That’s right – you can get better at running by not running. Well, actually, I should re-phrase that. You’ll need to run a bit. Nothing builds running economy like running!
But if you want to get faster, feel stronger when you run, or put a stop to all those nagging injuries, you most certainly do not have to just run more. It’s not one of those “practice makes perfect” scenarios.
There’s no doubt about it – running can be hard on the body. We absorb a lot of impact each time our feet land. In fact, it can be anywhere from 2 to 3 times your bodyweight depending on your gait (Nilsson, et al, 1989).
And if we continue to do that on a daily basis for years and years, the vast majority of us are going to get injured. There are a few superhuman individuals out there who will never sustain an injury, but for us mortals, our bodies will at some point say “NO MORE!”.
But does that mean we shouldn’t run?
Hell to tha NO!
It just means we need to look at our training strategically and determine whether there are other ways of reaching our running goals beyond just running. And the good news is that in the majority of cases, there are 🙂
So if you want to shave minutes off your race finish time (giving you bragging rights at the office), or finish a race feeling strong and not needing to spend 3 days on the couch afterwards (because really, who can afford to do that?), or you just want to put up a fight against injuries so you can continue to do what makes you feel most alive for many years to come, read on….
The way you can get better at running by not running isn’t by resting on the couch…it’s by cross-training! Specifically, STRENGTH TRAINING.
Strength training is the secret sauce when it comes to boosting your speed, improving your recovery, and reducing injuries. Not only does strength training strengthen the muscles used when you run (#duh), it also helps correct muscular imbalances, improves your posture so you look totally awesome in your race pictures, and, when done in a certain way, can boost your anaerobic capacity.
Translation? You’ll become far more efficient at longer and steadier-paced runs.
But not just any old session with the weights will improve your running. To be most effective, strength training for runners needs to be done in a strategic way. It needs to be just enough to enhance your running, without being so much it ends up harming your performance.Can you REALLY get better at #running by not running?! #ScienceSaysSo #RunChat via @arianafotinakis Click To Tweet
The amount of strength training you’ll do each week will depend on where you are in your race season. If you’re in your off-season or are just running for fun and don’t have any A-Races coming up, you can afford 3 or even 4 days of strength training each week. This is of course dependant on your weekly mileage, your goals, and your fabulously unique body, but especially if you are a beginner, you’ll make some great gains with 3 days of strength training per week.
If you’re in race-mode, I’d recommend incorporating 2 days of strength training into your routine. If the thought of adding 2 additional workouts kind of makes you freak out, take a look at your runs for the week. Do you have an extra recovery run you could trade in favour of a strength training day? Is there an easy run you can piggyback a strength training session onto?
Get the Cliffnotes version of this post plus a sample workout here:
Intensity This is the fun part! While intensity is all relative to the individual doing the activity, in general, I want all my runners training at a level they find challenging. I read all these articles about how strength training for runners should involve light weights and high reps…and while there are no absolutes when it comes to fitness, I try to stay away from that style of programming.
In order to get stronger, faster, more muscular, or to run longer, we need to push the body beyond what it is currently comfortable. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s the key to improving any area of your fitness. So when it comes to strength training, we need to use loads that challenge us!
Again, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to strength training for runners, however a good rep range to aim for is between 8 and 12 reps. This will allow for a good mix of strength development and muscle tone so you can look good while you run fast 😉 Use a weight that begins to feel difficult within the last 3 reps but allows you to maintain proper form right until the end.
Now if you really want to shake things up, you can begin to incorporate metabolic circuits into your training. I typically reserve these for my runners who are a little more well-versed in the weight room, however you can make them as simple or as challenging as you like, so don’t shy away from them!
Metabolic circuits involve completing strength-based movements at a higher intensity with little-to-no rest in between. This keeps your heart rate elevated throughout, which will strengthen not only your muscles, but also your heart and lungs. See? You CAN get better at running by not running! 😉
If you keep things really intense, like between an 8 and 9 on a scale of 1-10, you may very well tap into your anaerobic energy system. Whereas our aerobic system (which is used during steady-paced running) relies on oxygen, our anaerobic energy systems power us through activities without using oxygen as fuel. Dashes to the finish line and running up stairs would be two examples of the anaerobic system kicking in while we run. But the kicker is that by improving our anaerobic efficiency, we can drastically increase our aerobic efficiency (Burgomaster, et al, 2004). So you could incorporate speedwork into your running program (which I highly recommend!). But you could also add in a short metabolic circuit into your strength training program to accomplish a lot of work in a short amount of time.
Tabata intervals done with kettlebell swings or battle ropes, barbell complexes or bodyweight complexes, or even a combination of treadmill sprints and strength-based exercises are all fantastic ways to boost your anaerobic capacity.
Fear not – your strength training sessions don’t need to be as long as your Sunday long runs! By being strategic with the exercises you pick and resting as little as possible between exercises, you’ll be able to get an incredibly effective workout in 30-45 minutes. This can be reduced even more if your workouts are more metabolic in nature.
Strength training for runners is different than bodybuilding programs, fat loss programs, or general health programs. There are certain exercises that are great for runners and other exercises that are not as beneficial. So pick the exercises that will serve you the most, do them hard and do them well, and then move on with your day!
As a runner, you’ll benefit from using free weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells for the bulk of your strength training workouts. These require more core activation and coordination than machines do, and for the most part they are more functional as well. Besides, completing a perfect deadlift or throwing a heavy kettlebell over your head is a pretty badass thing to do 😉
If you don’t have any access to equipment, don’t worry – you can get an amazing workout with just your body! Learn the basics like squats, lunges, and push-ups, then get creative with things like single leg deadlifts, box jumps, and different variations of planks.
As you can see, proper strength training for runners isn’t some afterthought that’s thrown into a program at the last minute. It requires a bit of strategizing, but it doesn’t have to take up all your time and it definitely doesn’t have to be a gruelling hour in the weight room!
It’s oh-so necessary when it comes to reducing injuries, performing well, and feeling like an overall badass, and it’s the secret that will allow you to continue chasing those post-run endorphins for years to come.
If you’d like to begin incorporating some strength training into your program but aren’t really sure which exercises to pick or where to start, you’re in luck! I’ve put together a free 10-page guide that will provide you with a sample workout and will summarize all of the above information so you can seamlessly integrate it into your existing running program. Grab your copy of the guide by clicking below!
So, my running friends – do you incorporate any strength training into your program? Any favourite exercises you’d like to share? Comment below and let me know!
Burgomaster, K.A., Hughes, S. C., Heigenhauser, G.J.F., Bradwell, S.N., & Gibala, M.J. (2004). Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology 98(6): 1985-90.
Nilsson, J. & Thorstensson, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 136(2): 217-27.