How Runners Can Get Stronger

How regular strength work can aid efficiency, speed and injury prevention

If you’re a runner who hasn’t added strength work to your training regimen, you’re missing out.

Even though running is an effective way to build endurance, running alone isn’t enough. Running builds our aerobic capacity, but also requires repetitive, pounding movements that can wreak havoc on an unprepared body and leaves far too many of us sidelined with overuse injuries.

Often our aerobic endurance will improve ahead of our structural endurance. This is why that hilly 10-miler you ran a little too hard may leave you with troublesome aches and pains, or something more severe such as shin splints or Achilles tendinitis, even if you felt great during the run.

Unfortunately, misconceptions about strength work prevent many runners from making this an integral part of their training program. Let’s address these.

Misconceptions About Strength Training

Although sprinters have known for years that strength training is vital to their success, distance runners have been slow to adopt the same philosophy. Why is this? Runners may give a wide range of explanations, but let’s take a look at the most common:

Misconception #1

“I don’t have time.” This may be the biggest factor in avoiding strength training. Who has time to add in hours at the gym when you’re already logging all those miles on the road, trails and track?

Reality: Strength training requires far less time that most runners think. While a gym membership may be an added bonus, it definitely is not necessary. There are plenty of programs and bodyweight exercises you can do in the comfort of your own home.

Misconception #2

“I don’t understand what ‘strength training’ really means.” The concept of strength work is often misunderstood, and may conjure up images of muscle-bound weightlifters.

Reality: Runners will benefit from a variety of strength routines that target commonly underutilized or weak muscle groups.  This can come in the form of bodyweight routines, weightlifting or plyometrics.

Misconception #3

“I won’t benefit.” Runners often fail to see the connection between strength and performance. Some feel that building more muscle may even be detrimental to their running goals.

 Reality: Every runner can benefit! And if you have suffered through an injury, as most runners have, you absolutely need to make time for strength work to better injury-proof your body.

Strength Training & Injury Prevention

About 60–75 percent of runners get injured each year, depending on what source you look at— and no runner wants to miss running and racing or feel banged-up on a daily basis. While nothing is 100 percent effective at preventing injuries, strength training is an effective way to minimize that risk. Think of strength training as a support system for your running. Your body is the framework that supports you while you run mile after mile, day after day. When that framework is weak, problems start to arise.

Running only trains your body in one plane of motion— straight ahead. To become a more well-rounded athlete, you need to work your body in all planes of motion including forward and back, and side to side. Strengthening your body this way will help reduce common overuse injuries, which plague runners of all levels.

A common area of weakness for many runners is in the hip and gluteal region, where lack of strength and mobility can cause problems all the way down the kinetic chain, from your core to your feet. Weak hips are frequently the cause of common injuries including IT Band pain and patellar tendonitis, so strengthening this region should be a priority!

A variety of runner-specific strength exercises that build comprehensive strength in multiple planes of motion will dramatically reduce your risk of injury.

Strength Training & Speed

In addition to reducing your injury risk, strength training will also help you become a faster, more efficient runner.  When you engage in strength training regularly, you’re able to run longer with less fatigue. This is because an increase in strength directly correlates with an improvement in running economy, or your ability to effectively process oxygen as you run.

Why is running economy important?  An improvement in running economy simply means that you’re able to perform more efficiently. As your efficiency improves, you work less over time, which ultimately leads to faster racing at all distances. In other words, you can run a given distance at the same speed—a mile or 10K or a marathon—with less effort as you become more efficient, and ultimately it means you can run faster.

Strength training can mean a myriad of things, from bodyweight exercises and circuit training to plyometric exercises and lifting weights at the gym. If you are new to strength training, it’s best to start with bodyweight routines or circuit training to build strength and endurance.

Once you have developed a solid foundation of strength, more advanced movements can become part of your routine. Explosive training, including lifts like the clean & jerk or some plyometric exercises, is directly beneficial to speed development. But these workouts need to be performed with care and supervision, since improper technique can quickly lead to injury.

Making Strength Training Part of your Routine

Now that you better understand the “why” behind strength training, it’s time to make it part of your routine.  If you’re not quite sure where to start, here are some essentials to keep in mind:

Frequency trumps length. It’s far better to do 10–15 minutes of strength work three to five days each week than to do one super long session at the gym every two to three weeks.

Strength sessions should be done at a moderate intensity. Strength training should NOT leave you so sore and tired that you’re unable to run the following day! Build up gradually and challenge yourself as you get stronger, but don’t overdo it.

Weights are not a necessity. All runners will benefit from bodyweight exercises like lunges, squats, planks and push-ups, even if they never use added weight.

At the gym, use free weights for classic, compound movements. Runners will benefit most from using free weights for classic exercises like deadlifts, squats and lunges. If you’re unfamiliar with these, have a trainer show you proper form so you don’t get injured.

No matter where you are in your running career—a complete novice or longtime competitor—it’s never too early or too late to add strength training to your routine. Treat strength training as an essential part of staying healthy and running efficiently—and soon you’ll be racing with speed and confidence!

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner's World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.