Get Stronger, Smarter
It’s official- strength and power workouts are beneficial for both recreational and
competitive endurance runners. Contrary to long held beliefs shared by many athletes and
coaches, lifting heavy weights can improve variables related to optimal running performance
such as speed, power output, time to exhaustion, running economy, lower limb coordination and tendon stiffness, among others. (1,3,8)
Unfortunately, the world of sports performance can be hard to understand as most of the
readily available information is either trying to sell you a product or bring business to a particular gym owner or social media influencer. Additionally, many runners may be unfamiliar with strength training techniques or principles, leading to frustration when there is not a clear approach to begin incorporating strength or power training into their weekly workouts.
TIP: Apps such as Fitbod, or websites such as exrx.com or NSCA.com may be helpful in
finding videos of exercises that train target muscle groups for runners such as quads, glutes,
core, hamstring and calves.
While the investigation into the effects of strength and power training on performance in endurance athletes is not new, the past ten to fifteen years have produced quality evidence linking strength training (as well as plyometric, or “explosive” training) with improved running performance in both recreational (4) as well as elite (1, 9) endurance runners. In a nutshell, “Strength training contributes to … endurance performance by improving the economy of movement, delaying fatigue, improving anaerobic capacity and enhancing maximal speed.” (8)
Barnes, et al. for The American Journal of Sports Medicine lists resistance training among 5 key strategies to improve running economy. (2)
In order to begin using strength and power training to improve your running performance, you first have to understand what these terms mean. In my experience, most runners have had some experience with body weight exercise or band resisted exercises in their training history. While these are helpful tools to improve athleticism, strength and power training require heavier resistance than is provided by these techniques. This is typically achieved via the use of weight machines or free weights such as kettlebells, dumbbells or weight-loaded barbells.
Let’s use the above table to guide just how heavy of a weight to select when training for
strength. If the heaviest weight you could squat with was 200 pounds, then the assumed weight that you would need to use in training to optimize your gains in strength would be roughly 85% or more of that load (170 pounds). From this calculation, you can see that performing bodyweight squats would not provide a sufficient load to significantly improve strength.(6)
In the current research there is a discussion regarding the appropriate weight training
techniques for runners to use. It has been suggested that runners avoid performing repetitions to muscular failure (in other words - you should exercise to the point of strain but not exhaustion during each set). (1) It has also been suggested that loads closer to 70% of your max lift may also be an appropriate weight to avoid muscular fatigue, and many experiments that showed improved running performance have used this percentage. (1)
RECAP: Strength training for runners requires heavier loads than bodyweight training
provides - at least 70% of your maximum lift is suggested.
Strength exercises alone have been shown to improve running performance (1), but
there may be additional benefits to adding in power training as well (5). In general, this type of training can be either plyometric (jump) training or explosive weight training (Olympic lifting, certain kettlebell movements, weighted ball tosses, etc.). Depending on your comfort level, you may want to seek out an experienced training partner or coach before attempting this type of training. As listed in the above table, power movements are typically done with heavy weight, but at a resistance which you can accelerate to high velocity (typically 70-85% of your maximum lift).
So let’s look at the findings of various quality research for recommendations about
structuring a workout plan.
“It appears that a strength-training program consisting of 2-4 resistance exercises at 40-70% 1-RM without reaching failure, plus plyometric exercises performed 2-3 times per week for an overall 3:1 endurance:strength training ratio and lasting 8-12-week is a safe strategy to improve [running economy].” (1)
“Two strength training sessions per week …. is typically enough to achieve a sufficient increase in strength during a 12-week period. Athletes are advised to perform between 4 RM and 10 RM and 2–3 sets with approximately 2–3 min of rest between sets. (8)
At least two strength/ power sessions per week is recommended for runners, using a weight that is at least 70% of your maximum lift. Multi joint exercises are recommended (squat , lunge, deadlift) without reaching exhaustion.
Choose 2-4 different exercises each for strength and jumping/plyometric exercises and perform 3-5 sets of each.
Training should take place for around 8-12 weeks to see benefits, with greater benefits noted with longer duration training programs.
Now that you know how to incorporate strength and power training into your workouts,
the final step is to determine how to decide when to perform training sessions during your week, or how to change the intensity or frequency during your training program as your race day gets closer. This concept is known as periodization- and it refers to changing the intent of your weekly workouts based on a progression towards a goal.
A typical approach to structuring strength and power training is to use “linear
periodization” (explained above). There are alternate methods that have been proposed. For instance in marathon runners it has been suggested that a reverse approach could be
appropriate in which the volume increases and intensity decreases as the marathon
approaches. I recommend linear periodization for those trying to incorporate strength and power training for the first time. See the following chart for an example of an exercise periodization for a cross country athlete. (Note how this plan changes as the goal race approaches.)
Source: Resistance Training for Distance Running: A Brief Update : Paul Jones, MSc, CSCS,Theodoros M. Bampouras, MSc Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Probably the most difficult and significant barrier that keeps most runners from
incorporating strength training into their weekly training is not knowing when to schedule their session around their running workouts. The following are some recommendations as to planning your weekly workouts:
Strength and power workouts are best done on separate days from speed running workouts
Plan for about 6-8 hours between runs and strength sessions when able (morning and afternoon workouts)
Allow for a “grace period” of limiting the amount of weight that you lift as you begin to incorporate strength training into your training so that your running workouts are still quality.
Even with all this information, starting to incorporate strength training into your weekly training can seem daunting. Keep it simple! Don’t get lost or confused in complex exercises or fancy techniques. Stick to the basics to start, and slowly build as you gain confidence and
knowledge in new exercises. If you’re still stuck, turn to local coaches or strength professionals who can help you make the most of your training schedule and optimize your performance so you can reach for new PR’s and get the most out of your running experience.
Dr. Clark Bilbrey PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS is a dual-certified doctor of physical therapy and
athletic trainer as well as a certified strength and conditioning specialist practicing at the Lakeshore Bone and Joint Sports Enhancement Center in Portage where he specializes in the evaluation and treatment of runners through running gait analysis and functional testing. Running gait video analysis utilizes slow motion video capture to analyze the function and efficiency of the whole body during critical phases of the running cycle. Based on these findings, each runner can be assigned drills and exercises specific to their particular gait style, maximizing their rehabilitation and/or performance potential. LBJI also offers “running performance” programs, which are 10-session programs custom fit to each runner’s gait style, goal race and personal body mechanics. Sports Performance and Health Enhancement Center at Lakeshore Bone and Joint in Portage, IN
Disclaimer: If you have pain with any exercise, you should see a licensed physical therapist,
orthopedic specialist or other licensed health care professional before attempting.
Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. V. (2016). Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 30 (8), 2361–2368. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001316
Barnes, K. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2014). Strategies to Improve Running Economy. Sports Medicine , 45 (1), 37–56. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0246-y
Beattie, K., Kenny, I. C., Lyons, M., & Carson, B. P. (2014). The Effect of Strength Training on Performance in Endurance Athletes. Sports Medicine , 44 (6), 845–865. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0157-y
Boullosa, D., Esteve-Lanao, J., Casado, A., Peyré-Tartaruga, L. A., Gomes da Rosa, R., & Del Coso, J. (2020). Factors Affecting Training and Physical Performance in Recreational Endurance Runners. Sports , 8 (3), 35. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports8030035
Denadai, B. S., de Aguiar, R. A., de Lima, L. C., Greco, C. C., & Caputo, F. (2016). Explosive Training and Heavy Weight Training are Effective for Improving Running Economy in Endurance Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine , 47 (3), 545–554. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0604-z
Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning . Human Kinetics.
Lum, D. (2016). Effects of Performing Endurance and Strength or Plyometric Training Concurrently on Running Economy and Performance. Strength & Conditioning Journal , 38 (3), 26–35. https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0000000000000228
Rønnestad, B. R., & Mujika, I. (2013). Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports , 24 (4), 603–612. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12104
Yamamoto, L. M., Lopez, R. M., Klau, J. F., Casa, D. J., Kraemer, W. J., & Maresh, C. M. (2008). The Effects of Resistance Training on Endurance Distance Running Performance Among Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 22 (6), 2036–2044. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318185f2f0