I recently asked you guys on my Instagram about topics I should cover. The question I got asked the most was:
“How about strength training for runners, Sabrina? – How do you do both?”
This is a great topic since I have been doing Running & Strength Training for the last 5 years as a running coach and athlete. But how can you combine both without overtraining? How can you practice strength training at the gym? Furthermore – what are my tips for strength training for a marathon?
I will answer all of these questions (and more) within this guide. But first! Let’s explore the 10 best strength training exercises you can do to take your running to the next level.
THE BEST STRENGTH TRAINING EXERCISES FOR RUNNERS
If you want to be the fastest, healthiest, strongest runner you can be, work these 10 training exercises into your routine as soon as you can. You will see results within weeks!
- Ab Wheel Rollout
- Weighted Lunges
- Wall Sits
- Standing Calf Raises
- The Superman
- Leg Raises
Let’s explore each of these great strengthening exercises in depth below!
Also read: check out my ‘top 15 supplements for runners’ article for another great list that can add an edge to your running game.
Strength Training Exercise
#1: Ab Wheel Rollout
This is one of my all-time favorite pieces of equipment to utilize for working out the hip flexors and lower abs. It’s also a strength training exercise you can perform at home!
Be sure to utilize the proper form – Start from your knees, keep your core tight, don’t arch the back, and perform the movements slowly.
As a movement for strengthening your core, there are many more effective options than utilizing an ab wheel rollout. Studies have shown that using an ab wheel isn’t any more effective at activating the upper or lower rectus abdominis muscles (LRA and URA) than your typical crunch.
But the ab wheel is effective at working out the hip flexors, triceps, shoulders, wrists! And even though the abdominal muscles aren’t directly targeted, you can still get the added benefit of a crunch in each movement.
You can find my favorite ab wheel here – as well as a handy list of my favorite running gear. Some of the tools to my success, you could say!
#2: Planks for a Stable Core and Better Running Economy
Now, although the ab wheel may not exactly target the abdominal muscles, the plank definitely does!
In fact, I like to train my core multiple times a week because of how effective it is at building balance and stabilizing the trunk during running.
For distance runners, in particular, core exercises can help increase your running economy – which is defined as the efficiency through which you consume oxygen and use it to produce motion.
A strong core means you will be much more efficient at utilizing your aerobic capacity to drive your running farther and faster. This is especially important while running a marathon.
#3: Squats for More Explosive Leg Power
Yes, you can do some legitimate weightlifting, even if you are a distance runner like I am! In fact, I can credit squats as one of the most powerful tools in my running toolbox.
Squats aren’t just a way to get great looking legs. They can also contribute to developing powerful muscle fiber recruitment for explosive movements.
Or in other words, squats can make you a faster runner.
All of which is incredibly important when you are trying to keep pace during a lengthy run. And even on flats or hills (Heartbreak Hill of Boston Marathon fame, anyone?), squats can help you accelerate quicker where it counts!
#4: Weighted Lunges to Prevent Runner’s Knee
Weightlifting, in general, will give you stronger knees. But weighted lunges, in particular, are an awesome movement for strengthening your joints and can contribute to preventing Runner’s Knee. Just like the squat, you can really do a world of good for your knee joints by regularly doing sets of lunges.
Because Runner’s Knee is often caused by weak stabilizer muscles around the knee itself, lunges can build up the quadricep muscles in the area that helps most for preventing knee injuries.
Although it’s true that compound movement strength training is more common for sprinters and shorter-distance runners, there is still beneficial carryover for distance running as the joints continue to strengthen with progressive workouts.
Some lunge variations to also try:
- Jumping Lunges
- Backward Lunges
- Curtsy Lunges
#5: Deadlifts for Healthy Hamstrings
No strength training routine for your legs would be complete without hamstring-dominant exercises. And because running is such a quad-dominant, it’s important to give your hamstrings some love to help prevent your quads from taking over the lion’s share of your weight distribution as you run.
This comprehensive study shows that supplementing endurance running with strength exercises – like deadlifts – can improve overall time trial performance, sprint speed, and running economy. The benefits are pretty amazing when you incorporate strength training into your routine.
And you don’t even need to lift heavy or intensely. You can do single-leg deadlifts with light dumbbells and strengthen your posterior chain for the long haul. Say hello to stronger, more balanced legs!
Exercise #6: Wall Sits for More Stable Legs
The wall sit is one of those strength exercises that can also provide a fair amount of muscle endurance for your glutes, thighs, and calves. Also, remember – strength training is just as much for preventing injury as it is for improving running performance. The wall sits to give you the best of strength training, endurance, and injury prevention – as stronger glutes and quads can decrease the chance you develop IT-Band syndrome.
#7: Calf Raises To Reduce Injury to Lower Leg
The calves are the workhorses for any runner. Yes, when it comes to running a marathon, your whole body will be on fire – depending on your experience level. But to minimize the amount of cramping and soreness in your calves, it really does pay off to strengthen the muscles on a regular basis.
Include calf raises in your workout routine to prevent injuries to your ankles and Achilles tendon. After all, it’s a weak set of calves that ultimately lead to other injuries in the lower leg.
Your balance will also increase as your calves get stronger.
#8: Pushups for an At-Home Workout to Lower Overuse Injuries
Pushups are a staple for any runners’ strengthening routine. You can crank them out anywhere, they strengthen the shoulders, arms, spine, core, and chest, and they can help avoid the overuse injuries that come with running.
The movement is also a great one for building mental resilience in a different way than running long distances. After all, running is mostly a mental game. Pushing yourself farther and harder is an essential aspect of being a successful runner.
A pushup gives you the opportunity to truly push your strength and endurance without working out with real heavyweights. In this sense, you can push yourself without a high risk of injury.
It is a great exercise with many different variations to choose from. Who says that all runners have to have scrawny arms and shoulders? Add some pushups to your routine!
#9: Superman for Superhuman Lower Back Strength
This one is another great, portable move you can do anywhere. Because your lower back plays such a crucial role in running for long distances, you will want to include a set or two of the superman movement to cover your bases.
You can get all you need with squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but it pays off to isolate the lower back and do low-intensity movements – it’s also a great way to stretch the lower back!
It’s also a great move for your glutes and hamstrings, so your posterior chain will benefit as well!
#10: Side Leg Raises to Prevent IT-Band Syndrome
It-Band Syndrome is one of the most common injuries that runners can experience. But you can do some preventative work that will also help your performance as a runner. Given that hips play such a crucial role in proper running biomechanics, it’s really important to do as many exercises as you can to strengthen your hips.
Squats, lunges, deadlifts, and wall sits can do their part in bulletproofing your legs, but side leg raises are right up there as well.
Because weak hips can lead to altered hip states, IT-Band Syndrome can occur – as per this study. Side leg raises should be your go-to movement!
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR RUNNERS: TRAINING PLAN
Now that you know the 10 best exercises for runners, let’s lay out a training plan to maximize their benefits. As a casual runner, a running beginner or even during marathon training I recommend at least 3 days of strength training added to your regular running schedule. Make sure that you run on the same day that you work on your legs.
The following day will be a rest day. During marathon training, it is key to lift around the long runs. Of course, when you are training for a big race, running should be your main focus.
Your goal should be more build around becoming a stronger and more efficient runner through weight training.
If you become too sore from the gym and you can’t perform during your training runs, the strength training doesn’t do anything for you. It will more likely prevent you from running your personal best. During marathon training, I went up to 14 miles in the morning and trained legs at night.
It is very important to listen to your body: at some point, I realized I have to skip the leg day on my long run day and reschedule it for the next day. See how you feel and don’t hit the gym when you are tired or sore from your run that day.
HOW I BALANCE WEIGHTLIFTING AND CARDIO WITHOUT OVERTRAINING
The days when I work on my legs are also the days where I run. The reason I do it that way is that I experienced better results. There were times where I didn’t do it that way and I was just sore all week. This means though that I work out twice per day on these days. I run in the morning and then I train my legs at night. This is also how I prevent overtraining.
My training plan varies from week to week but I always include 3 leg days (quads, hamstrings, and glutes) plus 2 upper body days in my schedule per week. I train my abs every other day after my other workouts.
On top of that, I run 4 days a week with a long run on the weekends. Mondays and Saturdays are usually my days off. Don’t feel intimidated. This doesn’t mean you have to do as much as I do, to be in shape or become a faster, stronger runner. Find your own grove and keep embracing yourself.
REST DAYS PER WEEK
The secret here is to find your own way that works best for you, take enough time off and nonetheless fuel your body with the right nutrition and supplements. Running long distances is physically draining, and adding weight training to that burden risks overstressing the body and decreasing your conditioning.
Rest days are super important not only if you are doing both strength training for runners and running. Mix in a few rest days from all workouts. It’s imperative that you give your body the time to recover and repair the damage done by intense training.
Work on your legs one day, have another day where you focus on your upper body and use the other day for core and stability exercises.
WHY STRENGTH TRAINING FOR RUNNERS IS IMPORTANT
There is a reason why more and more runners and not only the elite people are hitting the gym nowadays. Runners’ legs have to be prepared for the great demands of an endurance event like the marathon which is why strength training for runners is as important as your long run on the weekend. Besides that I think that an athletic body looks way nicer than just a skinny body of a long-distance runner and weight training is beneficial in many ways.
Of course, strength training for runners will not only make you stronger and faster but also aid in injury prevention. Running the NYC Marathon without any struggle or pain with negative splits for 26.2 miles and a super-fast recovery of fewer than 7 days is a good example that strength training is also the right decision also for marathoners.
Taking myself as an example I can only promise you that a great balance between strength training for runners and running training makes you a stronger runner long term. After completing my first marathon (TCS NYC MARATHON) in 2017 I realized in full effect how strength training plays a huge role in how well marathoners handle and recover from the challenge of running 26.2. miles.
WORKOUT VIDEOS FOR STRENGTH TRAINING FOR RUNNERS
Here are a couple of great exercises you can do to build stronger legs. Also, some of them are great strength training exercises for runners at home. If you are looking for upper body exercise check the runtastic website. My ab workout routine you will find below in a short video. Please don’t forget that a strong core for runners is as important as powerful legs.
Frequently asked questions about strength training for runners
HOW MANY TIMES A WEEK SHOULD A DISTANCE RUNNER DO STRENGTH TRAINING?
For beginners: don’t train any more than twice a week. Remember, you are a runner first and foremost – strength training is only supplementary to your overall training. If you reach the point where you are sacrificing energy for runs, or your running form is breaking down, it’s best to dial back. Beginners should be 85% cardio and 15% strength training.
For experienced runners: You could probably strength train 3-4 days out of the week. Should you though? This is often because more experienced runners have better joint strength than a novice runner and can handle the extra load of weight – on top of additional endurance training.
Again though, there is no hard and fast rule for balancing strength training and endurance training as a runner. Really, depends on your overall threshold for endurance, stamina, and physical strength.
Sprinters incorporate strength training more so than distance runners, but you can find a balance that works for your unique levels of strength.
SHOULD RUNNERS LIFT HEAVY?
Should you lift so heavy that you injure yourself and interfere with your overall running schedule?
Hell no! Lift weights that are within your physical range. So, you first need to determine the number of reps at a certain weight that gets challenging around the 6th-10th repetition.
Your weightlifting should be challenging enough to make you stronger. You shouldn’t be performing 15 – 20 repetitions with lighter weights if you are truly trying to get stronger.
The 15-20 rep range is catered more towards endurance training, and although endurance training is amazing, it’s counterproductive to go on long runs and then turn around and do endurance training with weights as well.
Best to keep it in the strength training range!
HOW OFTEN SHOULD RUNNERS DO CORE TRAINING?
If your goals are to increase your running economy and add stability to your overall frame, it makes sense to at least train your core once a week. Research has shown that strength training once a week is all you need to increase your overall strength – given that you are working out intensely enough.
But to minimize the risk of pulling an oblique or running with an insanely sore set of abdominals, it makes sense to spread the intensity out during the week – say 2-3 separate core workouts. That way you can break up some of the fatigue and soreness.
SHOULD YOU DO WEIGHTS AND CARDIO ON THE SAME DAY?
I say you should! It will depend on your overall training levels, but in my experience, if I did strength training on a separate day, I would be way too sore to run at my most effective.
Depending on how close you are to a race, or how much you are prioritizing miles over mass, it will depend on if you start the day off with a run or with weights.
Personally, though, I like to run in the morning and do weights at night. I’m a runner first, after all, and love to give whatever fuel I have in the tank to my running. By the time the evening comes around I usually catch a second wind and hit the weights!
WHAT EXERCISES IMPROVE RUNNING SPEED?
The best exercises for increasing running speed are those that build explosive strength. Sprints, squats, deadlifts, and lunges are all great compound movements that will build explosive leg strength and keep your pace strong where it counts.
Accelerating, when you need it most, is an underrated aspect of distance running. And compound movements are proven to increase your running speed.
ARE SQUATS GOOD FOR RUNNERS?
Yes, squats are great for runners – distance and sprinters. You can strengthen your glutes the most with squats and stabilize your entire posterior chain with the right prescription of squats (and their variations).
Middle distance runners can benefit from resistance band squat jumps, as they lead to a stronger neuromuscular performance overall.
Because neuromuscular performance is such a crucial aspect of successful running, squats are your secret weapon for running performance. During a marathon, in particular, your brain determines your overall musculature function – so increasing neuromuscular endurance will mean your muscles can adequately contract without excessive fatigue and slowing down.
WON’T ADDING MUSCLE MAKE ME A SLOWER RUNNER?
This is actually a myth. After all, many master endurance trainers concurrently train both strength and endurance training at the same time. A biological mechanism called the “Concurrent Effect” results, meaning that instead of seeing negative run times, adding more muscle actually leads to faster movements.
In other words, through the concurrent effect, muscle size and endurance strength balance each other out.
Unless you are becoming a bodybuilder and putting on some serious muscle, you will not see any negative times during your race. If you are a serious enough runner, you will naturally balance out strength training with endurance training to not impede your overall running performance.
HOW DO YOU PREVENT OVERTRAINING?
Simply put, you need to at least have 2 days to rest and recover. Overtraining is from pushing yourself for too long without adequate rest. There are a million and one definitions and examples of overtraining that people cite, but the major culprit of overtraining is not taking enough days off.
Also, make sure you aren’t hitting the same group of muscles for days on end. It’s smart to vary your workouts and focus on “splits”. Core/running on one day, running and legs on the other, and running and upper body the next.
Play around with what works best for you!