Strength Training for Runners - Your Effective Guide

Strength training for runners, explained by a certified strength and conditioning specialist, with a workout.

If you buy the myth that lifting will slow you down, are firm on your routine, and are happy with your performance, this advice isn't for you. But, if you're looking to run well and learn the kind of strength training runners should do, you need to hear this.

Strength exercises are good for runners.

Runners with strong legs apply more force to the ground, run efficiently, and are at a lesser risk of injury. If you want to run fast, you need to be strong. Better yet, powerful.

Power = Force x Velocity (velocity is speed applied in a direction)

We're not trying to turn you into a powerlifter here, though a good runner does need to learn to produce force well.

What kind of strength training should runners do?

How often should runners lift weights? When? Should runners bench press? Yep. (Think arm drive.)

Let's start with the science and clear up some confusion.

If you came here for a plan, skip ahead to the last section.

Brunette woman in running shoes Weightlifting with a barbell on a platform

Does Strength Training Improve Running? Yes.

Strength is an important part of being a good runner.

The classic model for predicting endurance running performance¹ finds these three things to be 95% accurate in predicting 16 km performance in well-trained runners:

  1. VO2max
  2. Running economy (using less energy at given speeds)
  3. Fractional utilization (sustainable percentage of VO2max)

Lifting weights is an effective way to improve your running economy.

Don't just take my word for it.

Blagrove, Richard C et al. conducted a systematic review on the effects of strength training on middle- and long-distance running performance².

Evidence supported these benefits of strength training for runners:

  • Improvements in running economy (2–8%)*
  • Time trial performance improved (1.5–10 km)
  • Increased maximal sprint speed in middle and long distances

*Compared to controls, running economy generally shows improvements from 2-8%, although it's not always the case.

You may have been misled to believe that lifting will put on muscle, slowing you down.

You might find this conclusion from Blagrove et al.² relieving:

"Importantly for the distance runner, measures relating to body composition are not negatively impacted by a ST intervention." (Blagrove et al.)

Like your pre-race meal, lifting will take some tinkering if you hope to hit PRs:

"Inconsistencies exist within the literature, that can be attributed to differences in methodologies and characteristics of study participants, thus practitioners should be cautious when applying generalized recommendations to their athletes." (Blagrove et al.)

Not just any training program will work. New runners (and those with limited lifting experience) will benefit from reading the next sections.

What kind of strength training should runners do?

The type of strength training that you do should enhance your running. That means avoiding large amounts of overcomplicated lifts that expose you to excess risks. No, you don't have to do Olympic lifts like snatches, cleans, and jerks.

The best strength training compliments what you're doing with the rest of your routine.

If you're pushing yourself on your runs, pull back on your strength routine. Your ability to recover has limits.

While programs vary, you don't have to completely operate in the dark.

Some common themes from the studies reviewed by Blagrove, Richard C et al.²:

  • All studies used at least one multi-joint exercise save two that used isometric contractions on the ankle plantarflexors
  • Heavy resistance training was typically 2–6 sets of 3–10 reps per exercise at relatively heavy loads ( >70% of 1RM or to repetition failure)
  • Plyometric exercises were 1–6 exercises carried out over 1–6 sets of 4–10 reps, for a total of 30–228 foot contacts per session

You don't have to do a ton. Our researchers found the addition of two to three strength-training sessions beneficial. That overlaps with the evidence we're going to get to in a sec.


How often should runners lift weights?

Runners should lift weights at least twice per week. You can, however, do less than this when needed.

Consider a systematic review and meta-analysis Androulakis-Korakakis, Patroklos, et al.³ performed. The research whittled 2629 studies down to 6 to observe the minimum one needs to do to increase 1RM strength.

A single set performed at least 1 time and at most 3 times per week was enough to make 1RM strength gains.

If you have a tough time recovering or want to take a conservative approach, start with a minimum effective dose.

Beginner runners should start conservatively. You can always increase your strength work once you're confident that you've found your footing.

How often you train is influenced by how much (volume, sets, or the dose), how heavy you're lifting, and the exercises you choose.


Is bodyweight strength training enough for runners? Nope.

In a recent Runners World article on lifting for runners, Elizabeth Millard interviewed Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, one of the leading researchers on muscle strength and hypertrophy. "Runners should be lifting heavy," and "Volume builds muscle, whereas strength is maximized by heavy loads," says Dr. Schoenfeld.

If you just use bodyweight, you're not going heavy enough. Power isn't just about performing the right exercises. To run well, you need to be able to absorb the mass of your body times gravity. The faster you run, the stronger you need to be to land and push off into your next step.

Do runners need upper body strength? Yes.

In addition to lower body exercises, runners also need strong arms. Bench pressing will allow you to develop strong arm drive. Your chest is a part of your core.

Core Muscle Categories

from Core Muscle and Biomechanics (Willardson)⁴

Global Local Upper Extremity Lower Extremity
Erector group Multifidus Pectoralis major and minor Iliopsoas group
Quadratus lumborium Intertransversalis and interspinalis Latissimus dorsi Gluteus maximus
Rectus abdominus Rotatoers Serratus anterior Gluteus medius
Obliques (internal and external) Diaphragm Rhomboids Hamstrings group
Transverse abdominus Pelvic floor group Trapezius

The core isn't just crunches and sit-ups. It's more complicated than most people think:

  • Hip extensions like the hip thrust and glute bridge hit your glutes and hamstrings
  • Squat and lunge variations work the quads ( which stabilize your knees), glutes, obliques, and erectors (posterior core)
  • Hip Hinges like the deadlift and SLRDL work your glutes, hamstrings, erectors, and upper back
  • Horizontal presses like the bench press work your chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids (shoulders)
  • Vertical pulls and pulldowns hit your latissimus dorsi (back), biceps, and rear deltoids
  • Vertical pushes like the overhead press target your anterior deltoid, middle delts, and triceps
  • Targeted exercises like the curl, tricep extension, and abduction can work muscle groups in isolation

Your core allows you to transfer force well from that arm drive in coordination with the rest of your body. All your muscles work together so you shouldn't skip push-ups and bench pressing.

You do benefit from choosing movements that are the most similar to the muscle actions in your sport. The more similar the exercise is to the sport, the more likely it is to transfer.

Examples of Movement-Related Resistance Training Exercises

  • Freestyle swimming - Pull-up, lateral shoulder raise, forward lunge, upright row, barbell pullover, single-leg squat.

  • Running, sprinting - Snatch, clean, front squat, forward lunge, step-up, leg extension, leg curl, toe raise (dorsiflexion).

From Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Program Design for Resistance Training. (Sheppard & Triplett 2016)⁵

We've talked about why, how, and how much - The last thing we need to cover is when to run and lift.

Should you strength train and run on the same day?

Yes, it's okay to do strength training and cardio on the same day. You just need to time things well to avoid the potential for the concurrent training interference effect.

The interference effect is the potential adverse effect of endurance training on strength training gains. Concurrent training is combining resistance training and aerobic training in the same program.

Put another way, large amounts of cardio diminish strength gains when combined in the same session.

The interference effect is reduced by performing lifting and cardio in separate training sessions, spaced at least three hours apart.

Prioritize the training you want to make gains in.

If you do your cardio immediately before running, your lifting will suffer. If you lift first, the interference effect will be reduced but you'll be tired. Spacing them two to three hours apart is great⁶.

Your best option is to separate the two by a full day if possible.

Now, onto a lifting plan that demonstrates one way to do this...

About the strength training plans:

Note: There are many ways to exercise, this is just an example. If you preferred to lift two days per week, I would combine the main lifts from both days and drop some accessories.

The goal of these training sessions (repeated for 4 or so weeks) are to:

Introduce you to lifting in a well-rounded manner. The week is balanced to hit all of your major muscle groups twice.

This plan also hits your core in four important ways:

  1. Rotation and anti-rotation (half-kneeling and rotation and push press)
  2. Flexion and anti-flexion (dead bug and hanging knee raise)
  3. Extension and anti-extension (deadlift and hip thrust)
  4. Lateral flexion and anti-lateral flexion (side plank and loaded carry)

You have the option of adjusting your progression model (how you add weight) based on your level of experience.

You're a "beginner" or "intermediate" based on your rate of progress:

  • "Beginners" are capable of adding weight to exercises almost every week or biweekly
  • "Intermediates" add weight to movements more on a biweekly basis
  • "Advanced" lifters may hit prs a few times per year

Focus on pushing yourself to progress by:

  • Add weight where possible. Use a single progression or wave load compound movements. Ex. Squats, Deadlifts, and Hip Thrusts.
    • A single progression is adding weight, and keeping the same number of reps.

    • Wave loading is increasing weight, as you drop reps by 1 or 2 from week to week.

      • For example (barbell exercise) - Single progression. Keeping good form, add 5-10 pounds to this exercise and perform the same number of reps as last week.

      • Wave loading 6 reps in week 1, 5 reps in week 2, and 4 reps in week 3 - as you try to add load each week.

  • Using a double progression on accessories or moves that assist muscles that work in compounds. Ex. Leg extensions, bicep curls, and tricep extensions. Weight will go up as you meet a rep threshold.

    • For example - Perform 3 sets of 12-15 reps. Try to add reps each week at the same weight. When you can perform 3 sets of 15, increase your weight next week.

This is normally a good aim for load increases:

  • 2.5-5 lbs per week on dumbbell exercises.
  • 5-10 lbs on barbell exercises.

If you have fractional plates that allow you to make small jumps, use them.

Weight increases are a sign that your training volume (sets and reps) is where it needs to be.

If you cannot add weight, try to concentrate on the move getting easier and increase weight in the next week.

Aim to finish your workout in 50-60 minutes, including your warm-up. This helps ensure that you're getting into better shape for future (harder) sessions.

Research is unclear on rest times.

Take as long as you need to perform well in your heavier sets. Because you're in good cardiovascular shape, you might feel tempted to rush but don't.

A general recommendation to get you started might fall around;

  • 20-30 seconds on exercises that you can perform 20+ reps with
  • 1-2 minutes on your moderately challenging exercises (6-15 reps)
  • 2-5 minutes on power exercises
  • 2-5 minutes on things that involve a higher level of difficulty

Every 4 to 6 weeks or so, you may opt for a deload. A deload is similar to a taper in managing training stress but a little different.

Deloads for beginners - Keep your weight the same as last week and cut your total volume (sets and reps) in half from last week.

Deloads for intermediates - Drop your weight from last week by 10% and cut your volume (sets and reps) by 30%

You can run this training example for 4-16 or so weeks, depending on how you make adjustments to it.

Runners Workout Plan - Warm-Up

General Warm-up:

  • Walk or Jog for 5-10 minutes
  • Soft tissue work like foam rolling
  • Or any activity of your choice

Movement-Specific Warm-up:

Perform moves you prefer for warming up your hips, ankles, hamstrings, etc. The above is an example. Some strength coaches skip straight to lifting. If something works well for you, keep it.

Runners Workout Plan - Base Building Strength Routine

Day 1 - Lower (AM Lift)

Power Exercises:

Strength exercise: Wave loading or using a single progression.

Moderate Strength: Wave loading, or using a double progression.

Accessory exercises: Double progression.

Day 2 - Upper (PM Lift | AM Pace/Tempo Run)

Power exercises:

Paired Set A: Alternate moves, wave loading or using a single progression.

Paired Set B: Alternate moves, double progression.

Accessory Exercises: Double progression.

Day 3: Rest

Take the day to rest and recover.

Day 4: Interval Run (AM)

This is a good place for your hardest run of the week.

Day 5 - Lower (AM Lift)

Power Exercises:

Strength: Wave loading, or using a single progression.

Moderate Strength: Wave loading, or using a double progression.

Accessory Exercises: Double progression.

Day 6 - Upper (AM Lift | PM Long Run)

Power Exercises:

Strength: Wave loading, or using a single progression.

Moderate Strength: Wave loading, or using a double progression.

Paired Set: Alternate moves, double progression.

Accessory Exercises: Double progression.

Day 7: Rest

Take the day to rest and recover.

This workout plan assumes:

  • You're in pretty good general and cardiovascular shape from running.
  • You perform exercises with good form and technique. Try not to go through the motions.
  • You'll be working out for about 45-60 minutes.
  • You push yourself on moderate exercises for rest but take enough time to lift heavier at the beginning.
  • You're using accessory exercises to add volume.
  • You're appropriately managing your recovery. Remember, adding in resistance training on top of what you're doing is additional stress to manage. Start slow.

Cool-Down

Stretch all of your major muscle groups including your hamstrings, calves, quads, hip flexors, etc with exercises of your choice.

Here's How to Strength Train for Runners:

  • Remember, you're lifting to improve your running performance. You're not trying to find the best strength training workout for strength and power.
  • Exercise 2-3 times per week and reduce that for big marathons (or when stressed); you'll still make gains.
  • Use more than your bodyweight. Use a weight that matches your rate of progress. Rest between heavy sets.
  • How often should runners lift weights? At least twice per week in-season to maintain strength and muscle mass.

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References:

  1. McLaughlin, James E et al. “Test of the classic model for predicting endurance running performance.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise vol. 42,5 (2010): 991-7. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181c0669d
  2. Blagrove, Richard C et al. “Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 48,5 (2018): 1117-1149. doi:10.1007/s40279-017-0835-7
  3. Androulakis-Korakakis, Patroklos et al. “The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance-Trained Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 50,4 (2020): 751-765. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01236-0
  4. Willardson, Jeffrey M. “Chapter 1 Core Anatomy and Biomechanics.” Developing the Core, Human Kinetics, 2013, pp. 3–18.
  5. Sheppard, Jeremy M, and N. Travis Triplett. “Program Design for Resistance Training.” Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th ed., Human Kinetics, 2016, pp. 445–445.
  6. Petré, Henrik et al. “Development of Maximal Dynamic Strength During Concurrent Resistance and Endurance Training in Untrained, Moderately Trained, and Trained Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 51,5 (2021): 991-1010. doi:10.1007/s40279-021-01426-9

Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.