Running and Strength Training – How Getting Stronger Will Make You a Better Runner
It can be hard trying to balance your training, especially if you enjoy two aspects of fitness that are seemingly polar opposites: strength training and running. Often times, trying to balance an appropriate amount of time in the weight room to benefit a running routine leaves athletes feeling weaker, rather than stronger; and hurt, rather than healthy.
This is a problem. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.
First, a quick overview of what strength training actually is:
- A form of training designed to maximize the body’s potential to generate force against external resistance.
- Heavy compound lifts are performed in low rep ranges (1-6 per set) to maximize muscle fiber stimulation.
- Lifts include variations of the squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, lunge, and overhead pull.
In other words, you pick shit up and put it back down (basically).
You’re not trying to get bigger when you lift weights to get stronger. The goal of strength training is to train your body to utilize a higher percentage of muscle fibers to generate as much force as possible. This is greatly beneficial for anyone looking to improve his or her overall health and performance.
Runners, in particular, will find great benefit in a regular strength training routine for several reasons.
1. Joint and Ligament Health
Running, especially for long distances (half/full/ultra marathons, triathlons, etc.) puts quite the fucking toll on your body. And your joints and ligaments take most of the punishment. For instance, think about your ankles. They’re pretty fucking small compared to the rest of your body.
Their job is a two-part demand: they have to be mobile enough to move and strong enough to absorb impact. An effective strength-training program will improve the integrity and overall health of the joints put in high-demand positions during running including the ankles, knees, hips, and lower back.
2. Anaerobic Endurance
When you think of running, you probably think of the word “cardio”. And that makes sense, because running is obviously a form of cardio, but it’s not just your lungs and heart that are working to sustain these bouts of endurance, your muscles need to be able to perform for long periods as well. If you think of the athletic pyramid, strength is at the base. It’s at the base because it benefits every other aspect of fitness. The stronger you are, the higher work capacity your muscles have, meaning they can sustain resistance for longer periods of time. An effective strength-training program will benefit a runner’s ability to use their muscles longer and delay fatigue onset more effectively.
3. Aerobic Endurance and Recovery
As you now know, strength is at the base of the athletic pyramid, and it greatly benefits your body’s aerobic endurance as well. Why? The stronger you are, the more efficiently your body transports blood, oxygen, and nutrients to working muscles…aiding in your aerobic capacity and overall recovery. That includes recovery between sets and between workouts.
4. Force Per Stride
The stronger you are, the more efficient your body is going to be able to generate force to the ground per stride. More force through the floor equals more distance covered per stride. More distance covered per stride equals faster times and more efficient running mechanics. Boom.
Running is fun…well, fun for some of you. So if you enjoy running, I’m willing to bet you’d like to be able to run well into the latter years of your life. If you only run, and don’t put any emphasis on strength training, this window will be very small. On the other hand, if you focus on maximizing your strength to benefit your running, you are going to set your body up to be able to sustain long bouts of cardio for years to come.
6. Maximization of Time
Running can take up a lot of fucking time. Lucky for you, strength training does not. An average strength training session should take you no longer than about an hour. We’ll get more into how you can structure your training sessions around your running in greater detail.
7. Correct Imbalances
Long bouts of repetitive motions such as running are bound to develop imbalances and misalignments in the body. Continuing to run with little to no effort put towards correcting these imbalances is only going to make issues worse. Insert strength training. Anyone participating in sports or activities that involve highly repetitive movements would find great benefit in tackling these issues with specific strength training. Performing unilateral (one-sided) exercises, for example, will spring you forward in recovery and help “even-out” the body as much as possible. More on which unilateral and corrective exercises are great for runners later.
8. Reduced Risk of Injuries
Talking about sustainability, stronger bodies are more durable and able to withstand punishment. Let’s say you’re going for a Sunday run through the park, and you hit an uneven patch of dirt. Fuck. A weak ankle will sprain, a strong one will be able to absorb impact more effectively. It doesn’t mean that it makes you fucking bulletproof and able to avoid all injuries, but it does give you a better chance. And it definitely is going to help you recovery from injuries much faster and more efficiently.
9. Core Strength
The main function of the core is to stabilize the spine while your limbs are in motion. Ever notice the rigidness of a sprinter’s torso as they run? That’s core strength. You have to train your core strength if you want to be able to run as optimally as possible. Your spine will thank you. More on core-specific exercises later.
Sounds great, right?
So why do so many people run, lift weights, and still feel like shit? Or have hit a “plateau” in their training? Or find themselves lost with where to start in their strength-training journey?
Some common mistakes runners make, in my opinion, are as follows:
You cannot, and will not, be able to sustain excessive amounts of heavy lifting coupled with extensive amounts of running. You’re training to go in two opposite directions simultaneously, and eventually you’ll crash. What you should be trying your best to do is figure out a way to balance the two and have them compliment each other. We’ll review how to do this later.
Yes, you may be working really hard and over training, but chances are you’re actually under-recovering. Yeah, it’s a thing. Think about how demanding running is. Now think about how demanding strength training is. Now think about doing both of them. At the same time. While fighting a dragon. That’s what you’re doing when you don’t take your recovery as seriously as you do your training. You’re fighting a dragon while running with a barbell on your back. Don’t do that.
How should you recover? Keep it simple. Warm up. Cool down. Work on your mobility. Drink lots of water. Eat protein. Sleep. Don’t complicate it.
3. Too Heavy, Too Often
Not every day can or should be a heavy lifting session. Why? Your nervous system is going to get shot, same with your body. On a very basic level of understanding…strength training requires a lot of energy from your brain and your body. That means you need to be well rested before you lift heavy shit. You can’t lift heavy shit if you try to do it every day. That’s just the way it is. That’s not my opinion. That’s science.
If you’re a runner and you want to lift weights to get stronger, two heavy sessions a week is usually the protocol. With some wiggle room for lighter weight training sessions sprinkled in. This will allow your nervous system and body to be fully recovered and engaged for the heavy sessions so you can actually see the benefit from the time spent in the weight room and avoid overtraining.
4. Lifting Weights in Circuits
To get stronger, you need to lift heavy enough weight to create a response in your muscles that says, “Holy fuck we’re going to need some backup to lift this weight”. Your muscles should basically be “signalling” (i.e. recruiting) as much muscle fibers as they can to pick heavy weight up. If the weight isn’t heavy enough, there is no need to adapt or change. Performing a bunch of exercises in a row in a circuit-style doesn’t make you stronger. You’re not going to have the energy reserves necessary to perform heavy compound lifts when you’re pairing it with a bunch of other exercises at the same time. Circuits are great at elevating your heart rate and burning calories, but they don’t make you stronger.
For an in-depth look at why and how you should be doing cardio, add this to your reading list >>>
5. Not Enough Hamstring Work
The main function of the hamstring is to provide support for the knee and bring it to flexion. From a walking or running standpoint, they propel us forward into our stride. So I think it’s pretty safe to say that the hamstrings are pretty fucking important to train if you’re a runner, or anybody who walks. Some hamstring exercises to come. Keep reading. You’re doing great.
6. Lifting and Running the Same Workout
Definitely don’t do both in the same workout, and I would even argue in the same day for most cases. Remember…lifting heavy weights to get stronger takes energy. Running takes energy. Do not deplete your energy reserves from running and go and try to max out your deadlift. It won’t be a good session. Also, don’t have a heavy lifting session then go for a run. You need to recover. If you must lift and run the same day because of your schedule, or you are training for an event and are a seasoned athlete, I would recommend heavy lifting earlier in the morning and running later in the day.
7. Not Enough Ankle Mobility/Strengthening
Remember how tiny your ankles are compared to the rest of your body? Well, overtime they’re going to start aching if you don’t give them some lovin’. Included later are ankle-specific exercises you can do to improve their overall mobility and strength.
8. Not Enough Core Work
Remember, the core’s main function is to stabilize the spine while the outer limbs are in motion. Think sprinter…strong, rigid torso while arms and legs are moving at high speeds. Core work is not doing hundreds of sit-ups till you feel like you’re about to shit yourself. Proper core work requires resistance while incorporating different planes of movement.
9. Exercising vs. Training
When you exercise, you think about what you can accomplish in your workout today. There is no thought put into how today’s session will affect tomorrow’s. There is no plan. When you train, you treat your individual workouts as building blocks to the bigger picture. Exercising means your workouts contradict each other. Training means your workouts compliment each other.
Read here for a more in-depth analysis on training vs. exercising >>>
The below exercises are great tools for runners to:
- correct imbalances
- develop power/strength
- strengthen supportive muscle groups
- practice proper striding mechanics
The following exercises are great tools to help runners:
- strengthen hamstrings
- alleviate/eliminate knee pain
- activate/stimulate/strengthen one of the most prominent muscles used in running mechanics (hamstrings)
The following ankle mobility drills are great tools to help runners:
- improve ankle range of motion
- improve ankle integrity and strength
- reduce risk of injury and maintain overall movement health
The following core exercises are great tools to help runners:
- strengthen core muscles surrounding trunk (abs, lower back region)
- reduce/eliminate lower back pain
- improve running mechanics
- avoid hyperextension in the lower back during running (planks are a stabilization and anti-extension exercise)
- resist rotation during fatigue while running (barbell hold variation shown is an anti-rotation exercise)
How to Program Your Workouts
Below are a coupe of potential weekly routines one may follow if they are undergoing a strength program to improve their running.
Note: It goes without saying that the below templates are obviously not the only way you should divide up your training. It might not even work for you and your current situation right now at all. It is meant to give you a general understanding on the overall structure and organization of a strength training routine for the benefit of runners.
- Strength training is designed to improve your muscles’ ability to generate force against external resistance.
- Heavy lifting (1-6 reps for 3-5 sets) with compound movements (squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press/pull variations) twice per week will benefit a running routine.
- Avoid running and lifting in the same workout to maximize strength potential and recovery.
- Focus on ankle mobility, core exercises, and hamstring exercises for longevity of health.
If you have any questions or comments about this article, shoot me a message down below!