For most runners, the time spent on the road is very rarely in pursuit of big guns and a killer six-pack to match. But that doesn’t mean strength training shouldn’t complement all of those miles for other beneficial reasons. Experts say incorporating just 20 minutes of strength training a few times a week can help runners prevent injuries, aid recovery and reach their full athletic potential. So why don’t all runners strength train?
“It’s a combination of feeling like you don’t have enough time and simply not valuing the non-running activities as much as you do the running activities,” says Jay Johnson, a former Division I track coach, expert on strength training for runners and founder of RunningDVDs.com. “With that in mind, I think runners of all abilities need to be doing some sort of general strength and mobility training every day.”
The first step toward integrating strength training into a runner’s workout is to understand why it shouldn’t be viewed as something “extra.” Let’s take a closer look at the benefits.
1. Builds Muscle Mass
“The more you run, the more you’re breaking down muscle fibers, so you need to build them back up,” says Rich Airey, a running, strength and CrossFit coach, six-time ultra-marathoner and creator of RunningWOD.com. Strength training does just that by strengthening muscles, tendons and bones. Increasing lean muscle and decreasing body fat also allows the body to burn more calories, making it easier to maintain your weight.
2. Prevents Injuries
According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, nearly 70 percent of all runners become injured each year. Most of these incidents are common running injuries including “runner’s knee,” shin splints, plantar fasciitis or the dreaded iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). Fortunately strength training can fortify these weak areas. Airey and Johnson say runners should specifically target the abductors and gluteal muscles (especially those who sit at a desk in front of a computer all day), core, hamstrings, quads and hip flexors.
3. Improves Performance
Think about it: If runners are never hurt, then they have more time to train and log miles at a higher intensity. “Some of the athletes I coach to get stronger end up becoming faster too,” says Airey. “It’s a matter of being able to work out harder and recover quicker.”
4. Challenges Your System
“Endurance athletes focus more on muscular endurance, which is high reps of low weight,” says Airey. “But, once they learn proper technique, I encourage runners to switch it up with low reps of higher weight.” Airey’s recommendation to “move more weight” is supported by several new studies, which link strength training to improved running economy, or the measure of how much energy it takes to run at a given speed. Over time, adding anaerobic activity (lifting weights) can make runners more complete athletes.
How to Get Started
Hitting the weights (or simply using your bodyweight) to build strength can be intimidating to beginners and might explain why runners generally shy away from this auxiliary work. Here are a few things to remember before heading to the gym.
- Know Your Goal. “The more specific the goal, the more specific the training needs to be,” says Airey. “Do you want to look good in a bikini at the beach, or do you want to be an elite marathoner?”
- Take It Slow. Both Airey and Johnson agree that learning technique is first and foremost. Practice each move with just your bodyweight first, focusing on good posture and proper positioning.
- Be Patient. Success doesn’t happen overnight, but Johnson says you can usually start noticing some results in three or four weeks.
- Change It Up. According to Airey and Johnson, the three to four week mark is also when the body starts to adapt to its routines, so you should try to change up the movements, weights and/or reps to continue to see results.
What to Do
To get started, Airey recommends general bodyweight strength moves and calisthenics, but strongly encourages the addition of weights as you advance. “For the serious runners,” Johnson says, “there is good research that shows that intense power work, such as plyometrics, also improves running economy and performance.”
Johnson recommends doing a five-minute warm up before a run and then general strength and mobility work post-run. Here are some videos to help you get started.
- Beginner Kettlebell Exercises: Improve speed, strength and power with this tutorial.
- Plyometric Workout: Blast fat with this explosive workout.
- 5 Bodyweight Exercises: Work your legs, glutes, back, chest and core while raising your heart rate.
- Fat-Burning Bodyweight Moves: Up the intensity with these challenging full-body exercises.
Like any new fitness endeavor, strength training takes some time to get right and make it a permanent part of your routine. But the benefits can be limitless for runners.
“I definitely believe that if you want to be a good runner you need to run more,” says Johnson. “But all of this non-running work simply helps you safely handle more running.”