If you like to run and have been struggling to increase your distance pace or need a boost in short sprint speed for the final kick, strength training is the answer. Athletes in endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, rowing, or skiing cross-country will also benefit from strength training.
The right strength training program will also help you lose fat—lightness is always a benefit for runners—and prevent injury. It will also improve your endurance and can help prevent injuries. Strength training also provides protective health benefits such as better insulin sensitivity and higher antioxidant status, making it essential for all runners.
If you’re already strength training and not seeing results, it may be because you’re not doing the right kind of training—that is, there may be something wrong with your protocol such that you’re not triggering adaptations. Luckily, the research tells us what you need to do whether you run 5Ks, marathons, triathlons, or just run for fun.
Take note of a few things before we get into the ten greatest benefits of strength training:
If you’re running to lose weight, strength training is a must. You’ll see results much faster. Strength training will boost your metabolism and improve your insulin health and blood sugar levels in addition to supporting hormone response for fat burning.
Don’t be scared by the idea of heavy lifting. If you are an elite runner and you do not want to increase body weight by gaining lean mass, don’t worry. You won’t gain muscle mass from lifting. The science behind this is revealed in #4.
Recreational runners probably won’t increase body weight from training either, assuming you do a decent volume of running. With the right weight lifting program, you will lose fat. If you want to gain muscle mass, and “get big,” endurance running is probably not a good choice.
Older individuals benefit just as much as young runners from strength training. Lifting weights has been shown to lessen the gap between young and old in terms of strength and speed endurance.
This article is for runners but will apply to most endurance athletes. In some cases I present research using athletes from sports other than running such as rowers and cyclists. These are general conclusions that can be drawn from these studies and applied to most endurance sports because they are based on physiology.
Top Ten Reasons Runners Should Strength Train
1) Get Faster
Strength training will make you faster. Whether you are a short distance runner (800 meters to a mile) or a longer distance runner (mile on up), you’ll find your pace increasing when you start strength training. Strength training will increase leg strength and improve your body’s efficiency to use energy and oxygen.
Increasing the body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently is a primary goal of endurance training, and it is measured by VO 2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake. Simply, if you can decrease the amount of oxygen needed to run at a certain speed, you’ll be able to sustain a fast pace for a longer time and likely be able to run faster overall.
A study that tested the effect of a maximal lower body strength training program on elite runners found that they improved running economy by 5 percent. Even more impressive, they increased the amount of time they could run at their maximal aerobic speed by 21.3 percent. The weight training group also did regular endurance running during the eight week training program, and researchers compared their gains in running speed and work capacity with a control group that only performed regular endurance training. The control group showed no improvements indicating that for elite endurance athletes, strength training may be the magic component to allow them to improve.
Similar studies of elite cyclists show similar performance results. In a study using Danish national team cyclists, half of the team performed a strength training program and half the team served as a control group. The maximal strength program resulted in improved performance in both a 5-minute sprint trial and a 45-minute endurance trial. The strength training group went 5 percent further in the short 5-minute time trial and 8 percent further in the 45-minute trial.
Researchers suggest increased coordination, neural drive, and strength gains all play a role in making these endurance athletes faster since none of there’s no evidence of hypertrophy, or an increase in muscle size or body weight.
Take away: Strength training will improve your pace and make you faster overall. A maximal (heavy) strength program for the lower body will produce best results.
2) Have A Better Final Kick
A heavy lower body strength training program will make you faster because you’ll be able to generate more force when you kick off the ground. Combined with better running economy and the ability to use energy more efficiently, you’ll have a better final kick.
One reason strength training will increase your speed is that you’ll increase your proportion of type IIA muscle fibers that fatigue slowly and are able to produce speed and power. The type II fibers are the “fast-twitch” fibers and sprinters have a large concentration of them because their training triggers the development of these fibers.
Muscle fiber research is still emerging but we know that the type I and II fibers are on a continuum that include at least seven different “types,” of which type I fibers are the most aerobic and least powerful. Type IIX are the most powerful and most quickly exhausted. The interesting thing is that with training, you can shift the proportion of these fibers based on the type of training you are doing. Combining endurance exercise with strength training provides the best stimulus for the muscles and yields the most impressive results for speed and endurance.
In the study of Danish national team cyclists, researchers found that the athletes who strength trained increased the proportion of type IIA muscle fibers in the quadriceps from 26 to 35 percent and decreased type IIX fibers from 5 to 0.6 percent, a favorable shift for endurance performance.
There’s limited research into muscle fiber shifts in recreational athletes, but studies suggest that strength training will produce more favorable fiber types for speed endurance in non-elite runners as well. There is some evidence of a small increase in muscle size, particularly type II fibers in recreational runners, but this occurs with a decrease in body fat and has not produced a substantial increase in overall body mass.
Take away: Strength training will increase your speed. You’ll have a better final kick with more fast, fatigue-resistant muscle fibers.
3) Decrease Body Fat
Strength training will help you lose fat. The bulk of energy that is burned in the body comes from your resting metabolic rate, which is a function of the proportion of lean muscle to body fat. Body fat slows that metabolic rate and produces various substances that make you fatter, including aromatase (turns testosterone into estrogen) and adipokines (slow metabolism). Muscle and lean tissue improve metabolism instead of hurting it, meaning to be a better runner (and have a better looking body), you want more muscle and less fat.
Experienced and elite runners will know that it is hard to lose fat unless you do large amounts of high-intensity training. People often point out that elite runners are “thin” and have a low body fat percentage. This is true, and they tend to do a very large volume of running at a high intensity. For those of you who are interested in getting lean without increasing your distance or intensity, strength training can help.
For instance, in the study of Danish national team cyclists, the strength training group decreased body fat by 2 nearly two percent and had no change in body mass after the 16-week training program. The group that only did their regular endurance training decreased body fat by 0.5 percent. Other studies have elicited more dramatic results.
A study of collegiate female soccer and volleyball players found that an intense circuit training strength program produced a decrease in body fat of an average of 5.7 percent, which is substantial for a group of elite athletes. This study was interesting because it based the intensity on heart rate rather than the amount of weight lifted. Participants in the high intensity group maintained heart rate at an average of 151 beats per minute by performing vigorous intervals in between sets. The weight lifted was 50 percent of maximal, and participants performed an average of ten repetitions per exercise. This protocol also produced increases in strength. Speed, running economy, and endurance were not tested.
Take away: Strength training will burn fat and decrease your body fat percentage making you lighter and faster.
4) Have Better Body Composition
Strength training will enhance your overall body composition. Research shows that if you program properly, you don’t have to gain muscle mass. It’s possible to develop a protocol to get you in shape for endurance exercise and gain muscle with the right nutrition and supplementation, but that is another article for another day.
A common concern for competitive endurance athletes is gaining body mass with strength training. Even lean muscle gains have been a concern because elevated muscle mass is thought to be detrimental for optimal endurance sports where muscle forces are generated to support the body mass against gravity. This issue could be debated since gaining strength and muscle mass in the legs will certainly make you faster if your training protocol is for relative strength. But, for simplicity, I will assume that you are doing a large volume of endurance training, which means that the most you can hope to get out of your strength training program is increased speed and endurance with decreased body fat.
It’s well established that endurance exercise creates a catabolic environment that degrades muscle and bone and shifts the proportion of muscle fibers to type I. Strength training will counter this muscle degrading process and result in strength gains but the anabolic environment will be blunted. In a review of the effect of maximal strength training in elite endurance athletes, researchers Aagaard and Andersen write that “concurrent training can diminish the muscle hypertrophy that normal occurs with strength training,” but increases in performance and strength are still observed.
This is due to the increased proportion of type IIA muscle fibers, but also to an increase in different gene signaling pathways involved in muscle growth and loss, which appear to cancel each other out. Despite no growth in the cross sectional area of muscle, concurrent strength and endurance training increases the ratio of capillaries to muscle fiber area, which improves oxygen delivery and free fatty acid uptake. Greater free fatty acid uptake results in a reduced rate of glycogen breakdown, meaning that endurance athletes are using energy more efficiently, which improves performance.
Take away: Strength training is safe for athletes who don’t want to gain muscle mass. The catabolic/anabolic processes “cancel” each other out. Strength training increase fiber type proportion, neuromuscular function, and fuel utilization for better performance.
5) Prevent Injury
Strength training will help you get rid of nagging injuries or chronic pain and help prevent future injuries. It will also help you correct structural imbalances that increase injury risk and lead to improper motor patterns. For example, the non-dominant side of the body is often weaker, which will throw your stride off, as will problems with your feet such plantar fasciitis or bunions.
Equally, muscle imbalances within each limb can cause problems for runners. For instance, the vastus medialis obliquus is a common weak link in the quad, and weak calves are thought to contribute to shin pain. Include both unilateral and bilateral leg exercises to avoid imbalances and prevent injury. Single-side training has also been shown to improve sprinters’ speed, and endurance athletes can benefit too
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed how single-leg “pitcher” squat, also called rear-foot elevated squats, produced significant strength gains that rival those made from regular back squats. Including a training cycle of “pitcher” squats placed extra stabilization demands on the neuromuscular system since the athletes’ weight distribution was biased to one side of the body.
Additionally, forward lunges and step-ups are excellent lower body exercises that will help equalize strength and power between the legs and are excellent for runners. Take note that strength training can also decrease chronic pain and minimize aches and joint discomfort from continually pounding the pavement. Heavy strength training triggers protein synthesis in the connective tissues and will also increase bone strength.
Take away: Strength training improves structural balance and can help prevent injury and chronic pain. Feel better when you run!
6) Strengthen Your Core With Traditional Lifts
Strength training with traditional lifts such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, and chin-ups will increase your core strength. Better core strength will help you avoid back pain and make you faster. Research shows that multi-joint movements are best to train the core musculature and improve the transfer of power from the arms to the legs.
One group of researchers recently found that core strength for running is best trained with squats and Olympic lifts, but if you don’t perform the snatch and clean and jerk, squats, chin-ups, deadlifts, and push-ups will strengthen your core. Additionally, if the lower back, gluteals, or hamstrings are weak or imbalanced, glute-ham raises and back extensions are ideal.
Researchers point to the uselessness of the plank exercise to assess or train the core. The plank (and side planks) is performed in a non-functional static position that is rarely replicated when running or in daily life, making it useless as a primary component of training. Equally, unless abdominal or “core” endurance is required for your sport or daily life, it’s undesirable to devote valuable training time to endurance exercises such as sit-ups.
Take away: The best way to build core strength for runners is to perform traditional lifts.
7) Increase Antioxidant Levels and Decrease Oxidative Stress
Endurance training has been shown to produce a high level of oxidative stress that can lead to chronic inflammation. Strength training will counter both acute oxidative stress, and help you avoid the long-term debilitating impact of this stress.
Scientists and athletic coaches have become concerned about the negative health effects of endurance training because of the daily physical stress that it causes. The inflammatory response to intense endurance training is well documented and some coaches and athletes have attempted to counteract it by taking antioxidants. This is a good strategy since we are inundated by free radicals from our environment and poor dietary choices, but throw strength training into the mix, and you will be much better off.
A moderate to heavy strength training program has been shown to increase antioxidant status and counter oxidative stress. In #4 we looked at how strength training can counter the muscle degrading effect of endurance training, and it can minimize the inflammatory response of intense, repeated physical stress. The stress hormone cortisol is the culprit and it damages cells and tissue in the body and accelerates aging. Strength training will offset this, making you healthier, stronger, and faster.
Take away: Strength training protects runners from the repeated damage of oxidative stress by raising antioxidant levels.
8) Better Reproductive Health
There is evidence that reproductive health suffers for both men and women from endurance training. Strength training is one strategy to prevent this. A recent study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that intense endurance exercise provokes low testosterone and diminished sex hormone levels in men, which translates into poor reproductive health and low fertility. Previous studies have found similar impaired fertility in women who perform endurance exercise, a common symptom of which is dysmenorrhea or impaired menstrual cycles.
Strength training can help because it will improve hormone levels and counter the oxidative stress from cortisol and related catabolic hormones that cause inflammation and damage to the reproductive organs. Researchers suggest there is a happy medium to reproductive health such that individuals who like to run can improve their endocrine profiles and support fertility and health with strength training. On the flip side, a sedentary lifestyle will also impair fertility, and poor health.
Take away: Strength training will improve reproductive health and fertility in men and women who run.
9) Better Insulin Health
Insulin health refers to how sensitive your cell receptors are to the hormone insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas in response to glucose in the blood stream. Glucose comes from carbohydrates, a large portion of many runners’ diet, making the maintenance of insulin health a high priority for runners.
You want to improve your insulin sensitivity because doing so will support a faster metabolism and better energy levels. Insulin health is a component of performance because it is involved with helping your body process energy along with speeding recovery from intense endurance training by aiding in the replenishment of glycogen stores.
If your cells are insulin resistant, you will have a slower metabolism, have poor performance, and be at risk of developing diabetes. You will also have greater amounts of oxidative stress, which damages cells, cause inflammation and accelerates aging. As mentioned in #8, oxidative stress is already a problem for runners and endurance athletes, meaning you don’t want to exacerbate the problem by causing more with high levels of insulin.
Strength training is a well known strategy for diabetes prevention and for improving insulin. A recent study in the journal Nature showed how during exercise—any time you perform muscle contractions—the body produces a hormone called irisin that will improve insulin health. With strength training, you intensely and repeatedly contract the muscles producing extreme force, thereby producing even more irisin, which in turn greatly promotes insulin sensitivity.
Take away: Strength training improves insulin health and helps you recover from running by aiding in replenishment of energy stores.
10) Best Results With Heavy Lifts and Varied Tempo
Perform a strength training program that includes heavy lower body lifts for best results. Runners often make the mistake of performing resistance training programs that are geared toward increasing muscular endurance instead of strength. This will not make you faster.
Naturally, if you are new to strength training, you will need to develop base levels of strength, and a muscular endurance program may be appropriate. It’s necessary to achieve basic strength and flexibility in the hips and ankles so that you can properly do squats and deadlifts with good technique.
Once you’ve got the basics down, you will get the most out of your strength workouts by lifting heavy—above 80 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. The only research studies that haven’t produced gains in running pace and speed are those that used too light of a load or were for too short of a time period—less than eight weeks.
To get the most out of your strength program, perform multi-joint, ground-based lifts such as squats and deadlifts. Step-ups and lunges are also essential. Although, a more advanced technique, lifting with a varied or slow tempo will also provide benefits to runners. Tempo training, or the variation of the amount of time spent on the up and down phase of a lift, is a great way to provide a new and different stimulus to the muscles. If you feel you’ve hit a plateau or want to try something new, consider varying your tempo—it will challenge your weaknesses and make you faster and stronger.
Take away: Runners new to lifting should develop base levels of strength and flexibility. Then, it’s time to lift heavy and vary tempo to turn weaknesses into strengths.