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The Importance of Strength Training for Runners - Strength Exercises for Endurance Athletes

The Importance of Strength Training for Runners - Strength Exercises for Endurance Athletes

Read Time • 6 Min
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People who like to run often don’t focus on strength training. In fact, many runners avoid strength training because they don’t want to bulk up, gain weight, and think they may decrease their flexibility, which may negatively affect their performance.  This is an unfortunate misperception, as strength training can actually improve running performance. 

Optimally, there should be a balance between running/endurance training and strength training.  Strength training can allow a runner to increase their workload and run longer, faster, and harder. Strength training increases muscle strength and can decrease the risk of injury as it increases connective tissue strength, which can allow the body to be a more durable and adaptable system.  But what kind of strength training is recommended for runners?

More: Strength training for runners: Exercises you can do to become a better runner

One great option may be resistence training, since runners may not want to add muscle mass and muscle bulk, but could improve their muscular strength, improve muscular endurance, maintain current muscle mass, improve pre-habilitation to decrease risk of injury, and tackle post-rehabilitation after an injury occurs.  Runners, in particular, are prone to a variety of injuries, including (but not limited to): Achilles tendonitis, low back pain, calf strain, hamstring strains/injuries, iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, groin pull, etc.  A good strength training program can help to decrease the risk of injury or the severity of the injury that does occur. 

Strength training can help to improve coordination, which helps to improve efficiency of movement.  Another major benefit of strength training may be improvement of your "running economy" - which is defined as the ability to consume oxygen at a steady state. Poor running economy can occur when fatigue sets in and form deteriorates.  Running form is not only how strong your legs are or how your legs move, but it also involves your core/abdominal muscles and your upper body strength.  If you don’t have good posture while you are running, then your form will suffer and this will cause an increase in energy expenditure needed for the run, which will - in turn - cause fatigue to set in sooner. Strength training can help to improve the longevity of continuous movement which occurs in running.  

Running involves multi-joint actions and involves multiple muscles working to maintain control and balance. Resistance training can help improve control, coordination, and stability, which can improve the quality of running.  Strength training can help increase push off, increase the ability to resist eccentric forces during heel strike, and improve core stability, which can improve running posture.  

Related: 8 Week Maintenance/Cross Training Program - Many marathon runners have used this program to improve their performance. This program has workouts scheduled 3 days a week to complement endurance training workouts.

Strength training can also improve running mechanics.  The more efficient the system works, the better runner someone can become.  Strength training can make the body work more efficiently, which may allow a runner to train longer and run faster, achieving results they may not have thought possible. Increased muscle mass also helps to burn calories faster, which can make your workout more efficient in the sense that you don’t have to run as long to get the results you want.  

Strength training is important for many reasons and should be incorporated into runners’ workout regimens. It should generally be performed on days that running is not performed, making sure to save at least 1-2 days a week for rest & healing.

What exercises should endurance runners do to improve performance?

There are a variety of exercises that can be performed to enhance strength that will specifically improve running economy.  In order to improve strength of the quadriceps and hip musculature and improve balance, split squats and lunges should be performed. Leg curls standing or with a Swiss ball lying down can help to improve strength and stability in the glutes, hamstrings, and low back.  Bench press can help to improve pectoralis and triceps strength, which can enhance running form. Dumbbell squats with press can help to improve overall body strength and power.  Core exercises should be performed in order to improve abdominal and core strength. Core exercises can consist of a plank exercise or a side plank with knee pull.  A standing single leg row with 1 arm and 1 leg can help to develop upper-back strength and improve hip stability and will focus on improving strength of the Latissimus dorsi, trapezius and deltoids. Other exercises that are used to strengthen muscles that will enhance running include standing single leg heel raise to improve gastrocnemius strength and backward heel walking to improve balance and anterior tibialis strength.  Jumping and hopping and agility type activities can also improve power and explosiveness for running. 

Example workouts to mix in with your endurance training

If you are a runner, you may want to re-think the myths that strength training will bulk you up and slow you down, since strength training can, in fact, improve your running efficiency and economy

Written by L. Augustyn, Physical Therapist