The effectiveness of strength training for runners – the latest research

strength training for runners researchDistance runners are near legendary for their aversion to strength training, and for good reason. Many successful coaches and athletes in the past made a point to avoid strength training. The philosophical debate over the place of strength work (especially heavy weight training) has gone on for quite a while, and it’s spurred a range of research on the topic. That’s where we turn our attention today: what does the scientific literature have to say about strength training for runners?

Research on strength training for runners

As with research on most training interventions, the most basic studies of the effects of strength training on running performance use recreational runners. They are relatively easy to find and are not likely to be doing any strength training already—it’d be quite hard to have a “control group” of elite runners who had not done any strength work for several months before the study.

Result of light strength work on running performance

In Sato and Mokha’s (20091) study, 28 recreational runners with 5k PRs just under 30 minutes were divided into an experimental and control group. During the six week experiment, both groups continued their normal training routines, but the experimental group was given a set of five exercises to be performed four times a week in 2-3 sets of 10-15 repeats each.

The exercises—crunches on an exercise ball, back extensions on an exercise ball, opposite arm-leg raises while lying on the stomach, hip “bridges” on an exercise ball, and “Russian twists” (twisting the torso side-to-side while in a sit-up position) on an exercise ball—were all targeted at the hip and torso muscles, which are thought to contribute to stability while running.

The researchers hoped that strengthening these muscles would lead to better running form and a performance boost to boot. Interestingly, the exercise program did not lead to improvements in running form, but did lead to a moderate improvement in running performance. The experimental group dropped their 5k time by 47 seconds, while the control group only improved 17 seconds.

An astute observer might question whether the performance boost was simply due to the recreational runners taking on more training and achieving better general fitness instead of a running-specific improvement. If this is the case, perhaps any physical intervention (moonlighting as a bricklayer, for example) would improve running performance for recreational runners.

Strength work plus additional training

This was one question addressed in a 2010 study by Alexander Ferruati and his colleagues at Ruhr University in Germany.2 Twenty two recreational runners (no information was provided on their race times, but their normal training consisted of about 40min of running per day) were split into two groups. Both groups added a 9-mile “tempo run” at about 5-10% slower than marathon pace to their weekly training schedule, but the experimental group also added two strength sessions: one targeting the upper body, and one targeting the lower body. Each session had five exercises, most of which were done on health-club style weight machines.

While both groups improved their fitness over the eight week study and the strength group became significantly stronger, neither group was better off than the other. The strength training did not noticeably affect running economy or oxygen intake.

While Ferruati’s study seems to be a tough blow to proponents of strength work, it deserves a second look. Runners rely primarily on their legs to propel them, and Ferruati et al. had their subjects doing only one session of leg strength a week.

Leg strength training for runners

A 2008 study by Øyvind Støren and coworkers in Norway examined a more rigorous program focusing on raw leg strength.3 Støren’s protocol was four sets of four half-squats with a barbell, three times a week with three minutes of recovery, with nearly the heaviest weight the subjects could manage.

Seventeen runners (nine men and eight women) with 5k bests in the 18:40-range partook, with nine in the experimental group and eight in the control group. All of the subjects carried out their normal training during the eight week study and underwent the usual battery of physiology tests before and after the study.

The results stand in contrast to Ferruati’s study: Støren’s subjects displayed no increase in oxygen intake but a 5% increase in running economy and a startling 21% improvement in a treadmill run to exhaustion at somewhat faster than 3k race pace vs. the control group, who had no improvement on either mark. Støren et al. chalk up the improvements to increased muscular efficiency.

The runners who completed the half-squat protocol not only became stronger, but also more powerful—they were able to generate force much more quickly after the strength program. The researchers proposed that this allowed them to have a “quicker” stride and save energy while running.

Strength training and elite runners – does it work

Still, one criticism remains: is this sort of training useful for someone whose body is already developed to a very high level of fitness? Physiology studies on elite athletes are notoriously difficult to find, since elite runners are exceedingly picky (and rightfully so!) about their training.

Fortunately for us, one extraordinary study by Philo Saunders and his coworkers at the Australian Institute of Sport4 managed to round up fifteen elite runners and have seven of them undergo a nine-week explosive lifting and jump training program. All of the runners had 3km PRs around 8:30 (equivalent to well under 15 minutes for 5km) and six of them had competed internationally.

Accordingly, the strength program they did was fairly comprehensive: three sessions a week, split between gym exercises like the leg press, hamstring curls, and back extension, and outdoor sessions done on grass consisting of bounding, skipping, double-legged hurdle jumping, and scissor jumps. As usual, both groups continued with their normal training.

At the conclusion of the study, the strength program group displayed a 4% increase in running economy at fast speeds and a smaller, non-statistically significant increase in running economy at slower speeds vs. the control group. Just like in Støren et al., these elite runners also were able to generate force more quickly, which probably accounts for their improved economy.

What you can take away from this research on strength training

In summary, it seems that the benefit of strength training for the distance runner hinges on the intensity and frequency of the exercises. A moderate, once-a-week excursion to the gym to use a few weight machines is unlikely to result in significant gains, but a more intense program focusing on an effective, targeted strength routine three times a week is a great idea for runners of all fitness levels.

If you’re interested in adding strength training to your running schedule, we’ve created the ultimate Strength Training Guide for Runners. With 18 running-specific routines (each provided in .pdf and video format), specific prescriptions for how to include in your training (5k, 10k, HM, marathon, beginners, weight loss) and interviews with experts in strength training for runners, you’ll have absolutely everything you need to plan, develop, and understand how strength training fits into YOUR training. Get yours now!

If you are strapped for time and can’t get in the various exercises the elite runners did in the Saunders study, you’re still likely to see significant benefits from including 5-7 minute strength routines after your runs. We also provide two general strength and one cool down routine gleaned from these studies in our strength training for runners guide.

If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s that you shouldn’t bother going halfway on weights!

If so, please join over 2,500 runners who receive exclusive running tips, and get a FREE COPY of my Marathon Training eBook! Just enter your name and email

References

1. Sato, K.; Mokha, M., Does core strength training influence running kinetics, lower-ectremity stability, and 5000-m performance in runners? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2009, 23 (1), 133-140.
2. Ferruati, A.; Bergermann, M.; Fernandez-Fernandez, J., Effects of a Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training on Running Performance and Running Economy in Recreational Marathon Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2010, 24 (10), 2770-2778.
3. Støren, Ø.; Helgerud, J. A. N.; Støa, E. M.; Hoff, J. A. N., Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy in Distance Runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2008, 40 (6), 1087-1092.
4. Saunders, P. U.; Telford, R. D.; Pyne, D. B.; Peltola, E. M.; Cunningham, R. B.; Gore, C. J.; Hawley, J. A., Short-term Plyometric Training Improves Running Economy in Highly Trained Middle and Long Distance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2006, 20 (4), 947-954.

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6 Responses on “The effectiveness of strength training for runners – the latest research

  1. I like your approach on this post, a summary of studies with a progressive nature. I’m curious in the first study how one measures “form improvements”? And I’m also curious about the impact of strength training versus running more. Study 2 compares just adding running to adding running and strength training, but it would have been interesting to see that study be a 2X2 factorial, comparing baseline with baseline + running, baseline + strength training, and baseline + running and strength training. For runners who face time constraints, which will be there better investment – running more or strength training? I don’t think that has been answered in any of the studies you cite.
    Frankly for many runners, a good strength training regimen’s main benefit may be in reducing injury risk. Thus allowing more running.

    • Great points all around, Greg. I’m always amazed at the quality, or should I say lack thereof, of most running studies. I too saw the immediate need for a good 2×2 factorial comparison. Given that the researchers already had most of the protocols in place, this seems like it would have been a no brainer.

      What a great question about runner’s facing a time commitment – strength training or running. While I’ll have to dig into science to support my claims, I definitely think an extra mile or two is better for long-term progression than a strength training session as long as that extra mile won’t get a runner hurt (there always has to be some “if” , right?). To me, because aerobic development is so critical to running performance (contributing more than 85% of the energy required to race distances 5k and above) and it really can’t be maxed out, I think it’s the best option.

      Finally, I totally agree about strength training being critical to reducing injury risk. As I eluded to on your blog, strengthening my soleus and lower leg muscles really helped me eliminate my achilles issues. If it weren’t for that, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to train at the level I did.

      Thanks for commenting on the post, always great to have your insights!

  2. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the feedback! In terms of “form improvements,” that study looked at the direction of the impact force when the runners hit the ground and their balance during a simulation of the “stance” phase of the stride. Essentially, the researchers were expecting to see less “wobble” in the horizontal direction of the impact force, and better stability during the stance phase. The logic there being that better trunk stability (in the abs and back) would improve those variables, but obviously that wasn’t the case.

    You make a very good point about strength and injury risk too. While none of these studies looked at training more INSTEAD of adding strength training, I agree that strength is important not only because it improves performance but it reduces injury risk too.

    –John

  3. Just wondering if you have a date when you’ll be releasing your guide to strength training? Very curious to see what it entails! Thanks!

    • Great question, Jenny. We’re looking for a June 1st release date. Hopefully, we can get it done sooner, but we’re working hard to get professionally edited videos done for each routine. We’re trying to show all variations of each exercises, what mental cues to envision, and formatting for multiple platforms (iphone, video, pdf). We’ll be releasing some demos and beta versions if you sign up here: http://runnersconnect.net/strength-training-for-runners/

  4. Pingback: 36 Blogs to Help Women Train to be a 3-Day Walker

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