The effectiveness of strength training for runners – the latest research
Distance 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!