How to start a strength training program for runners to prevent injury and improve performance

How to start a strength training program for runners to prevent injury and improve performance

This is a guest post by Dave Durell, MS, PTA, CCS of StrengthAfter50.com.

Dave is the co-owner along with his wife Patty of Rock Solid Fitness personal training studio in Dunedin Florida. He has worked as a Collegiate and NFL Strength Coach, and had a 26-year career as a licensed Physical Therapist Assistant. 

Merging these methodologies together, Dave now helps men and women in their 50's and beyond to build strength and muscle, in less time, with less risk of injury.

He operates the popular website StrengthAfter50.com, and is the creator of the Stay Strong Forever Program, an online strength training program that helps people over 50 stay strong, rebuild themselves and live full, active lives.

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Over the last 40 years, I’ve had the pleasure of creating an effective strength training program for runners who come to me for personal training. Some of them are looking to improve their 5k time, others have aches and pains and hear that proper strength training can help get rid of them. 

Runners are some of my favorite athletes to work with because they are not scared to push themselves and understand that hard work is what elicits improvement in your body and your performance. 

But it seems there are still many serious runners out there who don’t recognize how much a properly structured strength training program specifically for runners can help their running performance, and help minimize injuries.

This post will cover the benefits of strength training for runners, how to get started, and how to coordinate strength training with your running schedule.

What are the benefits of weight lifting for runners?

There are tons of reasons why runners should be strength training, but there are two main ones:

  • The most important benefit of strength training for a runner is the decreased chance of injury. In a sport where overuse injuries are so prevalent, stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments are of the utmost importance to keep you healthy and able to run. 
  • The second benefit of strength training is increased performance. Both top speed and endurance can be increased through lifting weights. Speed can be increased because of the muscles’ increased force output, and endurance can be increased through better running economy. A stronger muscle uses less energy to propel a runner across the ground than a weaker muscle, and stronger muscles can help you hold good posture, even when you’re tired.

What kind of strength training should runners do?

So what should a distance runner’s strength training program look like? You should have 2 full-body workouts that you alternate.  These workouts should address the needs of the runner, as noted in the examples below.  

A good strength training program for runners would look something like this:

Workout 1:

  • Leg Press – lower body power
  • Hip Adduction – injury prevention
  • Calf Raise – lower body power
  • Chest Press – arm swing, upper body endurance
  • Mid Row - arm swing, upper body endurance
  • Low Back Extension – running form, core strength
  • Abdominal Crunch – core strength 

Workout 2:

  • Leg Extension – lower body power
  • Leg Curl – lower body power
  • Hip Abduction – injury prevention
  • Dorsiflexion – injury prevention 
  • Shoulder Press – arm swing, upper body endurance
  • Pulldown or Chin Up – arm swing, upper body endurance
  • Trunk Rotation – running form, core strength

These two workouts cover nearly all the muscles in the body, including the major muscles in your upper and lower legs, hips, midsection and upper body. Each repetition should be performed in a slow and controlled fashion, and to muscular failure for the safest, most efficient and most effective results.

How many times a week should runners strength train?

You should perform these workouts twice a week, with at least 2 days in-between workouts, at times when running volume is low.  If running volume is high, such as when preparing for a race, cut back to once a week, alternating between workouts.

TIP: if you’re not seeing progress on a workout-to-workout basis on most of your strength training exercises, decrease the frequency of your strength training workouts from twice a week to 3 times every 2 weeks, or just once a week.

How do you structure running and strength training?

Now there are two very common objections for runners.

First, objection: “I don’t want to lift because I don’t want to get big and bulky; it will slow me down.” 

This is not true! Fat is what makes you big and bulky, and as we established earlier, muscle will actually help you run faster!

The second most common objection is this: “There’s no time to lift between all of the running that I’m doing.” 

This is a poor excuse. It is similar to the person not saving money because they can’t afford to. In reality, they can’t afford not to! 

Go back to benefit #1: increased resistance to injury. Injuries are so common in runners, and strength training is the best way to help prevent those injuries.

Summary: Get started on a safe, effective strength training program for runners

  • The most important benefit of strength training for a runner is the decreased chance of injury.
  • The second benefit of strength training is increased performance.
  • A good strength training program for runners would consist of 2 full-body workouts that you alternate.  
  • These workouts should address the needs of the runner, such as lower body power, injury prevention, upper body endurance, running form, and core strength.
  • You should perform these workouts twice a week, with at least 2 days in-between workouts, at times when running volume is low.
  • If running volume is high, such as when preparing for a race, cut back to once a week, alternating between workouts.

So there you have it, a safe, sustainable, time-efficient strength training program for runners.  Get started today!


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