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Strength Training for RunnersRecreational and competitive running have remained popular over decades because they are among the simplest ways to improve your fitness level. All you really need is a good pair of shoes and the resolve to continue to put one foot in front of the other. Running improves cardiovascular endurance, reduces the risk of some diseases, helps with weight loss/maintenance, and offers valuable stress relief and solace.

Abundant support today exists for runners, in the form of gadgets like heart rate monitors, specialty apparel like compression socks, foods and beverages, local clubs, coaching, training plans, books, magazines, logs, blogs and more. The industry is thriving because most runners are constantly seeking to improve their performance, avoid injury and feel good at the same time.

As participation has jumped, research on running has grown significantly as well, which has led to smarter training plans. Formerly, many runners adopted a “more is better” approach, emphasizing increasing mileage to the exclusion of any other exercise, and regardless of nagging aches, pains or injuries.

Logging miles is important, but mounting evidence points to the value of cross training in improving running performance and overall fitness. Studies have shown that building a strong core, strengthening the hips, developing upper-body muscular endurance and performing flexibility work result in a stronger foundation and more balanced physiological conditioning – thereby ultimately enhancing running.

While cross training can consist of cycling, elliptical exercise, using a rowing machine, and any other cardio exercise, strength training is a separate component that yields different stresses and benefits than cardio activity. Experts today recommend regular strength training for runners, so if you’re not doing it, here’s why you should be.

Why Strength Training?

Cardiovascular activity primarily strengthens the heart, lungs, circulatory system and respiratory system, burning calories via fat and carb metabolism. Cardio can be aerobic, where intensity is approximately 65-85% of your maximum heart rate, which is sustainable over longer periods of time, such as a long run lasting 60 minutes. Anaerobic training, where the heart rate is more than 85% of the maximum, is high intensity and therefore only sustainable for short bursts under about 30 seconds (i.e., sprints), but here can be considered cardio training in achieving an elevated heart rate and boosting stamina.

In contrast, strength training is working against resistance to increase muscular strength, muscular endurance or muscular size. Muscular strength is the greatest amount of force that a muscle can produce in a single, maximal effort (like a 1 rep max of a bench press, for example). Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to execute repeated contractions over time – such as completing a set of 10 reps of a bench press.

Runners may tend to shy away from strength training for fear that they will bulk up or become heavier, which could slow them down. Hypertrophy, such as evidenced in body building, comes from specific weight lifting protocols, often augmented by high protein intake. However, strength training can be performed effectively without significantly increasing muscle mass. Runners should know that they can stay lean and still participate in strength training.

In fact, because strength training boosts metabolism during workouts and at rest, runners can benefit from reduced body fat, greater energy usage and higher caloric needs.

Research shows that strength training for runners offers multiple benefits, including:

  • Greater running economy – moving faster with less effort
  • More efficient oxygen use – results in greater speed and endurance
  • Improved endurance
  • Stronger joints and greater bone density – to better tolerate high-impact of running
  • Leaner body composition
  • Lower risk of injury

Establishing a Routine

Runners prioritize their runs, which certainly should take precedence in establishing a workout regimen. But ideally, they also should fit in 1-3 strength training sessions each week on non-consecutive days. Depending on an individual’s program, most strength workouts can be completed in 15-45 minutes.

Some experts recommend that strength training be done on non-running days, while others say it should be performed after a run. Lifting weights prior to running may impact your pace or distance due to lower body fatigue. There is no right or wrong way here, so experiment with what works in your schedule and evaluate how your body responds. The most important factor is consistency with strength training.

If you have access to a weight room via a health club, rec center or corporate fitness center, then take advantage of the variety and convenience it offers. Here you can capitalize on resources such as personal trainers to establish a custom routine based on your goals, or classes to keep you motivated and learning new exercises.

You can do strength training at home, but you’ll need some tools to ensure that you have sufficient resistance. This can be as simple as some dumbbells, elastic resistance bands and a mat. For greater variety, you can add barbells, a stability ball, a bench or even a home gym unit with weight stacks or cables and pulleys.

If you’re working out at home, access online resources or running magazines to develop your routine.

Recommendations vary, but a muscular endurance program typically includes resistance that is heavy enough to cause muscle fatigue after 10-15 repetitions. Exercisers should perform1-3 sets of each exercise, with slow, controlled movements and steady breathing. If the muscles you are working are not fatigued after two sets, either increase the weight by 5% the next time, slow the pace of exercise execution or add another set.

Many resources exist covering strength training for runners, such as working with a personal trainer, who can demonstrate proper form, prescribe a custom routine, monitor progress and add variety. Note that you need to work the lower body, upper body and core. Running is NOT strength training for the legs, so hit the entire body with resistance work.

Here are a few particularly good exercises for runners:

  1. Planks – On the elbows or palms, hold this position as long as you can, without letting the belly sag, for a phenomenal core strengthener. Add side planks to hit the obliques.
  2. Squats – Hold a barbell or dumbbells to add challenge and target the quads and glutes. With dumbbells, you can add a biceps curl or front raise.
  3. Lunges – With a barbell on the shoulders or weights in hand, lunge forward and back with control, keeping the torso over the hips. Add overhead presses, lateral raises and triceps extensions for upper-body work.
  4. Pushups – On the toes or knees, push-ups are a great multi-tasker, hitting the chest, shoulders, triceps and core.
  5. Clamshells – These are tough hip strengtheners, which is critical for runners.
  6. Rows – Use dumbbells, a barbell or resistance band, target your upper back for better posture.
  7. Deadlifts – Strengthen the lower back and hamstrings with this classic exercise.
  8. Seated and standing calf raises – Don’t overlook these small but important muscles for running.
  9. Hip extensions – Runners tend to be quad dominant with weaker glutes and hamstrings, so working the posterior muscles is critical.
  10. Back extensions – A strong back helps maintain a powerful, stable core.
  11. Abdominal crunches – Performed slowly and with control, these target the abs to keep the body’s center strong.
  12. Bird-dogs – These are harder than they look, targeting core stability and balance.

Incorporate the above strength training tips for a lean and toned body. Stay Fueled.