How Strength Training Can Make You a Better Runner

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How Strength Training Can Make You a Better Runner
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Back in college I stumbled upon running as a simple, inexpensive, and quick way to get in a workout. Little did I know that 20 years later I would be focused on race times, weekly mileage, and preventing injuries. The more I ran, the more I loved it. But I also found that the more I ran, the more I got injured.

After a hip injury that required surgery at just 28 years old, I realized that if I wanted to continue running, I needed to find a way to stop getting injured. Luckily, through research and experience, I came across strength training, which has completely transformed my running for the better. Not only has it helped to prevent any more major injuries, but it’s also allowed me to increase my mileage and run faster times.

Don’t just take my word for it. I’ve worked with dozens of runners who agree that strength training has improved their running. Not only that, but the research supports the benefits of strength training for runners too. 

All runners should strength train because it will help prevent injuries, keep you healthy, and help you run longer and faster. With all the clear benefits of strength training for runners, there’s really no reason not to give it a try!

How Strength Training Can Make You Faster

How Strength Training Can Make You a Better Runner
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In his book, Running Periodization, renowned running coach and exercise physiologist Dr. Jason Karp discusses the neuromuscular benefits of strength training, which is basically the connection between your brain and your muscles. 

“Increasing muscle strength will increase power, which is the product of force (strength) and speed,” writes Karp. For runners to get maximum benefits from strength training, they should focus on training with heavy weights and explosive movements.

Karp shares that runners who are new to weight lifting should start out with lighter weights and more repetitions, and then progress to heavier lifting. He also suggests that runners lift on the same days as their harder running workouts, so that easy run days can truly be easy recovery days. 

If possible, try to strength train at least 4 hours after your run so that your body can recover from the run and you can still get in a quality strength training session. Some runners find that completing a hard running workout in the morning and then lifting in the afternoon works well. Running at maximal effort could be impaired for up to 48 hours after lower-body resistance training, so try to schedule an intense running workout at least two days after your strength training.

A 2017 study of well-trained female athletes found that strength training workouts can improve VO2 max, or aerobic capacity. VO2 max is important because it measures how much oxygen you breathe in while exercising hard. The faster your body can process oxygen, the faster you can potentially run (although other factors play a part in this too). 

Studies show that heavy strength training, explosive resistance training, and plyometrics can affect performance positively if performed two to three times per week. 

Strength Training and Running Economy

Running economy is the amount of oxygen that your body uses to maintain a certain pace. The lower your running economy, the harder running will feel. Research suggests that running economy can be improved with strength training. Basically, strength training can make running feel easier!

A review of research found that explosive training and heavy weight training can improve running economy within a few weeks, but that long-term training in this style seems to be the most helpful. So find a plan that works for you, and stick with it!

How Strength Training Can Prevent Running Injuries

In my opinion, runners need to strength train to prevent injuries. If you’re hurt, you can’t run, and if you can’t run, you can’t get faster. Last year, I had an athlete come to me at 60 years old, ready to give up on running. Every time she tried to run, she got hurt. She figured her running years were over, but wanted to give it one last shot by working with a running coach.

I put her on a progressive run/walk plan while incorporating two days of strength training per week with mobility exercises and specific rehab work for her problem areas. Within six weeks, she was shocked by the progress she had made. She was finally able to run without pain! A few months later, she ran a half-marathon and set a personal best. She has big running plans and wants to continue doing half-marathons. So keep in mind that it’s never too late to see the benefits of starting a strength training program.

In fact, a review on strength training as a way to prevent sports injuries found that a 10% increase in strength training volume reduced the risk of injury by more than four percentage points. The reduction in injury risk in this study is likely due to improved coordination, enhanced technique, and strengthening of tissues. By increasing strength training volume and intensity, athletes were able to reduce their risk of sports-related injuries.

Bonus: Strength Training Improves Your Overall Health

How Strength Training Can Make You a Better Runner
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If better running isn’t enough to convince you to start strength training, check out the benefits to your overall health. A research review of strength training on health found evidence that resistance training is: “effective in enhancing several important aspects of physical and mental health.” These benefits include (but are not limited to): 

  • increase in lean (muscle) mass and metabolic rate 

  • decrease in body fat  

  • reduction in low back pain 

  • decrease in joint pain 

  • reduction in resting blood pressure 

  • improved bone density 

  • decrease in symptoms of depression 

  • improved cognitive ability.

How to Incorporate Strength Training Into Your Running Routine

My best advice when starting a strength training routine is to keep it simple. Aim for two 30-minute sessions per week of full-body strength work. If you have any trouble spots or have been injured in the past, you may want to do a few extra exercises throughout the week to address those issues.

Make sure you take at least one full rest day per week. It may be a bit more challenging to schedule strength training into your routine if you’re training for a race, but one option is to strength train on the same day as a run. For runners incorporating harder workouts like speed work or tempo runs, you may want to try lifting on the same days as those workouts to allow your body to recover fully on your easy/rest days. Just make sure to do your run before any strength training when you’re training for a race (since running performance is your main focus). 

If you’re building a fitness base or just starting out with combining running and strength training, you can alternate your strength and cardio days. Keep in mind that when you’re starting to strength train, you may feel some soreness. This should go away as your body adapts to the new routine. If you’re particularly sore after a hard workout, you may want to take an additional rest day to allow your body time to recover. Now that you know how important it is for runners to strength train, make sure to incorporate it regularly into your routine. A few strength sessions per week will pay huge dividends for your running as well as your overall health.

Read more: The 12 Best Strength Training Exercises for Runners (& How They Help)

If you need help with strength training, get a free consultation with a personal trainer who can create a customized strength training program to help you become a better runner.