Running With Weights: Pros, Cons + How To Do So Safely

Plus, effective and safe alternatives for performance results.

The efficiency of workouts is certainly appealing to anyone who is busy. 

After all, it can be difficult to fit in cardio and strength training workouts during the week, so the notion of combining weight training with running doesn’t seem like the worst idea.

For this reason, some people decide to go running with the weights, either by running in a weighted vest or running with ankle weights or wrist weights.

Unfortunately, running with ankle weights is unsafe and can greatly increase your risk of injury.

Running in a weighted vest can potentially be an effective way to increase your strength gains, metabolic rate, and calorie burn while running, but it also requires certain precautions to prevent issues with your running form, joint pain, and injuries due to the extra weight. 

In this guide to running with weights, we will discuss the risks and benefits of running with weights and tips for adding a weighted vest to your training routine.

A person running in a weighted vest.

What Types of Weights Can I Run With?

Before we look at the potential benefits of running with weights and the risks of running, holding dumbbells, wearing ankle weights, or running in a weighted vest, let’s briefly cover the types of weights that you might use for running or while performing other forms of cardio exercise.

#1: Ankle Weights

Ankle weights are weighted cuffs that wrap around your ankles and are secured using Velcro or buckles. 

Most ankle weights for runners weigh 1-5 pounds (0.5-2 kg), although some ankle weights for resistance training or rehab exercises in a physical therapy application weigh as much as 10 pounds or more. 

The weights are usually filled with sand, iron filings, or small iron plates, and the cuff design is generally flexible, so the ankle weight can be adjusted to fit your body.

A person adjusting ankle weights.

#2: Wrist Weights

Wrist weights are similar to ankle weights in that they are wearable weights with a flexible cuff. 

However, because the muscle groups in the upper body are smaller and weaker than those in the lower body, wrist weights tend to be lighter, usually always 1/2 to 2 pounds or so. 

The benefit of wrist weights over hand weights or dumbbells is that you still have your hands free while you run or perform some other type of cardio workout. 

For example, some people wear wrist weights while using an elliptical machine so they can use their hands to grab onto the handlebars.

#3: Hand Weights

Running with hand weights involves gripping a small dumbbell in each hand as you run. 

#4: Weighted Vest

A weighted vest, sometimes called a weight vest, is a garment that contains sand, iron filings, or iron weights that can be worn during exercise to increase resistance.

Some weighted vests for running have removable weights so that you can modulate how much weight you’re adding to your body, whereas others are a set weight.

Most weighted vests for runners weigh between 4-20 pounds (2-10 kg or so).

Ankle weights.

Is It Good To Run With Weights?

So, does running with weights improve cardio? Does running with weight build muscle?

Running with ankle weights, hand weights, or in a weighted vest is a way to add extra weight to your body.

The added weight makes your heart, muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissues work harder.

This can be appealing because the added weight will boost the strength training benefits and may help you build muscle by combining some amount of resistance training with your cardio exercise routine.

Plus, because your effective body weight is higher, and your muscles have to generate more force, the increase in heart rate will help you burn calories and boost your metabolic rate more than running with just your body weight.1PUTHOFF, M. L., DARTER, B. J., NIELSEN, D. H., & YACK, H. J. (2006). The Effect of Weighted Vest Walking on Metabolic Responses and Ground Reaction Forces. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise38(4), 746–752. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.mss.0000210198.79705.19

‌For example, according to ACE Fitness, exercising with ankle weights that weigh from 1 to 3 pounds can increase your heart rate by about three to five beats per minute and increase your oxygen uptake and number of calories burned by 5 to 10% compared to unweighted conditions.

A person running with ankle weights.

However, this is fairly insignificant. 

For example, if you normally burn 400 calories running for 30 minutes, a 10% increase in energy expenditure when running with ankle weights would only be 40 more calories. 

Some people also believe that the physiological adaptations that occur if you consistently run in a weighted vest or will improve your running economy, running speed, and overall running performance when you strip away the weights because your body has gotten used to running with the extra weight.

There are several potential benefits associated with running in a weighted vest, including the following:

A person putting on ankle weights.

What Are The Risks Of Running With Ankle Weights?

While some of these benefits of running with weights are potentially true and based on sound reasoning and evidence, there are also significant risks, particularly running with ankle weights and heavier dumbbells or hand weights.

According to Dr. Edward R. Laskowski at the Mayo Clinic, even brisk walking with ankle weights is not recommended, which likely means that you should also not run with ankle weights.

Ultimately, running with ankle weights or running holding dumbbells can greatly increase the risk of injury by causing excessive joint stress and potentially changing your running form in a way that will also throw off your biomechanics.

When you wear ankle weights, you have extra weight at the end of the long lever of your leg. The body is not accustomed to having significant weight near the foot, so the ankle weight will put tension on the knee joint and hip joint when your leg is up in the swing phase.

This tension can pull on the connective tissues and joint structures, causing potential injuries to your muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsule structures, and bones.

Additionally, the added weight increases the impact forces when you land.5NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x

This can increase the risk of injury to your bones (such as stress fractures).

Additionally, because you have extra weight at the end of the long lever arm of your leg, it can be difficult to maintain the proper range of motion in your running stride, and the ankle weights can alter your foot strike pattern.

These changes not only increase the risk of injury, but can also decrease running economy and running performance.

If you are habitually training with ankle weights, you may be “retraining“ your brain to learn poor running technique and may ultimately change your biomechanics for running even when you aren’t using weights.

Colorful dumbbells.

What Are The Risks Of Running With Dumbbells?

There can be a similar risk of injury to the muscle groups in the upper body if you run holding dumbbells or using wrist weights.

The added weight can strain the muscle groups in the neck, shoulders, upper back, and arms, and the hand weights can throw off your center of mass as you pump your arms.

This can potentially cause injuries further down your body, including injuries to the spine, intervertebral discs, and even hips and lower body muscle groups and joints.

What Are The Risks Of Running In A Weighted Vest?

Generally, wearing a weighted vest running is the safest option for adding some form of resistance training to running or other cardio exercises.

Because the weighted vest centralizes the extra weight onto your torso, your center of mass isn’t significantly changed in terms of the location.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an increased risk of injury when using a weighted vest for running.

You still have an effectively higher body weight, which increases joint stress and impact stress and forces on your bones and connective tissues as well as the amount of force your muscle groups in the lower body need to generate in order to propel you forward.

However, there are some tips you can use to incorporate a running weighted vest into your training plan that can potentially help mitigate these injury risks.

People running uphill.

Should I Run With Weights?

As a certified running coach and personal trainer, I do not recommend running with ankle weights or hand weights due to the high risk of injury and minimal benefits.

There are safer alternatives to strengthen your muscles for running that mediate the risks of wearing ankle weights running.

Some examples include the following:

  • Do separate weightlifting workouts with strength training exercises such as lunges, squats, push-ups, step-ups, deadlifts, hip thrusts, and calf raises. According to the American Council on Exercise, when the goal is to build muscle (hypertrophy), you should perform 8-12 reps using a weight that is at least 67-85% of your 1RM.6How Many Reps Should You Be Doing? (n.d.). Www.acefitness.org. https://www.acefitness.org/resources/everyone/blog/5867/how-many-reps-should-you-be-doing/
  • You can even do your strength workouts with the weighted vest to boost your strength gains and build muscle mass more effectively.
  • Incorporate plyometric exercises such as box jumps, bounding, squat jumps, and burpees.
  • Hill workouts, essentially combine speed training with resistance training while helping you improve aspects of your running form, running technique, and running speed.
  • Speed training with resistance such as running with a parachute, sled pulls, or cross-training doing deep water running.

The aforementioned alternatives are much safer, and effective routes to strengthening your muscles, boosting your caloric expenditure, and becoming a faster and fitter runner.

If you do, however, decide to run with a weighted vest, here are my tips to stay safe while doing so:

A person in a weighted vest.

How Do You Run In a Weighted Vest?

Here are some tips for wearing a weighted vest for running workouts:

  • Although there aren’t definitive rules, the general recommendation is that a weighted vest for running should be no more than 10% of your body weight. For example, if you are 180 pounds (82 kg), your weighted vest should be 18 pounds (8.2 kg) or less.
  • If you buy an adjustable weighted vest where you can change the amount of weight by adding or removing weights, start with just a few pounds. Gradually add more weight as you adapt to running in the weighted vest. 
  • To balance the pros and cons of running in a weighted vest in your training routine, wear a weighted vest running no more than a few training sessions per week, interspersed with regular body weight runs.
  • Consider just doing interval training, sprints, or running drills in the weighted vest rather than long-distance runs.
  • Start with brisk walking with the weighted vest. The American Council On Exercise7ACE – ProSourceTM: March 2014 – ACE Research: Improve Walking Workouts with Weighted Vests. (n.d.). Www.acefitness.org. Retrieved February 15, 2024, from https://www.acefitness.org/continuing-education/prosource/march-2014/3695/ace-research-improve-walking-workouts-with-weighted-vests/
  • (ACE) also recommends incline walking with a weighted vest. Then try just 5 minutes of running in the weighted vest. Build up by adding 5 minutes each week.
  • Try to limit downhills when running in a weighted vest, especially at first.
  • When you are running in a weighted vest, you want the vest to be as snug as possible. Tighten the straps so that the vest does not rotate or bounce. You should be able to slip your fingers under it and breathe comfortably, though.
A person running wit h a parachute.

Overall, running in a weighted vest can be a good way to add some resistance training to your workout routine and help you get stronger and faster.

However, it’s important to remember that there are risks associated with wearing a weighted vest while running, and it’s not recommended for beginners. 

Keep your running workouts and weightlifitng exercises separate at first. This may be less efficient from a time standpoint, but more effective and safe for improving cardio fitness and building muscle mass.

Check out our next guide on whether or not you should run after leg day:

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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