This guide to strength training and weightlifting for runners is by Whitney Heins, competitive marathoner, VDOT certified running coach, and founder of TheMotherRunners.com.
Runners have a reputation that they hate to lift weights. If they are going to break a sweat, they’d rather be running. Plus, they fear that lifting weights may make them bulky and slow them down.
But recent studies show that runners who lift weights can run faster and longer—and it doesn’t make them bulk up. But you got to lift weights the right way. This article will guide you in how runners can strength train for improved performance.
In this piece you will learn:
- when runners should start lifting weights
- how lifting weights helps runners
- how often you should lift weights
- how long a weight lighting session for runners should be
- how much you should lift
- how to fit lifting weights in with your running training plan
- key strength training exercises for runners
- and common mistakes to avoid.
I’ve been a runner for more than three decades but only recently started lifting heavy weights to recover from a chronic running injury. Unfortunately, I wasted many years lifting light weights that weren’t doing anything to improve my performance.
I’m back training and can feel the boost in power and efficiency in my stride. No longer are my legs trying to keep up with my lungs.
Studies support how I’m feeling: Runners who lift weights have a more powerful
How Lifting Weights Helps Runners Run Faster
Research shows that lifting weights helps run use less energy and oxygen to run, so they can run faster for longer. In one study, runners used up to 8 percent less energy and oxygen in a time trial. In another study, runners improved their running economy and velocity at VO2max.
In general, strength training has been proven to improve running economy (how much oxygen your body uses at a certain velocity) by improving neuromuscular coordination and power. Therefore, your body can stride more efficiently, requiring less energy to move.
Lifting for runners can also prevent injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues.
“As runners, when we train it’s like filling a cup with water. If we overflow that cup with too many miles or too much intensity, then we can get injured or underperform. Strength training allows us to create a bigger cup, so we have a bigger buffer zone from getting injured or overtraining,” says Steve White, doctor of physical therapy and run coach.
Therefore, strength training should be part of a runner’s weekly routine. If you want to be a better runner, you got to lift weights!
“Stop thinking about strength training as supplemental training or cross-training, something that you only do if you are injured or injury-prone. The structure of your body and the strength of your musculoskeletal system matters just as much as your aerobic capacity,” says running coach Laura Norris.
When Should a Runner Start Lifting Weights?
Runners can incorporate weightlifting into their training schedule at any point.
However, it is best for runners to start weight training in the off-season or when they are only doing easy running. They should start with bodyweight and low weights, and progress when these exercises stop feeling challenging.
Related: Check out our bodyweight workout.
This way the stress on the body caused by weightlifting will not impact your running performance.
And don’t expect it to be easy just because you’re in good cardiovascular shape. “You should plan to be sore for the first couple weeks getting started but don’t let them keep you from stopping!” adds Garret Seacat, head coach at Absolute Endurance.
How Often Should Runners Lift Weights?
When it comes to weight training as a runner, some is better than none.
James de Lacey, a professional strength and conditioning coach for elite athletes, says runners should lift weights twice a week but if you only have time for one session—do it anyway!
“Twice a week is more than enough to make progress without inducing too much fatigue. Running is the main sport and most important part of training so it’s important not to hinder their running training,” he explains.
How Long Should a Weight-Lifting Session Be?
Each weight session should be 30-60 minutes and involve about 6 exercises with 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 Runners Lift?
Runners should lift heavy, says de Lacey.
“My approach to strength training for runners is a very low volume, high-intensity approach to mitigate as much fatigue as possible while getting stronger,” he says.
Runners are wasting their time if they don’t lift heavy weights. Lifting light weights improves muscle endurance—something that’s not needed since the act of running does that itself.
Instead, research shows to build strength and power, runners should
- lift low reps
- maxing out at 10 reps
- use weight that’s about 75 percent of your max
- do three sets
- and lift at least two times a week
Runners don’t need to worry about bulking up because running restricts muscles from getting too big, studies show.
“Running is, after all, a catabolic exercise – you can’t build large amounts of muscle when you are running dozens of miles per week,” explains Norris. “You would need to weight train most days of the week, drastically alter your diet, and cut back on cardio to bulk up – and chances are, you won’t do any of those things.”
How to Fit Lifting Weights into Your Running Schedule
When you lift weights is really important as a runner as the stress you put on your muscles can have a direct impact on your performance.
In general, runners should:
- lift weights after running
- wait 3 hours before lifting weights after a hard workout
- lift on hard running days
- never lift before a hard running workout
- and, not lift on easy running days (unless in a base phase)
The timing of weightlifting for runners isn’t as critical when in a base or maintenance phase because you’re only running easy. However, if you’re running high-intensity workouts, it’s best to lift on the same day AFTER the workout.
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.
Related: Rest Day Workouts
“Allow your muscles to rest at least 48 hours to make sure they heal. Runners need to have strong muscles to have better performance and faster speed so take care of your muscles and don’t abuse them,” shares Darryl Higgins, founder of Athletedesk.com.
Also, it’s important to taper close to a race, adds de Lacey. “Runners can taper strength training by dropping a session and only performing 1 a week for 2 weeks.”
Related: Crosstraining for Runners
Key Strength Training Exercises for Runners
There is no need to do complicated strength training moves when it comes to lifting weights for runners. Runners need only free weights and their body weight to get a comprehensive strength workout.
A good strength training program for runners will include:
- lifting heavy objects using common moves such as a squat, lunge, Russian deadlift, suitcase hold, calf raises, or split squat.
- explosive exercises such as a medicine ball slam and kettlebell swing
- upper body moves and bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and pull-ups that work the whole body
- core exercises such as plank variations and bus driver
- and plyometrics such as single-leg hops, jumping lunges, jumping squats, box jumps, and any other type of jump.
Common Weightlifting Mistakes for Runners to Avoid
There is a right way and a wrong way to lift weights as a runner.
It’s easy for runners to strength train and waste their time, or worse, hurt their performance.
To ensure you reap the benefits of strength training, runners should avoid these common strength training mistakes:
- lifting too light (weights you can do 12+ reps)
- lifting within 24 hours before a hard running workout
- doing too much volume
- having sloppy form
- expecting for it to be easy
- wearing wrong footwear that doesn’t provide strength and balance
- not strengthening the calves “which are the powerhouse muscles for distance runners,” says White.
- ignoring their upper body and core—key for maintaining proper form when you fatigue
- and, lifting inconsistently!
“Strength, just like running endurance, is based on consistency,” says de Lacey.
If you are one week in the gym and one week out, you will not make progress and end up detraining yourself from lifting weights (aka you will be sore!).
By making weightlifting a regular part of your running routine, you will see gains and run faster!
Be sure to check out our Marathon Masterclass to learn how to train to your fullest potential!
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