What Kind of Strength Training is Best For Runners?

A runner at a gym takes a break between sets

A well-designed training program can be derailed by running too many miles too soon, and a PR attempt could be quickly ruined by starting out too fast.

Runners tend to make similar mistakes when they approach strength training. We forego basic principles and progressions in favor of more Insta-worthy workouts, to our own detriment.

The constant stream of “pop culture” exercises being pushed to us through social media platforms and search engines is not only potentially ineffective, but could be downright dangerous. There is a lot of noise in the strength and conditioning space, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed and confused.

There are three main purposes behind effective strength training for runners:
  • To become more durable: better able to handle increasing frequency/volume/intensity and prevent injury.
  • To become more adaptable: better able to absorb the training effect of different stimuli.
  • To become more skilled: better able to perform efficient and economical movement sequencing as you run.

Use these principles to take a more educated approach to your strength training and to progress as your body is ready. This will make the exercises more effective and more likely to improve your running.

A man doing pull ups in a gym

Runners tend to make the following mistakes in strength training:

  • Attempting exercises without a proper understanding of the form or the appropriate range of motion needed to complete the exercise, ultimately compromising the effectiveness of the exercises and potentially increasing the risk of injury.
  • Performing exercises or movements that lack specificity (transference), and have no direct affect on your running.

Many strength training exercises will increase your fitness and make you generally stronger. However, not all exercises will actually improve your running. If your goal is to become a better, stronger and more durable runner, embrace a strength training program that helps develop more efficient and economical movement with an emphasis on endurance as opposed to critical or absolute power.

You don’t have to give up your favorite exercises or skip your next group fitness class. Simply take a more critical look at how you approach your non-running workouts to ensure what you are doing will actually help your running.

Keep the following training principles in mind:

1. Periodization: The division of a training cycle into smaller and more manageable intervals with the goal of managing and coordinating training to bring an athlete to peak performance or manage performance over a long season.

Takeaway: Build a solid foundation of basic skills before moving onto something more complex.

2. Progressive Overload: Gradual increases in relative frequency, duration, intensity or resistance that challenge the body enough to elicit a stress response.

Takeaway: Work at your current threshold levels in order to develop strength over time.

3. Specificity: Sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce the desired effect.

Takeaway: Repeatedly perform skills specific to running in order to improve performance.

Fleet Feet spoke with industry-leading experts to help you design a safe, effective and functional strength-training routine. We will start with the basics: learn how to become a more durable and resilient runner from the inside out. This shifts the focus away from large muscle groups and instead emphasizes running-specific strength.

“Jumping rope not only strengthens the soleus and gastrocnemius [muscles in your calves], but also helps strengthen the feet and ankles. It teaches proper foot plant and position during the running gait cycle. Long hold single-leg balancing will work ankle stability.”

The stabilization phase is also a good time to evaluate your flexibility and mobility, to determine appropriate range of motions and identify pre-existing compensation patterns. Most runners have one side of the body that is stronger than the other. You should work on identifying compensations or imbalances, and work on strengthening those issues first.

Using an overhead squat assessment is a great way to evaluate your current capacity. As you sink into the squat, keep track of when your arms start to fall forward or your heels begin to peel off the ground. The overhead squat can help you identify compensation patterns and limitations in your range of motion (ROM). Perform this exercise in front of a mirror.

“We evaluate strength, flexibility, ankle mobility, hip mobility, T-spine mobility, myofascial tissue, the autonomic nervous system as it related to abnormal breathing patterns, soft tissue hygiene and nutrition,” says Ron DeAngelo, the Director of Sports Performance Training at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh. “This gives us what we need to help a person perform at their best.”

DeAngelo is nationally known for training many notable sports stars, including NFL All-Pro players, NBA All-Stars, tennis and golf professionals.

“The most important thing is to find out what your compensation patterns are, and then correct them first,” he says. “Then you can build the ‘Super Structure’ (the human body).”

Developing mobility and ROM necessary to properly perform loaded exercises is a complex dance between the physical and mental components. Your body needs to slowly develop increased ROM, while at the same time your brain needs to “trust” the body’s ability to move in that specific fashion. You definitely don’t want to use an external weight (load) before developing the appropriate ROM.

Dr. Troy Baxendell, a highly sought after physical therapist and adjunct professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, confirms the implicit importance of developing a good foundation of movement before progressing to the next phase of strength.

“I think the biggest error is not so much exercise selection, but in not developing the correct motor patterns first,” Baxendell says. “The major drawback is [the runner] is not ready for the barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell. They haven’t developed the correct motor pattern, and then they try to do the exercise under load and the pattern is worse.”

“The range of motion is individualized to the person,” Baxendell says. “Never force a ROM. You should work into [it] gradually. As you get stronger, your brain will trust the ROM more.”

Phase Two: Strength Endurance (Hypertrophy & Maximal Strength)

Only once you are stable and mobile should you move onto the next phase. Remember to always keep the Principle of Specificity in mind. Many exercises promoted in standardized strength-training routines lack the sport-specific transference you should look for.

Picking up a heavy kettlebell and swinging it around for a while might feel effective, but any underlying compensations could spell trouble in the long run. What you are doing is less important than how you are doing it.

“Sport is movement, and you have to be biomechanically fit,” says Yardon Brantley, President of SHAPE Training, a performance-based fitness studio in Pittsburgh. “Strength-training is really problem and solution-based. It’s not really about muscles, it’s about identifying a problem and then solving it. Getting stronger is just the result.”

“Running is a repetitive sport, so how can we create durability?” Brantley asks. “Some people have durability issues because of strength and balance compensations, or lack of strength entirely. Most people spend a lot of time in a compromised position (sitting, wearing high heels, etc.) which a lot of times affects their performance in ways they don’t know. So then we undo those things, so we can get down to something more clean and basic for us. A mailman and a construction worker are going to have different issues.”

Emma Coburn demonstrates a glute bridge exercise

Once you know your individual imbalances and compensation patterns, it’s easier to develop a strength-training routine to focus on correcting them. For the average athlete, it’s not relevant to be able to squat with a bunch of weight on the bar. For distance running especially, prioritizing maximal strength with poor movement over strength endurance with quality movement is a recipe for disaster.

“I think one mistake runners make is thinking increasing critical strength will actually transfer to running. In most cases it won’t, so I rarely try to actually get my runners ‘strong.’ It’s more of a durability approach,” says Lucho. “Critical strength is useful and good, but it isn’t a prerequisite to being a good, or even great, runner. Focusing on critical strength and the absolute benefits is a last five percent thing. Let’s worry about the other 95 percent that might need work.”

“With that in mind, loaded barbell exercises are generally not needed to make a runner strong enough,” Lucho says. “I also see runners lifting incorrectly with loaded exercises, stressing a joint or muscle, and then eventually end up with either diminished running consistency or a niggle/twinge.”

“Something I am fairly adamant about is not pushing or forcing mobility when loaded,” Lucho says. “Deep squats (butt to floor) and pistol squats are terrible, and can actually worsen the tendon stiffness in the patellar tendon. They also place unnecessary torque and pressure on the knee joints.”

“A thing that needs to happen is that the athlete needs to execute the plyo[metric] correctly,” Lucho says. “It’s a skill-based movement, and if their body position is wrong or if they have poor stability in the ankles, knees, hips or pelvis then it’s not going to be worth it.”

Plyometric training is extraordinarily useful for runners looking to improve performance, by developing more economical movement patterns and increasing force production while minimizing ground contact time. However, in order to safely and effectively perform plyometrics, you must have the proper foundation of stabilization and strength endurance.

“Human physiology is clear,” DeAngelo says. “You should train through the full spectrum of strength and power.”

As a distance runner looking to remain healthy and improve performance, spend time developing a solid foundation and framework to build from. Only then should you try all those things you are seeing other athletes do on the ‘Gram. A better mover makes a better athlete; and a better athlete makes a better runner.

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