Serious runners are passionate about their sport. In fact, some are so dedicated to their sport they want to spend all of their training time running, whether it’s outdoors in nature or on a treadmill. Some enjoy the endorphin release that running brings about while others relish breathing in fresh air during an outdoor run. What some runners skimp on is strength training. Yet they need strength training as much as anyone else and in some cases more. Here are five reasons runners should lift weights.
Weight Training Can Make You a Better Sprinter
The benefits of weight training are greatest if you’re a sprinter or run short distances where speed is important. The most effective sprinters can generate large amounts of force against the ground to push off into a sprint. Sprinting uses fast-twitch muscle fibers, fibers that are optimized for strength and power rather than the slow-twitch fibers that long-distance runners tap in to. Plus, if you sprint, you need strong and powerful quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core to generate force power for the push-off. Sprinters often think they need to sprint more, but sprinters also need strength training to maximize performance.
It Can Help with Distance Running Too
If you’re a long-distance runner and compete in distance events, you use mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers, those optimized for endurance rather than fibers designed for power and speed. The limiting factor with distance running is the ability to deliver more oxygen to muscle tissues. Strength training and building large muscles can’t help you with that directly.
In fact, if you build too much bulk through heavy resistance training, it can slow you down and increase the metabolic costs of running. However, if you run long distances, a training program where you lift lighter weights and do higher repetitions will boost muscle endurance and provide the general conditioning you need to perform your best during endurance events. But remember, most females don’t have the hormonal make-up to get big and bulky. So, don’t skimp on strength training because you think you’ll get so bulky it’ll slow you down.
Training with Weights Can Make You a More Economical Runner
How economical of a runner are you? Runners with a good running economy don’t need as much oxygen to run the same distance as someone with a poor running economy. Their muscles are so efficient, they require less oxygen to complete the same amount of work when they run at a sub-maximal pace.
Although a number of factors can affect running economy, biomechanics is a major one. For example, some runners with poor economy generate extraneous movements when they run. These movements require oxygen but don’t contribute to the task of running or improve running performance. In fact, they worsen performance since they use up energy and you tire sooner.
Studies show strength training improves running economy and running performance. How does it do this? Working with weights strengthens the brain-muscle connection and improves communication between the brain and muscles. Plus, weight training increases core stability. This reduces extraneous movements, and that improves running economy.
Weight Training May Lower the Risk of Injury
Runners are at high risk of lower-body injury relative to other sports. One reason is runners often have stronger quadriceps than they do hamstrings and glutes. This type of muscle imbalance increases the risk of injury, especially hamstring strains. One study found that 7 out of 10 athletes who experienced repeated hamstring strains had stronger quads relative to their hamstring muscles. This creates a muscle imbalance that reduces performance and increases the odds of injury.
Strength training that emphasizes the hamstrings and glutes helps correct this muscle imbalance. Compound exercises, like squats, lunges, and deadlifts, are beneficial for runners, but exercises that specifically target the glutes, like glute bridges and hip thrusts, are helpful, especially for sprinters. However, distance runners can improve their running economy through strength training.
Strength Training May Reduce the Risk of Overtraining
Daily running, especially long-distance runs, is taxing on the body. In fact, too much emphasis on long-distance running without adequate nutrition has a catabolic affect on muscle tissue. It also increases the risk of the female athlete triad syndrome, a syndrome that boosts the risk of infertility, menstrual irregularities, and bone loss.
Although running is a high-impact exercise that helps preserve bone health, excessive running combined with poor nutrition can increase bone loss in women because of the lowering of estrogen. It’s another reason runners should devote some of their training time to building strength and not overdo the running.
Replacing some running sessions with strength training also reduces repetitive stress on your body and helps keep cortisol in check. Cortisol rises when you place excessive stress on your body and leads to muscle and bone loss, infertility, and immune suppression. When you spend some training time working with weights or resistance bands, it’s less time your limbs and feet are pounding the pavement too.
The Bottom Line
Science supports the benefits of strength training for runners. In fact, a study confirmed that strength training improves running economy and running speed. When runners strength train they develop greater core strength and stability and a stronger posterior chain for a lower risk of injury.
The best movements for runners are compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at the same time. Squats, deadlifts, lunges, single-leg squats and deadlifts, and push-ups are good options. Planks are an excellent movement to improve core stability. Whether you lift heavy or lift lighter with higher reps depends on your goal. If you’re a sprinter, use a higher resistance, around 70 to 80% of one-rep-max. Distance runners can benefit from weights in the 40 to 60% of one-rep max range and do a higher volume.
For most runners, two days of strength training per week is sufficient. It’s a way to work your body in a different way and improve your running performance at the same time. Enjoy the added benefits of training your body against resistance. Everyone needs it!
Strength Conditioning Journal 29: 28-35, 2007.
Fitness Prescription for Women. June 2007. page 18.
Stack.com. “Weightlifting for Sprinters: Why You Need to Get Strong”
Sports Health. 2012 Jul; 4(4): 302–311.doi: 10.1177/1941738112439685.
RunnersWorld.com. “Strength Training for Running Economy”
Active.com. “Strength Train to Improve Running Economy”
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