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The Complete Guide To Weightlifting for Runners

Emphasizing the importance of consistency and progression in strength training for runners.

Weightlifting for runners, why do so few of us do it?

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 studies1Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. V. (2016). Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(8), 2361–2368. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001316show that runners who lift weights can run faster and longer—and it doesn’t make them bulk up. However, you’ve got to combine running and weightlifting in the right way.

This article will guide you in how runners can strength train for improved performance and how you can formulate the ideal strength training plan.

In this piece, you will learn:

A barbell on the floor with the words "weightlifting for runners complete guide" in the foreground.

How Lifting Weights Helps Runners Run Faster

Research2Alexander, J. L. N., Barton, C. J., & Willy, R. W. (2019). Infographic. Running myth: strength training should be high repetition low load to improve running performance. British Journal of Sports Medicine, bjsports-2019-101168. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2019-101168shows that lifting weights helps runners 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 study3Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. V. (2016). Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(8), 2361–2368. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001316,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, both running and weightlifting 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.

a man preparing to pick up a dumbbell

Weightlifting for Runners: Should a Runner Start Lifting Weights?

So, does weight training for runners work?

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.

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. 

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 that stop you!” adds Garret Seacat, head coach at Absolute Endurance.

a man's hand picking up a free weight

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

a lady preparing to lift a dumbbell

How Much Weight Should Runners Lift?

Runners should lift heavy4Doma, K., & Deakin, G. B. (2012). The acute effects intensity and volume of strength training on running performance. European Journal of Sport Science14(2), 107–115. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2012.726653, 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.

a man and woman each lifting a big circular weight above their heads in a gym

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, for an ideal gym workout, 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

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.

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.

Man jumping over metal benches

Key Strength Training Exercises For Runners

There is no need to do complicated strength training moves when it comes to lifting weights for runners. For an effective gym workout, 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, romanian deadlift, suitcase hold, calf raises, single-leg deadlifts, 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
  • bodyweight exercises such as plank variations, bus driver, and glute bridges
  • and plyometrics such as single-leg hops, jumping lunges, step up, jumping squats, box jumps, and any other type of jump.

A woman in the press up position

Weightlifting for Runners: Common Mistakes

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. 

Runners will benefit from working the lower leg muscles, such as the glutes, hamstrings quads and calves.

To ensure you reap the benefits of strength training, runners should avoid these common strength training mistakes:

  1. Lifting too light (weights you can do 12+ reps)
  2. Lifting within 24 hours before a hard running workout
  3. Doing too much volume 
  4. Having sloppy form
  5. Expecting it to be easy
  6. Wearing the wrong footwear that doesn’t provide strength and balance
  7. Not strengthening the calves, “which are the powerhouse muscles for distance runners,” says White. 
  8. Ignoring their upper body and core—key for maintaining proper form when you fatigue
  9. Lifting inconsistently!
a woman doing a squat with free weights in her hands

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!

Resistance training the lower body will offer benefits across the board, from increased injury5Lauersen, J. B., Bertelsen, D. M., & Andersen, L. B. (2013). The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine48(11), 871–877. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2013-092538prevention to increased running economy and reducing muscle imbalances.

You can use barbells, dumbbells, reistance bands and bodyweight. The main thing is you do it and stay consistent!

We hope you enjoyed this guide on weightlifting for runners. Be sure to check out our deep dive into strength training and injury risk!

References

Photo of author
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the US Olympic Trials marathon.

13 thoughts on “The Complete Guide To Weightlifting for Runners”

  1. Hi! Thank you for all this fantastic information. My question is this. I downloaded your 6 Week Half Marathon Training plan and am looking at the schedule. Above you mention that runners need at least 24 – 48 hours to recover before a hard running workout. When I look at the 6 week half marathon plan, however, strength trainings are on Saturdays and the long run is on Sunday. Is that because the Long Run’s are done at RPE 2-3 only? Thanks for your help! 🙂

    Reply
    • Yep – long runs are done at low RPE and with the intention of building your cardiovascular and muscular endurnace, so even if you did a heavy leg session the day before and legs are heavy and tired, you’re
      i) training your body to run on tired legs (but without any performance targets so not pushing it too hard),
      ii) shaking out any lactic acid remaining from the heavy leg day.

      Thanks!

      Reply
  2. I appreciate your info on strength building. I am currently training for a marathon and I have a couple of questions about strength training. I plan on doing weights twice a week. Should I only focus on legs/core strength building or should I also work on my upper body? Will it be okay if I lift in the morning and do a easy 3-6 mile run in the evening or would that be to strenuous on the body?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hey Landon,

      Yep Upper body work is definitely recommended too.

      And it’s fine to do an easy ‘recovery’ run in the evening after a training session. If you do legs in the gym, just keep the exertion levels minimum on your run

      Thanks,
      Thomas

      Reply
  3. Hi, I’m 60 years old and training for a half marathon. I can’t really afford gym membership and if I’m truthful don’t really enjoy it. Could you recommend what basic weight lifting equip I should buy for use at home to help with strengthening and to reduce injuries.

    Thank you

    Reply
  4. Hey there,
    I’m looking at the 100 mile improver training plan. It recommends leg training after intervals, and then strength training the following day. In this instance, is strength training upper body/core, to avoid using those leg muscles from the previous day? Should I be avoiding squats etc?
    Thank you,
    Nick

    Reply
  5. Hi, I’ve been strength training for years and always tried to balance out my workouts between doing cardio on my rest days from the gym. So my weeks would look like 3 full body strength days mixed with 45 minutes cardio on off/active recovery days, but now my goals are changing back to doing now running 3 times a week and 2 full body’s a week on Mondays and Wednesday’s is that enough to build my endurance? Been doing 6 mile runs on Sundays, Tuesdays 4 miles and Thursdays 3-4 miles.

    Reply
    • Hey Simon,
      Think of it simply as stress, recovery and adaptation. Running and strength training are both stressors. Recovery days (active or not) are required to adapt to the stress of hard days. If you run hard on Monday and do strength training on Tuesday, it’s effectively doing two hard days in a row (akin to doing intervals on Monday and a tempo on Tuesday) and not allowing recovery time and optimal adaptation. It can also result in fatigue that can undermine your ability to perform and introduce enough stress on your hard days. Better to keep the stressors on the same day, and allow recovery before introducing the next stressor. For example, you did intervals followed by barbell squats yesterday. You might not run or run recovery pace today and should be alright to do a tempo in a day or two because today is a recovery day and you might just run easy tomorrow. If you did intervals yesterday and squats today, you would be adding more stress and not recovering today which would interfere with adaptation to yesterday’s stressor and make it pretty hard to run an effective tempo tomorrow or the following day. Hope that helps. Cheers

      Reply
  6. I’m about to turn 60. I’ve been running and lifting consistently for 20+ years (run one day, lift the next, take Sunday off). My philosophy is that your body will find its balance between the two – what’s important is a wide variety of exercises. Men need upper body lifts to look balanced so I focus on that, and abs, at the gym. I don’t do any leg exercises at the gym, I’ve tried and I just don’t see anything good coming from it — my legs are already strong. I’m going to keep up this routine until I get injured, sick, or the good Lord takes me home!

    Reply

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