November 1, 2019

Training tips for runners: how strength training helps distance runners

A person working out with a strength training machine

Madison, Wis. — Want to set your personal record in the marathon or perform better in your next 10K? Better hit the weight room.

That may seem counterintuitive. Lifting weights increases bulk, and bulk slows distance runners down. But UW Health exercise specialist Karla Bock says adding a weight regimen into a distance training program can result in better running performance and fewer injuries.

"It's a great way to cross train," Bock says. "It strengthens your muscles and bones, and keeps you stable in your joints. When you are running longer distances, adding strength training to your running regiment will improve your running economy - performing at a higher level while experiencing less fatigue. It makes your body stronger overall."

Training Tips for Runners

Find tips and resources to help you improve your run from the professionals with UW Health Sports Medicine.

Training Tips for Runners

But distance runners shouldn't sprint down to the gym and pile as many plates as they can find on the bench press rack. Bock says runners need to answer a few key questions to determine how much and how often they should be lifting weights, the first being when their race is taking place.

The introduction of strength training should take place well before race day, Bock says. Many races are in the spring and summer months, making winter a perfect time to adopt a weight lifting routine. Runners in colder climates reap an additional benefit, as a weight program can serve as a reprieve from the snow and stinging winds familiar to winter training.

Once runners have plotted out their long-term training calendar to include weight training, they have to decide on specific exercises. Perhaps surprisingly, effective weight training doesn't mean hours and hours in the gym, Bock says.

"It doesn't have to be this huge, extensive program," Bock says. "I recommend twice a week, and it can be as little as 20 minutes per workout."

Bock suggests repetition-based or time-based programs. With the former, runners can select eight or 10 exercises, making sure to address each muscle group, and perform 12 to 15 reps of each.

Time-based programs use the same exercises but don't aim for a specific number of repetitions. Instead, runners can perform the exercises for, say, 30 seconds, knocking out as many repetitions as they can during that period, and then take a 15-second break before moving on to the next exercise.

Bock advises, "doing controlled, quality lifts, whether it's time or rep based, and by moving from one exercise to the next your workout is more efficient. By the time you get through that second set, you have an all-over body fatigue."

It also makes the best possible use of something distance runners always lack – time. Using a time-based program as an example, 10 30-second weight lifting exercises separated by 15-second rest periods is seven and one-half minutes for a complete set. With a drink of water between the first and second set, runners can efficiently and effectively complete a weight room session in less than 20 minutes.

That leaves time for a short run, or perhaps another cross training endeavor like biking or swimming. Paradoxically, Bock encourages the distance runners she trains to run less, because running every day can be tough on the muscles and joints.

"When I train someone for a marathon, I don't have them run more than four days a week," she says. "I have them cross train with non-impact exercises. They're still getting the aerobic benefit but they're not getting that pounding on their bodies. Running is a repetitive motion, and strength training helps prevent the wear and tear that can lead to injuries."