Tips for Building a Strength Training Plan for Runners
Recently I’ve received a number of emails asking how best to build a specific strength training plan for runners. Many readers have asked me to describe how to plan core exercises for runners into a marathon training schedule. Well, the fact you’re even asking the question about strength training for distance runners gets the first big thumbs-up from me!
If you’re one of the runners who messaged me – thank you! It made me sit down and write this article, at last. I’ve been meaning create this strength training guide for a long time.
Despite the compelling evidence supporting the inclusion of strength training in a runner’s programme, there are still plenty of runners who just run. Are you one of the many runners who do no additional strength trainiong to help yourself develop as all-around balanced athlete?
Believe me, I get it… Above all else, us runners just want to run!
However, with my injury rehab background, I’m acutely aware of the one biggest factor that limits so many runners – injury.
It’s a frustrating reality that injury rates are incredibly high amongst runners; some sources suggest that over 75% of runners get injured each year. No wonder that when speaking to any given runner, the conversation often turns to injury.
Strength Training to Prevent Running Injuries
Most of the common running injuries I see fall into the ‘overuse’ category, where some sort of movement dysfunction or soft tissue imbalance has been exacerbated by the highly repetitive and hight impact activity of running mile after mile. It’s not the marathon itself that breaks most runners, it’s the necessary mile after mile in training before you even make the start line.
ITB syndrome, plantar fasciitis, shin splints… the list goes on. These are all running injuries I’m guaranteed to see lots of during marathon training season. All of them overuse related. All of them largely avoidable.
Strength training for injury prevention in runners is an area of relative dearth in terms of scientific research, as Running Physio Tom Goom discusses here. However a relatively recent meta-analysis from Danish researchers Lauersen et.al. suggests that strength training has a positive effect on reducing overuse injuries in athletes (not runners specifically though).
That said, years of experience has shown me that getting a runner onto an appropriate strength training programme has a powerfully positive effect on their ability to remain injury free.
Performance Benefits of Strength Training for Runners?
I could easily write the rest of this article with a heavy slant towards the performance benefits of strength training for runners. Studies (here and here for example) have provided sound evidence for the performance benefits for strength training for distance runners.
But in my experience, it’s not the marginal performance gains that most runners are concerned about when it comes to marathon training…
Having asked literally hundreds of runners what they’re most concerned about when looking at their marathon training plan, the vast majority answer something along the lines of:
“I just want to get through this marathon training block injury free…”
It’s a justified concern. You may well be reading this nodding your head?
If so, what follows will hopefully provide a helpful resource to help you combine your running schedule with an effective strength training plan…
Ten Tips for Effective Strength Training for Distance Runners
Here are a list of tips which will help you more effectively implement strength training and core training for runners into your marathon training plan:
#1: The Little & Often Approach Works
Let’s get this straight; I’m not expecting you to find the time to add a couple ninety-minute gym sessions to your existing weekly running schedule. In fact, if you’re running four-to-six days per week, the chances of this happening are remote at best in my experience.
The work-life-training balance is a delicate thing, after all!
However, if you can just dedicate 2-4 blocks of twenty-five minutes per week to completing a handful of targeted core exercises for runners, in your lounge, office, bedroom, home gym after a run session your body will feel the benefits.
#2: Don’t Compromise Your Recovery
Given how different various marathon training schedules are, the advice for where best to place your strength and core sessions will be different from person to person.
In many cases, I get runners to complete their strength and core exercises on the same day as a run session, post-run. Leaving non-running days clear for some light active recovery, and rest. In other cases, I get the runner to do their strength and core workout on these non-running days… it really depends on the individual.
However, what I really want to convey is that you should make sure that you give your body an opportunity to recover as effectively as possible when a rest day is scheduled. One great way to do this is to do your strength training workouts on your moderate-to-low run training load days. By that I mean not high-intensity days, and not high volume days.
Example Training Week:
On this same topic, it’s worth me talking about the type of strength training for distance runners you should be doing during this period.
When it comes to more intensive strength training blocks, there’s definitely benefit in getting runners to work on pure strength. Lifting heavy a for relatively low number of reps (5 x 5 type training) of your typical compound movements: squats, deadlifts, etc…
However, marathon training is not the time for this kind of highly demanding work. This is the kind of work you could dedicate some months to at another time of the year while there are fewer imminent running goals in sight.
During your marathon specific training block, we should be looking to develop and maintain muscle balance and stability, and work to maintain mobility around key joints like the hips, as the miles take their toll on the body. Often bodyweight cross-training exercises for runners are adequate for achieving this.
#3: Train Your Upper Body
Obviously, our legs carry us as we run, so we need strong quads, calf muscles, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, etc. But don’t forget your upper body!
When it comes to posture in particular, we need to view the body as a whole. I’m certainly not trying to convince you that you need to develop bulging biceps and boulder-like shoulders. But you can get strong and remain lean.
I’m not saying you need to hit the bench press hard, in fact it’s the back muscles I’m more interested in developing as these are largely the muscles that hold us tall, and maintain posture as we run.
Exercises such as pull-ups and reverse flyes are so simple, but often ignored in place of working from the hips downwards.
Light is fast. But light and strong is faster!
#4: Stretch as well as Strengthen
A fair while ago I published an article with the title “Stretching Doesn’t Work…?“. If you’re one of the many who have bought into the hype surrounding all the research that supposedly tells us that runners shouldn’t stretch, I’d suggest giving the article a read… with an open mind!
I do like to be as evidence-based / evidence-informed as possible, but that doesn’t mean that experience is worthless. There’s a definite risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ when advising runners not to stretch.
Many of the overuse injuries I see in distance runners are multi-factorial in their causes, with muscular imbalance and lack of mobility in certain areas being big parts of the puzzle.
The important point to appreciate is that there is often a reason why a muscle gets tight; sometimes it’s protecting a poorly stabilised joint, or because it’s being overworked due to weakness elsewhere.
Please don’t view strength training for runners and stretching as being mutually exclusive. A good cross-training plan for runners will incorporate elements of both.
#5: Work Multiple Planes of Motion
Running is very much a linear movement, at least on the surface in comparison to the twisting and turning we see from athletes in sports such as football.
Dissect the vast number of movements involved in running gait, and you’ll soon realise that while the output is linear, the constituent movements of all the different joints of the body happen in all three planes of motion. There’s back and forth motion (sagittal plane), lateral movement (frontal plane) and rotational movement (transverse plane) occurring at every major joint.
As you can see in the video below, many of the weak links we see in runners occur in the frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) planes of motion. This ‘hip drop’ or Trendelenburg gait is a typical example of poor glute medius function on the standing leg.
As I’ve written about previously (Multiplanar Strength Exercises for Runners), our choices of strength exercises need to mirror this multiplanar movement. A good example is the crab walk exercise demonstrated in the video below:
Regular visitors to this site with know that I’m quite a stickler for technique when it comes to running. The same has to be said for the exercises intended to support your running too!
When it comes to strength training for distance runners, getting the exercises done is one a big part of the battle, but take the time to learn and execute great technique throughout each exercise. Take a single leg squat for example; as I describe in this article, there are subtle tweaks that can make the exercise more quad biased, and other tweaks that make it more glute biased.
Whatever the exercise, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to achieve – what that should feel like – and which cues to focus on to do so. You’re time and effort is precious, let’s get the most out of each exercise!
#7: Train Your Body Asymmetrically
Consider your running form for a moment. Whenever one leg is going backwards, the other is coming forwards, the same can be said for the arms. When your torso is rotated one way, your pelvis rotates the other… This asymmetrical and reciprocal repeats cyclically all over the body as we move from stride to stride.
In a similar but slightly different way, when we run we’re only ever supported on one leg, or no legs – unlike walking gait when we have the luxury of double limb support at times.
With these factors in mind, we can be specific with which types of exercise we choose when looking to develop more resilient running bodies.
Rather than standard squats and deadlifts with our legs working together in relative parallel, I always encourage runners to work on split squats and lunge variations where we work the hips in particular in different directions with each rep.
Take a split squat for example (or static lunge as some call it) – one of my favourite exercises when it comes to strength training for runners specifically – not only are we loading quads, glutes, hamstrings and adductors, we’re also developing stride length as we work the legs in opposite directions.
#8: Don’t Worry About Bulking-Up
I just quickly want to address one of the major objections I hear regularly when it comes to getting people into regular strength training workouts for runners. It’s understandable to many runners associate strength training in general with becoming muscle-bound and increasing bodyweight in such a way that will detrimentally affect their running.
It’s true that we all have different metabolisms, and that body weight is more of an ongoing battle for some that for others. But take it from me – an ex-rugby player who spent the best part of 10 years desperately trying to bulk-up: resistance training alone won’t suddenly make you gain significant muscle mass. You need to be eat big to get big!
Keep your diet in check, and your ‘strength training for distance runners’ plan will keep you strong and lean; a combination that equates to resilient and fast.
#9: Don’t Push Through Pain
This point is simple and leads into the next nicely. If an exercise hurts, stop. The best rule of thumb when it comes to strength training for distance runners, and running injuries, in general, is not to push through the pain. The vast majority of running injuries will get worse over time if you try to run through the pain, rather than better.
If you’re suffering with a pain or niggle as you run, get yourself to a physio and get it looked it properly assessed.
#10: Get a Physio Assessment
The most forward-thinking of runners won’t wait for injury to strike before getting assessed. Top athletes will have regular screenings from a physio to help make better informed choices about how their strength programme should look.
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t do the same!
If you’re currently training for a marathon and looking for a schedule of strength training workouts for runners to fit well alongside your training. Feel free to download this free plan using the link below:
I want to quickly address the topic of weight training for runners, as I am asked about it quite often, along with more specific queries about whether runners should perform exercises like heavy squats and deadlifts.
It’s not a black-and-white yes/no answer, as it really depends where the runner is in their training year. If you’re in the middle of a marathon training block, and your weekly mileage is building nicely, the last thing your legs are going to want is an extra session or two of heavy squats and deadlifts to recover from.
However, if you’re in a less focused, lower mileage period of your training year, getting to the gym and lifting heavy under the supervision of a personal trainer would be a great option.
I’m of the opinion that there are a huge number of runners who would benefit from developing the fundamental strength that a 8-12 week programme of heavy squats and deadlifts (and other compound exercises) will provide.
Instead of lifting light to moderate weights for high reps, as is the common wisdom amongst runners, aim to build up to heavy lifts of 4-6 reps, and perform 5 sets with lots of recovery. Here’s an article with more information on this rationale.
As with everything, technique is super-important when it come to lifting weights, so be sure to have somebody check your form.
Having trained as a sports rehabilitation therapist, James now works exclusively with distance runners, helping athletes from beginner to pro to run stronger and pain free. Check out James' marathon training plan for beginners [PDF]. Formerly a professional rugby player, James’ route into endurance sports coaching hasn’t exactly been conventional. His transition into distance running has taught him what his body is capable of, a process which is ongoing! Read more...