This blog was written as part of our partnership with Ultra Trail Drakensberg. A trail race in the beautiful Drakensberg mountain range of South Africa, the race offers distances from 21 km to 100 miles.
If you search the internet for ‘strength training for runners’ there’s a good chance you will feel confused about whether you need to do strength training and what exercises are beneficial. Some insist no strength training is needed, while others are lifting heavy in the gym two to three times per week. What gives? I want to share some practical tips about strength training that I have learned in the 15 years since I first started coaching endurance athletes.
Firstly, if you are interested in learning about the science behind the effect of strength training on endurance performance, biokineticist and high performance strength coach David Leith wrote a brilliant training blog for UTD runners last year on this topic.
1. Should runners strength train?
- As with all things regarding training, there will be variable results depending on the individual athlete. There will be runners who do no strength training at all and will not get injured, and there will be runners who do strength train and still manage to get injured. Your job is to figure out what works for you.
- Let’s talk about longevity in sport. Do you want to be able to run for as long as possible? Do you want to be able to spend time hiking and running in the mountains when you are in your 60’s, 70’s even 80’s? Performing resistance training helps us maintain muscle mass and, in old age, helps reduce the rate at which we lose muscle mass. This, in turn, reduces the rate at which your VO2 max declines with age and allows better functional movement over time. As I move through middle age as an athlete, longevity in sport has become a main motivator for doing strength training.
2. Choosing the right program for you
- If it is feasible for the athlete (finances, ability to get to a gym), it can be beneficial to work with a biokineticist or personal trainer for 1 on 1 sessions at a gym. It is important to work with someone that has experience training endurance athletes so he or she provides a strength program that compliments your running training. Frequency is typically 1 – 2x/week.
- Another option is to follow a strength program that you follow independently either at home or at a gym. Some athletes will pay for a biokineticist or personal trainer to design a program, while others will refer to resources such as books, coaches, YouTube channels, etc.). One book I found incredibly useful with regards to strength training is Running Rewired by Jay DiCharry.
- Some athletes respond well to performing shorter but more frequent strength sessions. For example, 15 – 20 minutes done four to six times per week. Often times these sessions can be performed before or after a run. This works particularly well for athletes pressed for time who would lose too much running volume by dedicating one or two sessions per week to strength training instead of running.
3. Periodize your strength training throughout the year
- Plan the races you would like to do for the year and look at months where your training load from running will be lower. These would be good times to emphasize more strength training as you will have more time and energy to dedicate to it.
- When training load from running is high and you are training for a specific race, it is still beneficial to perform strength training. However, anecdotally I find many athletes find it easier to move into a maintenance phase with strength training where they reduce the frequency of strength training when running volume is high. The focus is on key exercises that help keep the athlete healthy and injury free.