Wednesday, February 16, 2022
By: David Vargo, MedStar Health Strength and Conditioning Coach
Training to become a better runner is an arduous journey.
You dedicate hours per week to logging miles; each stride over the pavement bringing you closer to shaving seconds – or minutes – from your race times. Tempo runs, hills, sprints, and intervals all cycle in and out of your arsenal.
Your nutrition is dialed in, and your recovery habits are on point.
Though the process is challenging, you’ve been here before, and you know exactly what to do to get the needle to move.
Well, until the needle slows. Or stops.
As you continue pressing forward, the inevitable plateau will come. Or – even worse – a new or nagging injury surfaces. It’s disheartening and can derail your training.
So, what do you do in-season to bulletproof your body and help keep road blocks at bay?
Even more so, what do you do in your offseason, or periods of time when your mileage is significantly reduced?
I mean, besides admire your wall of glimmering medals and trophies.
This is where focusing on building strength comes into play.
Lifting weights is the not-so-hidden gem that many distance athletes steer clear of. It’s long been a polarizing topic among the running community, yet remains the “low hanging fruit” in which disproportionate benefits can be gained to the time and effort put in.
When implemented properly, strength training improves rate of force development, running economy, and helps prepare the body for the accumulated stress of pounding out miles.
Put simply, strength training gives your body better raw materials to do what you already know how to do.
Here’s a breakdown of the biggest benefits of lifting for runners:
Strength Training Helps Reduce Injuries.
Notice I said reduce, not prevent. The truth is, you can’t truly prevent injuries, BUT you can certainly reduce their likelihood.
Lifting heavy things increases muscle, tendon, and ligament tensile strength. Perfect for armoring your muscles and joints to the repeated stress of long runs.
In addition, uncovering and addressing weak areas of the body can help clean up existing injuries, and prevent them from rearing their ugly heads when you’re deep into a training block.
In fact, a 2013 meta-analysis involving over 26,000 subjects found that strength training “reduced [acute] injuries to less than a third, and overuse injuries could be almost halved.” (4)
The takeaway: Don’t skip leg day. Lift heavy things more and get hurt less.
Lifting Improves Running Performance and Economy.
It’s been shown that strength training has a significant impact on running economy. (1,3) Improving running economy means that your body will use less oxygen to maintain the same pace. Think of transforming your body from a gas-guzzling truck into a fuel-stingy Honda.
This also leads to an improved time to exhaustion – all after just 8 weeks of strength work. (3)
Improvements in performance can also be realized through greater rate of force (RFD) development. In other words, getting stronger – particularly in your lower body – will allow you to put more force into the ground in less time for each stride.
Considering the average marathon consists of more than 30,000 strides, I’d say it’s MORE than worth it to maximize the ground you cover with each contact, right?
The takeaway: Getting stronger allows you to work more efficiently to cover the same distance.
The When, The Where, and The How.
Though it might make sense on paper to lift on the same days as your easy runs to “spread out” your weekly training intensity, I’d caution against this.
Not only will you put yourself at a higher risk for mental burnout, but injury as well. Especially early in the process, before you’ve had a chance to build up a solid base of strength.
In addition, you’ll find that dedicating a few days per week to ONLY easy runs will leave you feeling fresher and – when done the day after a strength day – will help facilitate recovery and alleviate muscle soreness.
Below is a sample 2-day/week program that focuses on key multi-joint, high “bang for your buck” exercises. Pay close attention to the rep ranges for each and be sure to use a weight that will leave no more than 2-3 reps left in the tank per set.
Remember, strength is the goal here, so aiming for a 7-8 out of 10 effort-wise for each set is a solid target.
Also note that – although this is a well-rounded starting point – every athlete is different and will have unique strengths and weaknesses that will affect their program.
1A: Dumbbell Split Squat – 3 sets 8 reps/side
1B: Pushup – 3 sets 8-10 reps (elevated if needed)
2A: Hip Thrust – 3 sets 8-12 reps
2B: Dumbbell 1-Arm Row – 3 sets 8-12 reps
2C: Bear Crawl – 3 sets 10-15 reps/side
1A: Kettlebell or Trap Bar Deadlift – 3 sets 6-8 reps
1B: Dumbbell Incline Press – 3 sets 8 reps
2A: Lateral Lunge – 3 sets 8 reps
2B: Lat Pulldown – 3 sets 8-12 reps
2C: Side Plank – 3 sets 20-30 sec/side
But what do I do in-season?
Clearly, I enjoy lifting heavy things and telling others to do the same, BUT it’s important to know when to scale it back.
If the goal is to improve your race times, then strength training will absolutely take a back seat to running at certain times of the year, BUT it shouldn’t leave the car completely. It is possible AND necessary to get at least one lift in per week in order to maintain movement quality and hang on to as much strength as you can while your weekly mileage begins to climb.
But, if at any point, your lifts are interfering with your ability to get appropriate time on the pavement, then their intensity needs to be adjusted so that you’re able to recover appropriately to accommodate your runs.
Regardless of the sport or activity, the foundation from which all of its unique qualities are drawn will always be strength.
Want to run faster and longer?
Want to stay healthy and resilient?
Want to just be a better athlete overall?
Go out and lift something.
1. Balsalobre-Fernández C, Santos-Concejero J, Grivas GV. Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Aug;30(8):2361-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001316. PMID: 26694507.
2. Beattie K, Carson BP, Lyons M, Rossiter A, Kenny IC. The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jan;31(1):9-23. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001464. PMID: 27135468.
3. Støren O, Helgerud J, Støa EM, Hoff J. Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Jun;40(6):1087-92. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318168da2f. PMID: 18460997.
4. Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM, Andersen LB. The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Sports Med. 2014 Jun;48(11):871-7. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092538. Epub 2013 Oct 7. PMID: 24100287.