The Benefits of Strength Training for Distance Runners
Hitting the weight room is a foreign concept to many distance runners.
Old fears about becoming a hulking, muscle-bound back-of-the-packer are to blame for many runners avoiding weights. Even some exceptionally famous coaches oppose the idea of runners lifting weights.
Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealand coach who pioneered modern training in the 1950s and ‘60s, proudly claimed that his runners had never lifted a weight above their heads in their life.
Are these fears justified?
That’s what we’ll examine when we look at the science and research of strength training for distance runners in this article.
The science of weight training for distance runners
As lifting is inherently a numerical activity, with sets and reps and weights and forces, it’s a gold mine for exercise physiologists. As a result, there’s a whole host of studies on the subject.
The benefits of weight training for distance runners
I’ll deviate a bit from normal formatting by starting off with a summary of the benefits of weight lifting, outlined in a masterful 2003 review article by Alan Jung at the University of Alabama. Later, we’ll look at specific implementations of each type of weight training.
Jung starts by describing the three basic types of weight training: circuit workouts, traditional weight lifting, and explosive weight lifting. Circuit training involves short exercises at a high intensity with little or no rest between the various exercises. A circuit might consist of five or ten different exercises, each done once for a certain amount of time or number of repeats.
Traditional weight lifting is just what it sounds like: pumping iron in the gym with slow, controlled weight movements.
Explosive training involves very fast lifts, like the Olympic clean-and-jerk lift or a two-legged bound.
- Circuit training seems to benefit the cardiovascular system somewhat, at least in less-experienced athletes. Since there is little or no rest between exercises, your heart rate can jump to as high as 80% of its maximum. Studies among untrained individuals have also found improvements in time-to-exhaustion on a treadmill test and the lactate threshold. There is little evidence as to whether circuit training is beneficial for an experienced distance runner.
- Traditional weight lifting, on the other hand, has not shown any benefit to the cardiovascular system. Tests of maximal oxygen consumption, even in untrained individuals, do not change after several-week weight lifting programs. However, they don’t decrease either, which is good news for runners. Additionally, studies using distance athletes have found that traditional weight lifting can lead to improvements in running economy, time-to-exhaustion, and neuromuscular coordination (which has relevance to top speed and may explain the increase in running economy).
- Explosive training has been directly connected to improved race performance at 5km. Additionally, it too seems to benefit running economy and neuromuscular coordination. It’s likely that the training stimulus is stronger with explosive work, since exercises like alternate-leg bounding are more sport-specific than lunges or squats with weights.
So, what does a real implementation of each of these types of training look like? Because Jung’s review didn’t cite any studies of circuit training in distance runners, below I’ve reproduced a circuit workout found in our Strength Training for Runners Guide that uses body weight only (there is also a medicine ball version) Videos and .pdfs with image stills are provided in the guide:
Body weight circuit training for runners
1. Mountain climbers doubles x 10
2. Mountain climbers singles x 10 each leg
3. Mountain climbers singles out x 10 each leg
4. Mountain Climbers Doubles out x 10
Jog 800 meters
5. Push ups x 15
6. Burpees x 10
7. Hip thrusts x 10 each leg
8. Pike Press x 15
Jog 800 meters
9. Prone with twist x 10 reps each side
10. Running motion v-ups x 60 seconds
11. Back extensions x 15
12. Mason Twists x 20 each side, 40 total
Jog 800 meters
13. Lunges w/turn x 10 each leg
14. Push-up walk x 15 seconds total
15. V-ups x 15 reps
16. Squat jumps x 15 reps
By keeping each exercise dynamic, specific, and constantly moving we’re able to combine an aerobic workout with strength training.
Circuit training is especially helpful for beginner runners or injury prone athletes who aren’t ready to handle an increase in volume but who want to do more to improve their running long-term. Not only will this routine provide you with a dynamic way to gain aerobic fitness, it will strengthen your running muscles so you can increase your volume with less injury risk.
Traditional weight training routine for runners
The research on traditional weight lifting comes from a 1997 study by Johnston et al.2 Six female distance runners underwent a 10-week strength program with weight sessions three times a week. Each exercise was performed either on a machine or with free weights. Participants alternated between workouts A and B, below, on alternate workout days. Recovery between exercises was approximately two minutes.
At the conclusion of the study, cardiovascular markers like VO2 max had not changed, but the experimental group’s running economy jumped by 4% while the control group showed no improvement.
Here is another sample from our Strength Training for Runners Guide called the Zeus Gym Routine (Videos and .pdfs with image stills are provided in the guide):
1. Single leg squats x 6
2. Lat pull downs x 12
3. Box step ups x 6
4. Upright rows x 12
5. Hip flexor cable machine x 12
6. Dips x 12
7. Pawback hamstring x 8
8. Dead lifts x 6
9. Calf raises x 8
These are specific gym exercises are designed to increase your ability to generate maximum muscle power and thus decrease the effort required to sustain sub maximal efforts (i.e. distance running) for long periods of time.
For most leg exercises, you’ll aim for 4-6 reps. The 4-6 rep range allows for maximum muscle overload and will recruit the most muscle fibers leading to increased strength. Because rep ranges are shorter, all your mental energy is set on doing just 4-6 repetitions and therefore psychological intensity is maximized allowing you to achieve better muscle overload.
For weights, use a weight that allows you to complete 4-6 repetitions, but going for a 7th would be too much. You should perform each set so that you are not physically able to complete another without assistance. This means that you should not use forced reps for more than one rep, or even better, try not to do forced reps at all.
Some exercises are better performed with lighter weights and higher reps – and are indicated as such. Use a lighter weight that allows for completion of the full repetition recommendation. For these exercises and muscle groups, we don’t need to develop maximum strength, but do want to improve endurance and athleticism.
Because each set requires heavy weights with maximum intensity rest times should be 2-3 minutes. Start this routine with 1 set and work up to 2 sets for each exercise once you become familiar with the routine.
Plyometric training for runners
Finally, the research from an explosive training study comes from a 1999 paper by Paavolainen et al. at the KIHU-Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Finland.3 In this study, ten endurance athletes trained for nine weeks, replacing about 30% of their normal running training with explosive strength training. A control group of eight athletes did almost no ancillary training.
At the conclusion of the study, the experimental group had dropped 3.1% off their 5k time and boosted their running economy by 8%.
To help you get started, here is yet again another sample from our Strength Training for Runners Guide. This is our Hades Plyometric Routine:
1. Water pump x 15 each leg
2. Water pump hops x 15 each leg
3. Height skips x 15 each leg
4. Ankle jumps x 15 total
5. Jumps for distance x 15 total
6. 1 leg connect four x 3 cycles each leg
7. Toe taps x 15 each leg
8. Rocket jumps x 15 total
9. Split squats x 10 each leg
Because of this explosive requirement, plyometrics are the last building-block of a successful strength training regimen and should only be implemented once a runner has developed a solid foundation. Furthermore, it is essential that you practice good form when performing these exercises.
Each type of strength routine has its place in training.
- Explosive training seems to be the most beneficial for running economy, probably since it is the most like real running. The running stride itself is a high-speed plyometric exercise, so it would make sense that light weights and fast movements would be most relevant. Indeed, one of the “explosive training exercises” is sprinting!
- Traditional weight lifting appears to benefit running economy as well, with the added benefit of improving neuromuscular coordination and anaerobic performance. That’s likely why weight lifting is a core component of sprint training.
- Finally, circuit training adds a cardiovascular component to supplemental exercises, so it can be useful if you are just getting back into shape or don’t have much running experience under your belt.
In your own training, it is wise to begin with lower volume or lower intensity strength routines like circuits and traditional weight lifting before jumping into high-intensity explosive strength or plyometric routines, especially if you don’t have a history of strength training. Explosive lifting necessitates strong forces being transmitted through your muscles, tendons, and bones, so you might risk injury by jumping into it too quick. It’s also probably a good idea to keep your running mileage stable while upping your strength workouts.
If you want specific prescriptions, you can find 16-week progressions for race distances from 5k to the marathon, beginners, weight loss, minimalist transition, and general fitness as part of our Strength Training Guide.
2. Johnston, R. E.; Quinn, T. J.; Kertzer, R.; Vroman, N. B., Strength Training in Female Distance Runners: Impact on Running Economy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 1997, 11 (4), 224-229.
3. Paavolainen, L.; Häkkinen, K.; Hämäläinen, I.; Nummela, A.; Rusko, H., Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology 1999, 86, 1527-1533.