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Improve Your Running Economy With Strength Training

A man puts chalk on his hand before lifting weights in a gym

The adage “practice makes perfect” holds some truth, but distance runners may want to think outside that box. Studies show that a robust training regimen consisting of explosive strength training can improve an athlete’s performance and run economy (our body's ability to efficiently utilize oxygen as energy).

Running programs are built to progress week by week, challenging athletes to push the thresholds of distance and pace. Many long-distance runners, though, spend four to six days per week hitting the pavement, fixated on miles and time. This narrowed approach has many athletes hitting a wall.

Instead of lacing up the sneakers, spending time in a weight room may be the ticket to improvement.

Strength training has been shown to enhance running economy, help prevent injury, and improve overall running performance—meaning runners of all distances can benefit from a well-constructed strength regimen.

Before you decide to pump some iron, it’s crucial to understand which exercises to implement and how to design a program according to your chosen race distance.

Strength Training to Power Up Your 5K

A woman rests between sets while lifting weights in a gym

In 2017, 8.89 million athletes registered to run a 5K race, making it the most popular distance for US runners.

A host of free running apps and online training programs encourage people of all fitness levels to get up and get active. Many of those 5K training plans are a mix of short and long runs, tempo workouts, and intervals, but they leave out strength training.

Although a variety of running workouts assists in bettering a runner’s aerobic power (the body’s ability to utilize oxygen as energy), studies have shown that incorporating a strength regimen two to three days per week for six to eight weeks can enhance the running economy of a 5K athlete.

Implementing a heavy strength training program coupled with plyometrics improves the relationship between neuromuscular and anaerobic conditions, according to the study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

In short, 5K runners can expect to see improvement in muscle force, elasticity, and biomechanics—leading to better running performance, decreased fatigue and the potential of improving speed.

Strength Training for Marathon and Beyond

A man wipes sweat from his face after a workout

Only 0.5 percent of the US population has run a marathon. Long-distance junkies are unique, and so is their training.

Training for a marathon or ultramarathon is essentially an unpaid, part-time job, employing those with gumption, dedication, and a genuine love for the sport of running. As the race distance grows, though, coaches and runners must acknowledge the probabilities of overuse injuries, biomechanic compensations, and fatigue.

Programming for a marathon, or beyond, should be aerobically progressive, incorporate cross-training elements (tempo workouts, intervals, long/short runs), and utilize periodized strength training. While heavy strength training improves running economy, studies also show a decrease in fatigue onset for long-distance athletes who lift.

An increase in muscle strength helps to decrease the time to peak force during muscle contraction leading to increased muscle relaxation. Simply said, an increase in muscle strength can help provide the energy to make each stride more efficient, leading to better blood circulation, improved oxygen uptake and a longer time to exhaustion.

Sample Strength Training for Runners

The question is not if distance athletes should incorporate a strength regimen into their training schedule but, instead, how. There are a variety of ways a coach can periodize a strength program to fit the distance of the athlete.

A 5K program will include a shorter timeline, around six to eight weeks, whereas a marathon or ultra program can be 12-16 weeks or longer.

Sample Periodization Workout Program for 5K Runners

Weeks

Workout

1-2

Heavy strength training

3-4

Heavy strength, plyometrics

5-6

Lightweight strength, plyometrics

7-8

Mobility, lightweight strength

Examples of heavy strength training for 5K runners might look like this:

  • Weighted squat: 4 sets of 6 reps
  • Deadlift: 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Split squat: 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Leg press: 4 sets of 6 reps

And a sample plyometric circuit for 5K runners could look like this (repeat for three rounds):

  • Jump squats: 1 minute
  • Pulse squats: 1 minute
  • Burpee: 1 minute
  • Wall sit: 1 minute

Sample Periodization Workout Program for Marathon Runners

Weeks

Workout

1-4

Heavy strength training

5-8

Heavy strength, plyometrics

9-10

Lightweight strength, plyometrics

11-12

Mobility, lightweight strength

Marathon runners can benefit from heavy strength training, like this:

  • Weighted Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Bulgarian Lunge: 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Clean and Press: 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Straight Leg Deadlift: 3 sets of 10 reps

An example plyometrics circuit for marathon runners looks like this (repeat for three rounds):

  • Jumping Lunges: 1 minute
  • High Knee: 1 minute
  • Uni Runners Hop: 1 minute
  • Jumping Jack: 1 minute


By Amanda Boyd. Amanda has a fierce love for the outdoors and passion for staying active. Although running is her first love, she spends much of her time hiking, biking, and perfecting her pickleball skills. As a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, and endurance specialist, Amanda spends most of her time talking fitness and coaching clients.

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