Updated: Jan 22
The age old recommendation for runners to improve performance has generally been...run more. Now, this isn’t terrible advice, and according to the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands), it’s actually pretty decent advice. But it generally is a reductionist view of endurance training and is quite myopic when considering the growing amount of literature looking at other training variables that can help runners. An analogy I often make with patients or clients is that only using running as a training method is like a soccer player only working on striking to improve soccer performance. There are more components to the game and different training methods can be taken advantage of to improve total performance.
Something that many runners are missing in their training plan is undoubtedly resistance training. Often demonized as a training method that will lead to decreased performance, an increase in injury risk, a decrease in flexibility, or an increase in weight, runners often stay away from the gym throughout their training cycle. These are mostly unfounded myths in the running world and actually opposite of the truth in many respects. This article aims to dispel some of the myths about resistance training for runners and give some helpful tips on how runners can implement strength training into their regimen.
Strength Training and Running Performance
Lets first examine the idea that resistance training will lead to a drop in performance and slowed times. More and more research is coming out on the benefits of resistance training in endurance athletes. From studies showing performance gainz to real world examples of world class athletes implementing strength training into their training programs, lifting weights is slowly gaining popularity in the endurance world. However, utilizing resistance training hasn't gotten its foothold in the endurance world as much as we would like.
One method of improved performance is how resistance training can improve running economy (RE). Running economy can be defined in a variety of ways, from cardiorespiratory economy, metabolic economy, mechanical economy (muscle, tendon, ligament), etc. But all the different definitions can be combined into a definition as the energy demand of running at a constant submaximal speed, of which several factors play a contributing role. RE is generally expressed as VO2 (oxygen consumption) at a given speed (vVO2). These improvements are generally a factor of increased muscle coordination, decreased ground contact time, an increase in muscle stiffness (not to be confused with a decrease in flexibility), among other factors. When resistance training is added to the mix, we generally see an improvement in RE due to an improvement in mechanical RE.
Another factor in the contribution of increased performance is an increase in strength of type I and type II muscle fibers. An increase in strength of these types of fibers allows for less recruitment of muscle fibers to create force x amount of force. If we look at running speed as a formula we see that:
stride rate x stride length = running speed
Increasing either variable would improve running speed, an objective component of increased performance. When we improve the force production capabilities of a muscle, we can allow for either an increase in stride length for a given amount of muscle recruitment, or a decreased amount of muscle recruitment for a given stride length. This would help decrease energy cost per stride/running velocity and allow more energy to be conserved for use towards the end of race kick, something most runners understand the importance of.
Lastly I will address the interference effect of the contrasting training types. The good news for runners is that endurance training has more of an effect on strength performance than strength performance has on endurance performance. This means that runners who lift weights won’t be negatively affected compared to powerlifters who incorporate running into their plan. Order of exercise is also important when considering the two types of training styles. If strength training is performed PRIOR to endurance bouts there is less interference, meaning if we go for a long run and plan on maxing out in the squat after we will undoubtedly see a decrease in performance. But, if we perform our resistance training session before running, the drop off in performance won’t be as noticeable for the training bout. The take home message is runners can confidently add in strength training to their program without the concern of it hampering their fitness gainz.
Strength Training and Injury Risk
In regards to injury risk, it is useful to observe how many injuries occur in runners. Depending on the training status of the individual, injury rate varies anywhere between 7.7 -17.8 injuries per 1000 exposure hours. Novice runners generally have higher injury rates (17.8/1000hrs) compared to their more experienced and trained counterparts (7.7/1000hrs). These rates start to seem more alarming when comparing the risk to other forms of physical activity. Resistance training, for example, has rates between 2-4 injuries per 1000 training hours. Football, a highly violent contact sport has an estimated 8.1 injuries per 1000 exposure hours.
The point of highlighting injury risk isn’t to show that running is an inherently dangerous sport, as there are many factors that contribute to the genesis of injuries, but to show that injuries DO happen among runners and a proactive approach can surely lower the injury risk and keep you on the road/course longer.
On the topic of injury risk and resistance training, injuries are not inherent to resistance training, as many commonly believe. “You’ll throw your back out” and “Squatting is bad for your knees” are two of the common quotes people hear when talking about strength training. The risk of injury, instead, often comes from programming (similar to the risk in running), or doing too much too soon. The human body is a robust and adaptable organism, and when given adequate time for recovery, it will adapt to the stresses applied to the system. When a properly implemented strength training regimen is added to an endurance program, injury risk can actually be DECREASED, which is something that should make the ears of runners perk up.
One factor that contributes to the decrease in injury risk is bone density. The feared stress fracture, commonly of the lower body (often in the foot or tibia) is something that plagues many runners. This is generally due to the muscles becoming too fatigued to absorb shock, leading to an increased force absorption in the bones themselves. Weight bearing activity is a known method of increasing bone mineral density via Wolff’s Law. Wolff’s law, something we’ve observed since the 19th century, states that the bones of a healthy organism will adapt under the load it’s placed. This means that during weight bearing activity, the bone mineral density will increase to better support the demand it’s been placed. This is why it is commonly recommended for older patients with osteoporosis to lift weights as it can decrease the risk of stress fractures.
As a compliment to Wolff’s Law, we can also take a look at Davis’ Law, which is basically the soft tissue version of Wolff’s Law. Soft tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia, and other joint structures) adapt under the imposed load. So, not only do bones become stronger after partaking in a resistance training program, but your tendons and ligaments also increase in strength and resilience as well. This is not only a contributing factor to a decrease in risk of injuries such as sprains and strains, but also contributes to an improvement in running economy and performance stated earlier.
Lastly, adding resistance training will play a role in decreasing the risk for overtraining, the bane of runner’s existence. Overtraining is a common factor when looking at the injury profile of runners. Doing too much too soon or doing too much over the course of a training block are some of the low hanging fruits when considering injury risk. If an injured runner reports to my office, the first place I generally look is attheir training program for any spikes in workload or intensity and the injury more commonly than not arises during high volume phases or when they are returning from the offseason. If we add resistance training 2x/week during certain periods of endurance training, not only does it take away from potentially harmful volume accumulation/overtraining by adding in variation to the training plan and helping dissipate fatigue built up from running bouts, it allows for more recovery from the repeated exposure of running and likely increasing performance potential for the running bouts throughout the training week. Adding in resistance training can also help reduce the staleness of running, as most runners can relate to how doing the same activity over and over again can eventually turn into a drag.
When implemented correctly, resistance training will improve bone mineral density, the strength of tendons, ligaments and fascia strength will improve, and the risk of overtraining can be decreased. Resistance training is a safe and effective way to decrease the risk of injury among runners on top of contributing to improved performances.
Strength Training and Weight Gain
It’s true that resistance training can contribute to an increase in muscle mass, but it’s not as simple as lift weights = get shredded. If that were the case, anyone who lifted weights would be jacked and wouldn’t be able to touch their opposite shoulder. Increases in muscle mass are largely a factor of genetics, a high training volume (in terms of weight lifted over the course of a training program), and a diet in a caloric surplus that provides the energy to build muscle tissue. A smart strength training program will not contribute to a significant increase in muscle mass for the majority of people, as the volume necessary for the desired strength adaptations aren’t as high as required for significant hypertrophy. On top of that, that concern can be further tampered by not overeating. Another thing to consider is strength training for runners is not done at the frequency of a body-building template. Resistance training for runners should be done 2-3x per week with total body workouts. If we are dedicating 2-3 sets per body area using medium to heavy weights twice per week it will be really hard to gain enough muscle to hamper performance on the track or on the roads.
An interesting research study examined the amount of weight gain runners experienced after adding in resistance training to their endurance programming. After 20 weeks (a pretty good chunk of time for hypertrophy to take place) there was no significant difference in body mass or body composition between the control group and the intervention group. Simply put, runners can also confidently add in resistance training to their program without any concern of getting so jacked it will decrease performance.
Implementing Strength Training to Running Programs
All the information in the prior paragraphs doesn't mean much if we don’t know how to program for strength training, so, I’ll give some practical tips on how to add in strength training to endurance programs. First and foremost we want to challenge the areas used in running...the lower extremities being a priority. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the upper body, as everyone likes to look good in a singlet, but pecs and biceps take a back seat when considering running performance.
In order to achieve the goals of performance enhancement and injury risk reduction, runners need not spend 2 hours in the gym like body builders do, training to or near failure and executing 5-6 sets of 15 repetitions per muscle group. Sessions of 30-45 minutes will do the trick and staying away from failure will help achieve our goals while avoiding injury risk and hypertrophy (again, not a huge concern). Training 2-4 sets per muscle group in rep ranges from 6-10 at intensities of 40-70% of 1RM have shown to accomplish the goals talked about in this article. Some studies have shown benefits of higher intensities and lower rep ranges and that is totally fine if runners want to go down that path, but not necessary. The key is stay 5-6 reps from failure in the moderate intensity range (40-70%) and STAY CONSISTENT, gainz aren’t made overnight.
Resistance training can also be increased during the offseason in order to build a stronger base and help work on other aspects of running performance that are lacking in an individual runner's skill set. This could be things such as top speed or cadence, or it could be to nurse any nagging injuries that have hampered you during the competitive season. As we get closer to competition periods, we will want to put resistance training more towards the back of our training emphasis as to focus on specialization and to sharpen our fitness adaptations towards peak running performance.
Here is a simple outline of what a 2x per week training regimen can look like.
Back squat: 3x8 @60% 1RM
Reverse Lunges: 3x10 each leg @60%1RM (this is a hard exercise to gauge 1RM, so I recommend using reps in reserve)
Hamstring Curls: 3x10
Standing overhead press (DB or BB): 3x10
Bent over DB Row: 3x10
Trap Bar Deadlift: 3x8 @60%1RM
Russian Step ups: 3x10
Leg extension: 3x10
Bench Press (DB or BB): 3x10
Lat Pulldown: 3x10
Russian Twists: 3x20
Obviously this is
a rough template, and the rules of progressive overload will need to be used in order to see sustained improvement, but it is still a helpful tool that can be used for runners to get their feet wet in the world of resistance training. There is no such thing as a bad exercise, so substituting other exercises in for these is not a problem. The key is finding ones you can work with and that challenge the desired area.
Thanks for reading. If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about what I do and how I help you can follow me on Instagram at aboyce_dc.
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