Strength Training for Runners

Strength training is an important component of all major sports. By strengthening the primary and secondary muscle groups, you’re enabling your body to do more work with less perceived effort. Strength training also decreases the chances of injury, as stronger muscles will be able to absorb more stress and shock from exercise. Muscles are just one player on our body’s “team”. Muscles work together with our tendons, bones, and joints to facilitate our movement. In the sport of running, we want these movements to be fast, fluid, and sustainable…this is where strength building can help.

Running primarily uses the muscles on the back of our legs (hamstrings and calf). And while a strength training program should focus on these muscles, it should also include the supporting cast of…quadriceps, chest, arms, abdominals, and back muscles. If you look at some of the world’s elite distance runners, you’ll notice that they have a very lean body mass. Strength training does not have to add bulk. By using multiple-repetition exercises that use our own body weight (isometric), we can strengthen our muscles without bulking up.

Strength workouts do not need to use steel plates and gym equipment, and sometimes the best way to strengthen our muscles is to replicate the movements that we’re actually training for. For example, running itself is strength training. Running up hills and running speed workouts are great ways to strengthen our leg muscles and will likely have a greater impact on our overall performance than working out our leg muscles in the gym with steel plates.

Running hills strengthen our leg muscles by the added benefit of lifting our own weight up the hill while running the distance to the top. When you run a hill workout, focus on your form: pump your arms at your side (not across your chest); breath in a cadence or fluid manner; shorten your stride and spring off of your toes as you climb the hill. You should feel the hill workout in your calf muscles the most. Make sure you take a rest period between hill intervals, and include a warm-up and cool-down jog on either side of the hill intervals. Hills are a great strength training workout for running. Add them to the front-end of your training plan, whether you use your local terrain or a treadmill. Don't do more than one hill workout per week (mixed in with your other running workouts).

Training ourselves to run faster can be a lot less complicated than we make it out to be. If we gradually train our bodies to run faster through intervals, fartleks, and other speed workouts, we will get faster. Strength conditioning through speed work is more than a leg muscle workout. It’s a cardiovascular workout that increases our cardio (heart) and pulmonary (lung) abilities. Speed training also increases the muscle’s ability to process lactic acid which can prepare us to run faster and farther for a longer period of time. If you want a conditioning program that builds speed, be sure to include a track and stop watch in your weekly routine.

Below are some other strength training exercises for runners that can be done in just minutes a day, with little or no equipment:

  • Hamstrings: Leg curls & Squats
  • Quadriceps: Leg lifts & Squats
  • Calf: Heel raises
  • Feet: Toe curls
  • Gluteal & Hip Flexors: Squats & Flutter kicks
  • Abdominals: Crunches & Flutter kicks
  • Chest: Push-ups (vary hand position to target different muscles)
  • Back & Shoulders: Pull-ups
  • Arms: Chin-ups & Push-ups

Descriptions and guidance on the above exercises can be found on the Exercise 101, Leg Exercises, and Ab Exercises pages.

You can modify and personalize your strength building program to meet your specific needs. For distance runners, the time spent on hill workouts and lactate-threshold workouts (intervals) are probably the best investment of your time. The calisthenics above can be supplemented during the week for added muscle toning and strength building. These exercise programs are a good way for runners to vary their workouts and avoid injury by taking some strain off of over-worked tendons. Take some time to see where you can fit these workouts into your routine.

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