Just like a carpenter or a surgeon have to take care of their tools to make sure they’re doing the best job they can, so do runners need to ensure they look after their body to stay strong and fit. Adding tempo and fartlek runs to your training programs and diversifying the routes you take by throwing in hills and trails are all great ways to build strength. However, you should also include weight training into your routine to complement all the running workouts and to ensure you are strong, healthy and injury free.
What are they key strength training exercises for runners and how can you keep yourself running strong and avoiding injuries thanks to a weight training routine? Adding weights to your workouts can be beneficial for strengthening the key muscles you use for running, for building better stability and control and for injury prevention.
In this article, we’ll look at:
- What is so important about strength training for runners;
- Which exercises complement running training the best;
- How to include strength and conditioning workouts into your routine.
Why Should Runners Do Strength Training?
When we talk about running strength routines, we refer to exercises that specifically target the main muscles used for running (legs and core), as well as complimentary ones that can be beneficial in certain circumstances (for example, training your upper body muscles to be more efficient at using trekking poles in mountain runs). These can be added to your training plan in such a way that they work alongside your running workouts, without putting too much stress on your body, but giving you the best chance of doing well on your days out.
So, what are the benefits of weight training for runners?
Reducing Injury Risk
When you run, the force you are landing with is around two to 2.5 times your body weight for every step. If you consider how many steps you take, even a short run will exert forces that are multiplied throughout your joints and muscle fibers. Over time, the pounding on your body will take its toll. Moreover, without close observation, runners can injure themselves by having poor running form or simply through overuse.
Strength training, added to a running program, develops your muscle strength and contributes to the flexibility of your joints. It can offset the stress on your joints and bones, and provide you with more power to go through any hard times during long runs.
While studies on injuries show varying connections between running and getting injured, numbers range from 30% to 63% of runners developing at least a niggle during their practice. To avoid being one of those, resistance training and using some simple body weight exercises can make all the difference.
Improving Running Form
We’ve already touched on the fact that poor running form can lead to injuries. Without being coached by an in-person specialist, it’s hard for novice runners to know if they are using the best possible technique. However, large numbers of casual runners make running form mistakes including slouching their shoulders, bending over too much from their upper body, having a low cadence or a too long stride, etc.
With attention to your major muscle groups and to building a strong core, you can learn to avoid most of these running form mistakes. Strength exercises for runners will help improve your posture and increase your running cadence, while increasing your stability and balance on uneven terrain. Ultimately, this links back to injury risk reduction, too.
Increasing Bone Density
By working out with weights a couple of times per week, research shows that runners can develop their bone density. This is especially important for women, who will more easily suffer from brittle bones as they get older (bone density being a serious issue post-menopause).
Strong healthy bones are essential for healthy running over the long term, and will also help prevent injuries.
Developing Mental Strength and Resilience
Another benefit of strength training for runners is that it can build resilience and focus. Regular workouts in the gym will not only help you get faster and recover better, they also add to the consistence you need to carry out a well-planned and well-executed training plan. In turn, this adds to your preparation for big race days, getting you used to sticking to the plan and to pushing your limits on a regular basis.
The Top 5 Best Strength Exercises for Runners
You don’t have to live near a gym, take out an expensive membership or lift heavy weights several times per week to make the most of the benefits of strength workouts for runners. In fact, body weight workouts and some medium resistance training can help towards improving everything from your core strength to your aerobic capacity.
Here are five excellent options to start with and some additional extras.
1. The plank
Nothing gets the core quite as fired up as the plank, which is also great for building lower back strength and general core stability which benefits running on trails. Start by performing a “high” plank (resting on the palms of your hands rather than on your forearms) for 30 seconds at a time, over 3 sets. In time, you can progress to forearm planks and several variations:
- Side planks to work on the obliques;
- High plank shoulder touches – where you rest on one palm at a time, touching your shoulder with the opposite hand;
- Knee taps – from a regular plank, bring one knee at a time to the floor while maintaining your plank position.
Squats are an excellent full-body workout which also allows you to incorporate lots of variations into your strength workouts. Regular squats, focusing on correct form, can then evolve into weighted back squats where you load a barbell with weights, resting it on your shoulders.
As an option, squat with an elastic band around your knees, focusing on pushing outwards. This will work on your correct knee tracking during running and build inner thigh strength.
You can also perform front loaded squats, where you hold the bar at the front (at shoulder height). Moreover, one-legged squats or pistol squats are great for developing more stability and coordination.
Finally, research has shown that plyometric exercises such as jumps are very beneficial to runners as they improve sprinting power and also develop strength in the ligaments. You can add series of jump squats to your workouts to incorporate some explosive type strength training.
3. Glute bridges
An often underrated type of exercise that yields great benefits for runners are the glute bridges. These target your gluteal muscles and help you develop strength and stability on the trails. Glue strength is key for your whole posterior chain and helps prevent injuries in the hips, knees and ankles. And, the more explosive glute power you have, the more you’ll be able to sprint if you’re aiming to run shorter distances.
Distance runners can use glute bridges to address muscle weaknesses, too. You can also perform variations such as single-leg glute bridges and use resistance bands around your knees to work on correct knee positioning and inner thigh strength, too.
There is also an exercise called the glute thrust, which involves performing glute bridges as an explosive exercise, with a bar with weights placed across your pelvis. This should be performed with particular care, as there is a risk that it will injure those who are not sure how to do it correctly.
Lunges are very versatile movements that will improve your stability, strength and mobility while running. Forward and backward lunges both work your leg muscles, but they also demand a certain level of concentration on keeping a straight back and a smooth linear motion, especially when you carry more weight.
Additionally, side lunges help work the inner thighs and benefit those running on uneven terrain (such as trail and mountain runners). These can be added into a second phase of training, once you’ve become accustomed to doing your “regular” lunges.
5. Upper body exercises
Runners can get an extra benefit for their form and endurance if they focus on the upper body as well as the core and major muscle groups in the legs. This is because a strong, upright upper body helps direct running, optimize your movement economy, and drive your body forward. Moreover, endurance training for ultramarathons and mountain races needs to include upper body strength because runners will often use trekking poles to help in their climbing. You might also sometimes need to scramble up tricky rocky climbs, so having some additional strength in your arms and shoulders will help supplement the explosive power in your legs in those situations!
To target the upper body as a runner, perform a medley of:
- Tricep dips or pull-downs using a resistance band;
- Paloff press for core stability;
- Chest press or press-ups;
- Seated rows;
- Shoulder press / upright row.
How to Add Strength Training to Your Running Routine
If you’re new to weightlifting or don’t know where to start, you can draw inspiration from the exercises we’ve mentioned above. But the key is to adopt the same approach as you would for your running training: start where you’re comfortable, adjust the weight and number of reps as you get fitter, and progress gradually so you don’t risk injuring yourself.
Tips for the Gym
You can build a strong base by performing the key exercises above twice a week, on days when you’re not already running or when you have an easy run (for example, run in the morning and go to the gym in the afternoon). Start with your body weight first, then progress to weighted lifts and expand your repertory as you get stronger.
If you’re short of time, a good approach is to use compound movements for your weight training, over isolated lifts. That means you’ll be targeting several muscle groups at once. For example, squats, bent-over rows and deadlifts will target muscles in clusters, whereas tricep dips or pull-downs isolate the triceps only.
Finally, don’t obsess over heavy strength training. You can get great results and build lean muscle mass with body weight exercises way into your strength training routine. So, if you can’t get into a gym or have no equipment at home, focusing on the basics and then adding in some explosive strength training with box jumps, jump lunges and burpees will contribute to building a stronger runner’s body.
How Often Should Runners Strength Train?
There is no hard and fast rule around the frequency of your strength training routine. This can depend on your fitness levels, availability, what you’re training for and the type of running workouts you’re doing. For example, you may not want to do any weight lifting the week before a race when you’re tapering. You should also always listen to your body and avoid doing strenuous workouts after a big event, to optimize recovery.
It’s good practice to match the intensity and frequency of your strength workouts to the phase of training. During off-season (when you’re not racing), you can focus on increasing your lift capacity. During season, you can lower the intensity and volume. Ideally, you would train one or two times per week, and lower the reps and weights of your lifts as you approach race day. You can also focus on maintenance, which involves using lighter weights and a higher number of reps.
Using Strength Training to Be a Better Runner
You don’t have to lift heavy weights to get the benefits of strength training as a runner. Using your body weight, doing light resistance training with elastic bands, and focusing on technique to improve your stability and range of motion are all great options that will bring additional benefit to your training program.
When it comes to runners’ strength training programs, something is better than nothing. So focus on doing what works for you, once or twice a week, and build gradually so you improve without injury risk.