7 Reasons to Start Strength Training

As runners we, well, love to run. It's hard enough to make time for all our mileage. It can feel downright impossible to make time and space to get to the gym.

But the work you do off the road can make you faster, fitter, and help you reach your racing goals. "For most runners, strength training provides huge benefits that can't be gained by distance runs alone," says masters coach and runner Pete Magill, the South Pasadena, Calif.-based author of The Runner's Body (Experiment 2014). Here's how strength-training can improve your running life.

1. IT HELPS YOU INCREASE YOUR PUSH-OFF POWER

"Speed is the result of how much force you can generate in the push off phase of gait," explains coach and exercise physiologist Janet Hamilton, founder of runningstrong.com. "Get stronger, you have the ability to put forth more force, which increases the distance that you fly during the float phase from push off to landing. If you fly further, and keep your cadence the same, you'll be faster!"

2. IT BUILDS ALL THE MUSCLE FIBERS THAT RACING DEMANDS

"It's the best way to train all our muscle fibers," not just the ones in normal distance running, Magill says. Runners who only do distance runs train about 80% of their slow-twitch fibers and almost none of their faster fibers. But even a local 5K run will require runners to use 100% of their slow-twitch fibers and the majority of their faster fibers, he says.

3. YOU WILL RUN MORE EFFICIENTLY

A review of research published in the November 2008 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that resistance training improved endurance and running economy - or your body's ability to run faster with less oxygen. Runners who added three days of strength training increased their leg strength and endurance. "With stronger muscle fibers, fatigue is delayed at the same exercise intensity that you were doing before," says Hamilton.

4. YOU WILL BURN CALORIES WHEN YOU AREN'T WORKING OUT

Research has shown that muscle is more metabolically active than fat - so that if you have a lower percentage of body fat, and a higher percentage of muscle, you'll be able to burn more calories, even when you're not running. So strength training will help you improve your body composition, increase your lean body mass and decrease your percentage of body fat. The more muscle you add, the more calories you burn at rest.

5. IT WILL KEEP YOU YOUNG

Strength training will help stave off the dreadful effects of aging - loss of bone strength, muscle mass, and hormone production. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), muscle strength and mass start to decrease at age 40. The process speeds up after age 65. The loss of strength occurs the fastest in the lower body. It's thought that the biggest impact is on the fast-twitch fibers, whereas the slow-twitch fibers tend to maintain a little longer. Slow-twitch fibers are the first to be recruited for all activities – so they tend to maintain their strength and function, Hamilton says. "It's thought that fast-twitch muscle fibers atrophy in older athletes, but can be maintained with a higher-intensity challenge." The ACSM takes a firm stand on what to do about this: "One thing is certain, the inclusion of regular strength training sessions will play an important role delaying and reducing age- or inactivity-associated loss experience."

6. IT WILL HELP YOU STAY INJURY FREE

"Strong muscles are better able to absorb forces and this in turn can help reduce injury risk," says Hamilton. What's more, "strengthening all your muscles--especially muscles like hip abductors that are so important for stabilizing your stride--will help to injury-proof your body," says Magill. "If you don't train those muscles, you create the muscle imbalances that will create problems for your body down the road." Plus, many of the most common overuse injuries - IT Band syndrome and runner's knee - tend to result from poor strength in the glutes, abs and hip muscles, says Christy Barth, with the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. "Almost every diagnosis or dysfunctional issue requires glute work," she says, "so work on them lots!"

7. YOU WILL GET MORE OUT OF YOUR WORK OUT TIME

Magill recommends setting aside one workout a week for training that involves form drills, plyometrics, and bodyweight resistance training. "Yes, you miss out on one distance run, but now you have a stronger, more efficient stride to run all the rest of your distance runs, instead of an inferior stride that limits your ability to benefit from all that mileage, anyway," he says. Hamilton suggests functional exercises using body weight, that you can do at home. "If you're more inclined to be consistent with exercises when you have to 'go somewhere' to do them (the gym) then by all means – do that," she says. "But you can do just fine using body weight and gravity to do functional moves like squats, lunges, balance and reaching that have good carryover to the demands of running."