Become a Faster Runner—in the Weight Room
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How to add some basic weight training to become a faster runner

Are you a runner who’s been training for a few years and yet still want to get faster and improve your race times? The good news is that there are bountiful training strategies that will increase your speed.

Every running coach worth his or her salt will encourage you to run more, train faster and be a more consistent athlete by:

-Increasing your weekly mileage, gaining endurance and building aerobic strength to maintain faster paces for longer
-Running faster workouts to drive up your VO2 Max and neuromuscular efficiency
-Training more consistently overall, with fewer running injuries and time off

These approaches to improvement are battle-tested, tried and true. But there’s another strategy that makes you faster that doesn’t require any running at all: lifting weights to build general and specific strength.

While runner-specific strength and core workouts are important, a more traditional gym workout of lifting weights can take your training to the next level.

And the upside is that a high-quality lifting program will confer other benefits to you as well, like fewer injuries and better economy (more on this later). Lifting well improves almost every aspect of your fitness—making you a stronger, more resilient and faster runner.

It just takes a well-designed strength training program. But what does “well-designed” mean? Let’s take a look with a few examples.

What Exercises Are Best for Runners?

First, we have to ensure that runners are doing the right exercises in the gym. We’re not bodybuilders so we don’t need to focus on individual muscles for 4 hours in the weight room.

That means no bicep curls, tricep extensions or other “isolation exercises” that are common among those strength athletes whose goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Instead, we want to focus on compound, functional lifts like squats, deadlifts, cleans, jerks and bench press and overhead press.

These exercises train movements, not muscles. They require strength, build power and explosivity, and enhance your overall athleticism.

How to Lift For Strength

Now that we know what exercises to perform in the weight room, the next question becomes: “How do I perform them?”

Many distance runners mistakenly believe that they should train for endurance in the gym – completing a high volume program with lots of repetitions, little rest, and low weight.

And no approach is worse for runners! We already train for endurance while we’re running. We’re already experiencing a high endurance training stimulus.

In the gym, we need a different stimulus: one that promotes strength.

To lift for strength, we need to keep the number of repetitions to the 5-8 range, lift heavier weight, and take adequate recovery.

So instead of doing 3 sets of 15 quadriceps extensions with 1-minute recovery, we’re going to update this session to 3 sets of 8 squats with 2-minute recovery.

We’re doing fewer repetitions, with more recovery, and higher weight. And unlike other strength athletes who need to spend 4-5 days in the gym every week, runners will gain all the benefits they need in two sessions of 45-60 minutes per week.

Here’s an example session in the gym to give you an idea of how this is structured:

1) Thorough Warm-Up

2) Barbell Press: 2 sets x 8 reps

With the bar on your shoulders across clavicles and your hands gripping the barbell with palms facing outward. Lift the bar over your head, lock your elbows, and return to the starting position.

3) Squat: 2 sets x 8 reps

Hold the barbell across your shoulders. With your feet slightly wider than hip width and toes turned out 10-15 degrees, squat down so that your femur is parallel to the ground and return to standing.

3) Deadlift: 2 sets x 8 reps 

With the barbell on the floor, grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width with bent knees and a neutral back. Stand to attention, maintaining a neutral back, with a hip-hinge movement.

Take about 2 minutes of recovery after each set. Each exercise should be done with a weight that you could lift for 10-12 repetitions.

The second workout can include different exercises but similar movements:

1) Thorough Warm-Up

2) One-Arm Dumbbell Press: 2 sets x 8 reps each arm

Holding a dumbbell in one hand under the chin, press the dumbbell up over your head so that the bicep ends close to the ear with elbows straight. Lower the weight and repeat.

3) Goblet Squat: 2 sets x 8 reps

With a dumbbell held at chest height and feet slightly wider than hip width, squat down dropping the elbows between the knees. Keep a neutral back and return to the starting position.

4) Deadlift: 2 sets x 8 reps

With the barbell on the floor, grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width with bent knees and a neutral back. Stand to attention, maintaining a neutral back, with a hip-hinge movement.

READ MORE: How Runners Can Get Stronger

The Benefits of Lifting

Runners who strength train in this manner receive a host of benefits that those who lift for endurance or hypertrophy simply do not.

First, you’ll experience more strength gains. As runners, we want a high strength to weight ratio – in other words, we don’t want to be bulky, but we do want to be as strong as possible.

This approach focuses on strength rather than hypertrophy or endurance. So you’ll get stronger without gaining much extra muscle (exactly what distance runners should strive for in the weight room!).

Second, you’ll inoculate yourself against injuries. Weak runners are more susceptible to getting hurt so if your muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, and other connective tissues are more resilient to the impact forces of running, you’ll experience far fewer repetitive stress injuries.

Third, you’ll improve your running economy (or, efficiency). Runners need to be efficient while running fast – to use as little energy as possible so they can save it for a monster finishing kick at the end of a race.

Lifting heavy weights in this manner increases your body’s ability to recruit more muscle fibers. With a larger pool of available fibers, you can tap into some of them when you’re tired at the end of a race, workout, or long run. This allows you to keep running without slowing down.

And finally, that larger pool of fibers you now have at your disposal will help you finish your next race with a strong negative split. Along with giving you better economy, you’ll be able to tap into those newly accessible fibers to shift into higher gear, kick hard, and finish fast.

Runners often want nothing to do with the gym. It’s not their preferred playground like the trail or track and it’s often confusing to know what to do with all the different weights and machines.

Thankfully, we now have a plan of attack. Lift heavy, rest well in between sets, and focus on compound exercises that train movements, not muscles. Combined with training habits that promote success, you’ll start seeing results in just weeks.

In a few months, you’ll be stronger and faster than you ever have been before!

 

 

 

 

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.