New runners often believe that jogging and running are the only workouts they need to improve at their sport. But that’s like saying a football player only needs to practice kicking a ball, or a tennis player only needs to practice swinging a racket.
Moving in a repetitive, single plane of motion doesn’t make you faster or build your endurance. In fact, it’s likely to cause muscle, tissue, or joint injuries.
Want to know what will make you a better runner? Strength training.
What Is Strength Training?
Strength training involves engaging your muscles in exercises that resist external forces, ultimately enhancing their endurance and strength. This form of training often encompasses various core workouts, compound exercises, functional movements, and mobility training.
During strength training, you subject your muscles to the resistance provided by workout equipment such as bodyweight exercises, YBells, kettlebells, dumbbells, or a combination of a bench and barbell. By challenging your muscles to overcome these forces, you stimulate their growth and development.
A vital aspect of an effective weight training program is progressive overload. This concept revolves around continually modifying your training variables to continuously challenge your body. This can involve adjustments in exercises, weight sizes, or intensity levels, gradually pushing your body beyond its current limits. Implementing progressive overload ensures that your muscles are consistently adapting and progressing.
4 Benefits of Weight Training for Runners
Many runners fear that weight training will cause them to bulk up. In reality, strength training appropriately done can improve muscle power and performance in endurance athletes. Meaning: lifting weights can help you run faster and further.
1. Strength Training Improves Running Economy
Your running economy is how efficiently you run. It’s measured by the amount of oxygen your body uses when you run but translates into how you feel when you run. Does your stride feel even or cumbersome? The more efficient your body is, the better your running economy is, which means your body has to work less. An excellent running economy allows you to run faster and further.
Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has shown that high-load strength exercises help runners use less energy and oxygen when they run, improving their running economy. Powerful movements like a kettlebell pick-up rack squat or a medicine ball skip lunge punch can improve your running economy and the muscle power of each stride in a 10K or marathon.
Additional research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) shows that resistance training can improve your running economy by upwards of 8%. Consistent strength training encourages better muscle coordination in your body, which will become ingrained in your run and improve your stride, making your run feel smoother.
2. Weightlifting Increases Speed
The improved running economy you get from lifting heavy offers you faster speeds and stronger finishes. Adding explosive compound movements to your training improves the neuromuscular coordination and power of your stride.
Strengthening your lower body (specifically your glutes, hip flexors, and quads) allows you to rapidly apply force and power each time you hit the ground, giving you further distance with each stride. Simply put, strength training makes you faster because you can cover more distance in less time.
3. Strength Training Helps to Prevent Injuries
Many runners often think of strength training as purely supplemental to their cardio training or only something you do if you’re injured. In reality, consistent strength training helps prevent injuries in the first place because it strengthens your connective tissues and muscles.
Running is in the sagittal plane of motion, with flexion and extension joint motions. Only moving in one plane of motion can overwork and injure muscle groups and ligaments. For runners, this tends to be your hips, knees, and ankles.
Since strength exercises often involve mobility and compound exercises, you’ll be conditioning your body to move in the transverse (twisting movements) and frontal (side-to-side movements) planes as well. If you haven’t trained your body to move in these other planes, you’re more prone to injury when you attempt to do so.
4. Weight Training Can Correct Muscle Imbalances
Have you ever gone to see your doctor about low back pain, only to find out that you’ve injured your gluteal muscles? Or maybe you’ve felt tightness on your non-dominant side after an afternoon at the batting cages? This type of muscle pain and tightness is caused by muscle imbalances.
When one muscle group is injured or in pain, surrounding areas of the body will attempt to make up for that imbalance. Muscle imbalances can create additional stress on the nearby joints. This will likely affect your mobility and range of motion, which also increases your risk of injury.
Muscle imbalances can be corrected through exercise, specifically by improving your global muscle balance. Unilateral strength exercises such as single-arm bicep curls or single-leg deadlifts can help you identify imbalances and fix them.
How to Add Strength Training to Your Personal Fitness Routine
Here are some tips to help you successfully add weight training to your fitness routine.
When Should You Start Weight Training?
As with any changes to your training routine, it’s best to start strength training during your off-season when you’re not competing.
When Should You Add Weights?
If you’re new to working out or running, you should start with bodyweight exercises and core workouts to build strength. Exercises like planks, squats, push-ups, and lunges are great for mobility and challenging your body in different planes of motion. These exercises will help you build a supportive framework that will lower your risk of injury and fatigue.
Don’t forget about progressive overload — Once you’ve progressed through the bodyweight exercises and have developed proper form in each movement, you can add light free weights. This turns planks into planks with rows, squats into squat presses, push-ups into push-up rows, and lunges into kettlebell rack lunges.
How Often Should You Be Strength Training?
Incorporating strength training to enhance your running can be as straightforward as dedicating 30 minutes to strength exercises three times a week. It is advisable to add these exercises at the end of your regular workouts.
When choosing your exercises, prioritize full-body workouts to ensure that you distribute the workload and minimize the risk of overtaxing or injuring specific muscle groups. Utilizing upper and lower body splits, along with core exercises, can be beneficial.
Crucially, if you're lifting heavy weights, it is recommended to perform your strength training after your running session, never before. A study published by the NCBI suggests that runners should allow 24 to 48 hours of recovery time after engaging in strength training. This allows your body to recuperate adequately and maximize the benefits of both running and strength training.
How Can You Add More Difficulty to Your Weight Training?
You can continue to dial up the difficulty by either increasing the tempo or the weight or compounding the movements with YBell grip changes. A squat press can become a pick-up cross catch squat press, and a med ball lunge can become a med ball alternating back lunge and press.
Strength Training Mistakes to Watch Out For
Here are some common mistakes runners make when introducing strength training to their fitness routine:
- Poor Form: Focus on quality over quantity when you introduce new exercises to your training, and always get your form down before increasing weight.
- Increasing Weight Too Quickly: Too much volume can lead to injury, especially with powerful movements. Add weight gradually.
- Too Many Reps: If increased strength and power are your main running goals, you should be focusing on increasing your weight while keeping your reps low.
- Improper Breathing Techniques: Proper breathing is vital to weight training. You want to exhale during the concentric portion of a lift and inhale during the eccentric portion.
- Only Focusing on Lower Body: Training for upper body and core strength is essential to keeping proper form when running.
- Not Strength Training Consistently: Consistency is key to all physical endeavors, especially building muscle strength and core stability.