Strength training for runners | Why it’s different than weight training

Wendy Rivard

For Wendy Rivard, running is a lifestyle. She’s ran 20 half-marathons, four marathons, and countless 5ks. Even her blog, Taking the Long Way Home, documents her running exploits.

But when injuries began to hold her back, she turned to strength training.

“I have noticed a huge difference in my running,” she said. “My legs and glutes are so much stronger.”

Focusing on squats, deadlifts, and CrossFit-type movements, Wendy said she saw the effects almost immediately, PR-ing in the Chicago Marathon by 1 hour and 10 minutes over her previous time.

“It was amazing and I was forever sold on this approach,” she said. “I can’t quite believe the amount of weight my coaches have me lifting. The cool thing is that when I’m running, I can actually feel my glutes engage.”

Wendy Rivard lifting

Injury free and stronger than ever, the 55-year-old mother of two said she thinks all runners should embrace strength training.

“Yes, miles on the road are important, but my endurance has really improved from the work I’ve done with weights,” she said. “I truly believe that my best running has come since I’ve been strength training. It’s incredibly rewarding to continue to hit paces that I used to run in my 30s.”

Why strength train

Historically, strength training in endurance sports has largely been absent, write Don Fink and Melanie Fink, co-authors of “IronFit: Strength Training and Nutritions for Endurance Athletes.”

The notion that bigger muscles and bulking up would hinder athletes, the authors write, was held by many coaches and runners.

But when those athletes faced injury, physical therapists turned to strength training for rehab exercises. Instead of using strength training post-injury, the Finks write, experts began to use strength training to prevent injury.

Don’t miss: Benefits of lifting heavy

The benefits became quickly obvious. In addition to improving injury rates, runners saw improvements in their race times, sprinters became more explosive off of the blocks, and on the whole, the runner becomes more stable.

Strength training for runners pin

How strength training differs for runners

Jim Inman and his team of coaches understand the importance of strength training for runners.

“Stand at the 20-mile mark of a marathon and notice the posture of the average age-group runner,” Jim said. “As they tire, they tend to scrunch forward as they lose support, shortening their stride and slowing their pace.”

Avoiding this breakdown in posture and stability is a key reason, Jim said, runners need strength training.

“Running is a very linear motion and on its own does very little for building the stabilization and support muscles around the lower body joints,” he continued. “If there is an imbalance here and the [central nervous system] senses instability around say the knee, the brain won’t allow the primary movement muscles to work to full capacity. More stability equals more power output.”

A lifelong athlete, Jim said he grew up playing football, hockey, tennis and ran track in high school. He began his distance running career at the age of 23 and completed four Ironman triathlons and 19 marathons with a PR of 2:52. He’s competed in multiple national championships in running and triathlon and competed in two Obstacle Course Racing World Championships.

In 2002, he opened his own athletic center, Elite Athletic Development, training endurance athletes. There, he instilled the gospel of strength in his athletes.

“We have accumulated over 125,000 athlete training hours since and have seen the results of intelligent, periodized functional training,” he said. “I managed to convince several of my clients to add strength training into their training programs and they saw almost immediate results.”

But training runners in strength is very different from training weightlifters. The runner’s goal is not to deadlift 500 pounds or PR her back squat.

Instead, experts say, runners strength train for strength endurance and functional movement.

“We want to see an athletic body in balance,” Jim said. “We would make changes for competitive runners in their strength programming around their racing season (periodization), but other than that their strength training would be very similar to all of our other athletes.”

Runner strength training exercises

A weightlifter and a runner walk into a gym. No, this isn’t the start of a bad joke.

Both athletes are working on strength, but may seek out different ways to achieve that goal. The weightlifter opts for the barbell — heavy sets for few reps.

The runner, on the other hand, may also head for the barbell, but she may prefer a more modest weight for higher reps.

Who’s doing the real strength training?

Trick question.  Each athlete has different goals and, therefore, different methods for achieving those goals. Each athlete is improving upon her strength, even if one is not looking to seek her maximum potential strength.

Best exercises for runners varies from expert to expert. The Finks recommend BOSU balls, lunges, and dumbbell deadlifts. Others encourage compound movements, such as traditional squats and deadlifts. Still others encourage exercises that only mimic the movement of runners or only turn to strength training after all types of running exercises have been exhausted.

For running coach Erin Whipple, it’s all about the core.

“To be a good runner, core strength is a must,” she said. “I think strength training for runners should focus on core strength number one, then legs and then upper body.”

A certified TRX instructor, Erin said she does at least two days of strength training per week.

“The off season is a great time to work on getting stronger,” she said. “As racing season comes into play the strength sessions shift to more maintenance and flexibility and mobility movements.”

Whatever the workout, Erin said strength training is a must.

“I believe it is the key to getting faster, developing explosive strength, stability and for staying injury free.”

19 Replies to “Strength training for runners | Why it’s different than weight training”

    1. Wendy, thank you for letting me feature you! It means so much that you trusted me to put you in the article. Keep going strong!

  1. I totally agree…strength training is key. I have one more “big” race (a half marathon this weekend), then I”ll just be doing “maintenance” running and shifting my focus more to strength work for the winter.

  2. What a great post. I find that if the core muscles are strong and engaged, the body is stable and injury is less likely to occur. All of the exercises I give to my runners focus on the core and stabilizer muscles, with functional drills to build on quad, hammie, and calf strength.

    Great post!

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