip and glute strength—two of the most important stabilizing muscles that are used while running. Foam rolling is another great option for muscle recovery and injury prevention.

Strength sessions can be quick: Simply pick 3-5 exercises and do 2-3 sets each, aiming for 4-8 repetitions. And don’t be afraid to lift heavy: Remember, heavy weight helps runners! Just keep in mind that heavy-weight routines are more intense and should be done just 1-2 times every week.

Strength Training for Runners

Scheduling these exercises isn’t difficult—simplicity is the best policy here! Follow these three easy principles to make sure your strength sessions fit well with your running schedule.

1. Save the weights for post-run and moderate effort days.

Since strength workouts can be higher in intensity than a standard run, strength train after you run (immediately or later in the day) on moderate effort days. Avoid doing them on your long run or workout days since you’ll already be fatigued from your running (Your form may suffer, and you don’t want to increase injury risk.). And keep your easy days easy—no hard lifting when you should be prioritizing recovery!

2. Bodyweight? Piece of cake.

Depending on the exercises you're doing, bodyweight sessions can require only low-to-moderate effort and can be done on any day of the week. Do them right after you finish your run and they’ll help you warm-down properly by increasing your range of motion and preventing muscle adhesions (i.e., places where muscles get knotty from scar tissue). By doing this, you’ll avoid a lot of the aches and pains that are too common with most runners.

It’s more important to do something than nothing at all, so just get started.

Start with just five minutes of strength exercises (or 4-6 exercises) after your run and build from there. It’s more important to do something than nothing at all, so just get started. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect exercise or routine—you’ll notice yourself feeling better in no time.

3. Build slowly.

Once you’re comfortable with the basic exercises, start increasing your reps or adding more exercises to your routine. Just make sure you’re adding several types of exercises (mentioned earlier) so you’re keeping variety high—your body will benefit most when it’s working multiple muscle groups.

The Takeaway

When you’re doing 10 to 20 minutes of strength work each day, your injury risk will decrease dramatically, allowing you to run more, train faster, and ultimately race faster. Here's hoping you'll never be sidelined again!

What are your favorite strength moves for runners? Share in the comments below or get in touch with us on Twitter!

Works Cited +

  1. Cyclists Improve Pedalling Efficacy and Performance After Heavy Strength Training. Hansen, E.A., Rønnestad, B.R., Vegge, G., et al. Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction (SMI), Department of Health Science and Technology, Aalborg University, Denmark. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2011 Dec 2. [Epub ahead of print].
  2. Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners. Mikkola, J., Vesterinen, V., Taipale, R., et al. KIHU-Research Institute for Olympic Sports, Jyväskylä, Finland. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2011 Oct;29(13):1359-71. Epub 2011 Aug 22.

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