Getty ImagesArtem Varnitsim
Strength training is an essential supplement to a runner’s roadwork because it strengthens muscles and joints, which can improve race times and decrease injury risk.
If you want to perform at your full potential, you need to take a comprehensive approach to running. That means targeting areas of fitness you may not normally pay attention to, like flexibility, balance, mobility, and strength.
“Strength work accomplishes three big goals for runners,” says Jason Fitzgerald, USATF-certified running coach, founder of Strength Running in Denver, Colorado. “It prevents injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues; it helps you run faster by improving neuromuscular coordination and power; and it improves running economy by encouraging coordination and stride efficiency.”
And scientific research backs this up: Incorporating weights into your regular exercise routine has been proven to increase your speed and VO2 max. The reason? Your muscles don’t need to expend as much energy to hit a certain pace, according to Kenji Doma, Ph.D., a sports and exercise scientist at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. “Your brain alters its neural recruitment pattern, calling up the most fatigue-resistant muscle fibers so you exert less energy.”
Ways to Add Strength Training Into Your Routine
It can be a bit intimidating to work out at a gym if you’re not used to it, but it’s a great way to get access to all the equipment and space you need. If you’re unsure about how to strength train on your own, taking a group class like CrossFit, Barre, TRX, yoga, or Pilates are all great options.
If you’d rather be outside, take your weights with you, do bodyweight exercises like pushups, lunges, and planks, or use equipment like benches for tricep dips and bars on a playground for inverted rows.
You can also integrate cross-training, like cycling or swimming, into your workout routine to build strength and flexibility in muscles that running doesn’t utilize and to help prevent injury.
Focusing on different body parts on different days is another effective way to organize your strength training each week. That way, you can strategically schedule “lower body” or “leg day” a few days after a long run to give your body proper time to fully recover. Below, experts weigh in on why your lower body, core, and upper body are important and offer a few exercises to try.
Lower Body: Since you use your legs to propel you when you run, it’s important to make sure they’re as strong as they can be. Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and creator of Runner’s World’s IronStrength workout, recommends exercises such as plyometric lunges, calf raises, and farmer’s carries a few times a week.
Core: Running requires a solid foundation. When you run, your abdominal and back muscles fire to stabilize your spine. Strengthening your core, all of the muscles that surround and support your spine, will help your legs also grow stronger. Just 15 minutes a few times a week is all it takes to reap the benefits. “The stronger your core, the more solid you are as you hit the ground,” says Jack Daniels, Ph.D., Olympic distance-running coach and exercise physiologist.
“That reduces your need for unnecessary stabilization, and allows you to be a more economical runner.” Greg McMillan, a running coach and exercise scientist in Flagstaff, Arizona, recommends exercises such as superman, glute bridges, and planks.
Upper Body: “Arm drive is a big part of running—when your legs get tired, you use your arms more because of the kinetic chain; you can’t have one without the other,” says Pamela Geisel, M.S., an exercise physiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Tisch Sports Performance Center in New York City. Doing exercises such as pushups, inverted rows, and reverse flys a few times a week target important upper body muscles like your back, shoulders, and chest.