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How to Integrate Strength Training with Running

1. Expect muscle soreness after the first workout.

Following the first strength training workout a runner will generally experience moderate to significant delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Runners who are new to strength training often worry that, "If I always feel like this after the strength workout there is no way I can continue to strength train and perform key running workouts). This soreness will diminish and eventually disappear after two to three days. Soreness following subsequent strength training workouts will be much less severe than following the first (and sometimes the second) strength workout. Normal running can and should still be performed during this period of soreness. Do not attempt to stretch to relieve soreness as stretching plays absolutely no role in reducing (or preventing) muscle soreness.

2. Plan the strength workout to fit in with weekly workouts.

The goal is to be recovered from strength training so that the strength workouts do not negatively impact the performance of weekly "key" running workouts. In order to maximize key running workouts, follow these guidelines:

  • Do not strength train the day before or the day of (prior to) a speed work out.
  • Strength train the day after or the day of (following) the speed work out.
  • Many runners will not have a problem with strength training prior to a long run. However, if possible, attempt to strength train following the long run. If the run is performed Saturday, strength train later in the day on Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

3. Stop strength training for a 2 week period prior to a marathon or important race.

The goal is to be recovered from strength training so that the strength workouts do not negatively impact the performance of weekly "key" running workouts. In order to maximize key running workouts, follow these guidelines:

  • Do not strength train the day before or the day of (prior to) a speed work out.
  • Strength train the day after or the day of (following) the speed work out.
  • Many runners will not have a problem with strength training prior to a long run. However, if possible, attempt to strength train following the long run. If the run is performed Saturday, strength train later in the day on Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

4. Resume strength training as soon as possible after the race.

Strength training should be resumed as soon as possible following a race including the marathon - even if the runner is sore and does not feel "up to it." A Saturday marathon should be followed with a Monday or Tuesday strength training workout. Strength training theoretically enhances recovery time after the marathon because it increases blood flow to sore muscles. The level of intensity and amount of resistance (weight) used during this workout should be decreased. The second workout following the marathon will return to a normal intensity level.

5. It is impossible to add enough muscle mass to hurt run performance.

A prevalent apprehension associated with strength training for distance runners is that intense strength training will cause a runner to add muscle size and the runner will attain a "muscle bound" or "bulky" appearance thus negatively impacting running performance.

Unfortunately, this myth is perpetuated by the running community including well meaning coaches, athletes and running magazines. The truth is that intense strength training with heavy weights will not make a distance runner "bulky" unless the runner has the genetic predisposition to add muscle; a virtual impossibility for most distance runners. The genetic characteristics that runners generally possess are very different than the genetic characteristics of a body builder or power athlete.

It is impossible for a distance runner to significantly increase muscle to the point where a runner appears bulky and experience a decrease in running performance - no matter how much or how hard they strength train.

6. Body composition will improve with strength training.

One of the primary positive outcomes associated with strength training is an improvement in body composition. Excessive body fat serves as "drag" in any running distance. Eliminating drag improves running speed when all other factors are kept equal. Strength training increases metabolism so that ultimately, less fat is stored. The result is a stronger and leaner runner. Without strength training, aging runners lose muscle tissue and metabolism slows - this is essentially an inescapable truth.

Unless a runner strength trains, he will lose muscle as he ages, and still accrue a degree of fat. A 48 year old runner who weighs 152 pounds has a much higher percentage of body fat than when he was 22 years old and still weighed 152 pounds. Over time, muscle is lost and fat increases.

It is impossible for a distance runner to significantly increase muscle to the point where a runner appears bulky and experience a decrease in running performance - no matter how much or how hard they strength train.

7. The competitive race season is the most important time to strength train.

The most important time for the distance runner to strength train is during the competitive racing season. However, this seems to be the time period when most runners discontinue strength training. Strength training, like any other mode of training, stimulates a series of positive physiological adaptations.

These adaptations are "use it or lose it." If strength training is discontinued, the positive adaptations diminish after a matter of a few weeks. If a runner wants to benefit from strength training, it is imperative that they strength train during the racing season. Do not bother strength training in December through March if you plan on discontinuing strength training throughout the spring and summer racing season. No runner would consider discontinuing running completely all summer long because they will be racing more. Runners understand that they must run (and include important components including speed, tempo, long runs) on a consistent basis in order to maintain or improve fitness.

In order to maximize race performance during the spring and summer, continue to strength train with attention paid to the timing and spacing of these workouts. Even one strength workout every ten to fourteen days throughout the spring and summer racing season will allow the runner to maintain muscle strength and injury resilience. There is no "season" for strength training - it must be performed year round on a consistent basis.

8. Continue to strength train when injured.

Most running injuries do not interfere with the ability to strength train effectively. Often times an injury will exist that prevents a runner from running; often the runner mistakenly assumes that he or she cannot strength train safely either. The truth is that the strength training routine can be modified to "work around" the injured areas. If an ankle injury exists, the entire upper body, midsection, hip abductors and adductors, hip flexors, hamstrings, and quadriceps can and should be trained productively. In this specific case, it is likely that only calf and tibia dorsi flexion exercises must be avoided.

9. Continue to strength train during periods of high mileage running.

Runners and coaches may often assume that as a runner continually increases his mileage, he must consider discontinuing strength training to allow for the increased running volume. The period of high mileage running is possibly the most important time for the inclusion of strength training, as it is during this time that the runner is most susceptible to injury. Some coaches theorize that an athlete only has a finite amount of energy from which all training activities draw upon. This assumption mistakenly assumes that the body responds to all physiological stresses in the same manner; specifically, that strength training and running impact the body's recovery systems in the same manner.

10. A separate warm-up before strength training is not necessary.

Performing a separate warm-up before the performance of the strength training workout is not necessary. The first few repetitions of each set of the strength training workout actually serve as a muscle specific warm-up. As the set continues and fatigue sets in, the involved musculature is "warmed-up" and can be safely exercised to the point of muscle fatigue.

11. Elite runners should strength train.

Widespread throughout all levels of athletics is the "copy the elite" approach to developing training programs. High school football coaches look to college coaches for training and coaching techniques just as aspiring NBA basketball players emulate the skills and techniques of Michael Jordan. In much the same way, distance runners look to the practices of elite runners and coaches to learn about training and racing strategies. In addition, elite runners look to other elite runners for training advice.

The drawback of this approach is that the common training approaches used by elite athletes may not be the cause of there success. The training approaches are not the independent variable to the runners' success. For this reason, a runner can not rely solely on the experience of other runners and coaches but instead, must assimilate this anecdotal evidence with the findings of peer-reviewed scientific research. Many elite runners world-wide do not strength train (many do), however, their performance would likely be even better if they did.

12. Recreational runners should strength train.

Many middle of the pack runners may wonder why strength training is important for them as they do not aspire to qualify for the Olympics, the Boston marathon, or run a sub 4:00 hour marathon. Strength training is not reserved solely for runners seeking to maximize performance. Instead, strength training should be viewed as a foundational activity that allows the recreational runner to run with a decreased risk of injury while also contributing to improved fitness and health (improved body composition, increased metabolism, increased bone mineral density, etc.).

13. "Functional" strength training is a fallacy.

Although the term "functional training" has become increasingly popular in the sport and fitness industry, the use of the term is somewhat deceiving. The intent of so called "functional training" is to perform movements that mimic movements performed during daily life. The thought is that these "functional" exercises carry over to our normal movements in daily living.

However, the scientific research in the area of motor learning and control definitively indicates that strength training movements that attempt to mimic everyday movements do NOT carry over to everyday movements. Stronger muscles make daily life easier, more efficient, etc. but the mimicking of these movements while training is not necessary. Instead, exercisers should strengthen the muscles that are used to perform the specific movement in the most effective manner possible.

Consider a running example: A functional training advocate would suggest that because running is an activity performed on one's feet, we should perform lunges (an exercise for the thighs and glutes) as they too are performed while standing. In truth, the runners goal should be to strengthen these muscles in the most effective means possible, which often involves sitting on a leg extension, leg curl or leg press machine. The movements are different than running (as the exerciser is clearly not on her feet) but the leg muscles are strengthened and this improved strength transfers to running - not the neuro-muscular pattern of the strength training exercise. Unfortunately, functional training will continue to grow in popularity as many health club chains and fitness certification associations espouse the alleged benefits of this type of training. For more information or questions on this controversial topic, contact Luke Carlson at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

14. Long term consistency is the key to success.

Strength training is a "use-it-or lose it" adaptation. If strength training is discontinued, muscle strength and the many benefits of strength training are lost rapidly. For this reason, strength training must be performed on a consistent basis all year round - runners should aim for a minimum of one workout every seven to ten days.

Many well intentioned runners assume that strength training is an important component of the "base" building phase of a runner's training. As racing season nears and the intensity and volume of workouts increase, the runner will discontinue strength training with the intent to recover from intense running workouts. For example, many runners strength train throughout the winter months and then discontinue strength training when the racing season of April through August arrives.

Another example includes a well intentioned runner who strength trains consistently throughout the spring and summer but then discontinues strength training in August to spend the months of August, September, and October on running workouts leading up to a fall marathon. The benefits of strength training will disappear by the time the race has arrived. This is analogous to studying May, June, and July for a test that will be taken in October.

Strength training produces a separate list of adaptations compared to running. Both running adaptations and strength training adaptations are extremely important for performance and injury prevention. A runner should not discontinue strength training in attempt to focus on running just as a runner should not discontinue eating protein completely to focus on eating carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are important macronutrients that are necessities in a healthful diet. In the same way, speed work, tempo work, long runs, strength training, and rest are important components of a comprehensive running training program.

During periods of high volume and high intensity running, the frequency and intensity of the strength training workout can be slightly reduced, but should never be discontinued.

15. More than running is needed to attain optimal health.

Running is an effective means for improving cardio-respiratory fitness and burning calories thus contributing to weight control. However, running does not prevent the progressive loss of muscle mass associated with aging. Runners often assume that because they run, they must be fit. However, research shows that even elite master runners lose muscle tissue in the same way a sedentary individual does. Running alone does not maximize metabolism and bone mineral density and does nothing to improve muscle strength. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends strength training for all adults.

16. Yoga, Pilates, cross training are not substitutes for strength training.

A common misconception among runners is that "I perform yoga on a regular basis, so I don't need to strength train." Another common assumption includes, "I choose to cross-train and do Pilates a few times a week instead of strength training." Yoga and Pilates are not substitutes for proper strength training. If a runner enjoys these activities, then he should feel free to perform them - but these activities do not produce the same benefits that strength training do.

Advocates of yoga and Pilates claim that these activities develop long lean muscles and are important for injury prevention. These claims are scientifically fraudulent. Yoga and Pilates do produce many benefits that running, proper strength training and flexibility training create - they are merely far less effective methods for improving fitness. Playing 18 holes of golf without a cart offers some cardio-respiratory or aerobic benefit to the distance runner. However, no one would argue that golf is an important component of a runner's comprehensive training plan. The same is true of yoga and Pilates - perform them if you enjoy them. Do not treat them as substitutes for proper strength training.

17. Consume a snack immediately after the strength workout.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of the strength training workout, a runner should consume a snack containing a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio with in twenty to thirty minutes following the workout. A perfect example is skim chocolate milk. In peer reviewed scientific research studies, expensive recovery drinks have been proven to be no more effective that skim chocolate milk.

18. Do not stretch before the strength workout.

It is not necessary and in fact, not advised to stretch before a strength training workout (or before a run for that matter). The scientific research is conclusive that stretching before an activity absolutely does not prevent or reduce the likelihood or severity of injury.

19. More is not better when it comes to strength training.

Unlike aerobic exercise (to an extent), money, and free time - more is not better when it come to strength training. The stimulus for improving strength (and the other positive adaptations including injury resilience, body composition improvement, etc.) is intensity, not volume, frequency, or duration.

If an activity is intense, it can not be performed for a long time. Duration and intensity are mutually exclusive. More frequent strength training is not more beneficial because the body does not actually get stronger while strength training; instead, we get stronger while we recover from strength training. Distance runners (as well as power athletes and non-athletes) only need to strength train once to twice a week for optimal results.

Although one to two workouts per week fits in well to a runner's training program and busy life, it is important to understand that this low frequency and volume of strength training is not a compromise or an effort to "at least do some strength training." Instead, the twice a week strength training prescription is what produces the absolute best results possible.

20. What the research says:

The peer reviewed scientific research supports the inclusion of strength training with the distance training program. Here is what the peer reviewed scientific research, not the opinion of "experts" or coaches, concludes about strength training and distance running:

  • In his research review, "The Impact of Resistance Training on Distance Running Performance," Jung concludes that strength training has a significant effect on running economy (Sports Medicine, 2003).
  • Paavolainen et. al. found that strength training improves 5K running performance (Journal of Applied Physiology, 1999).
  • Chtara et. al. found that circuit strength training performed after endurance training produced faster 4k results than endurance training alone (British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005).
  • In their research review, Saunders et. al. concluded that strength training improves running economy in trained and untrained distance runners (Sports medicine, 2004).
  • Millet et. al. concluded strength training be included in the training programs of well trained endurance athletes because it improves running economy (Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 2002).
  • Hickson et. al. concluded that heavy strength training does not negatively impact endurance performance and that certain types of endurance performance can be enhance through heavy strength training (Journal of Applied Physiology, 1988).
  • Sale et. al. concluded that concurrent strength training and endurance training does not negatively impact endurance performance (Journal of Applied Physiology, 1990).
  • Tanaka concluded that strength training can benefit endurance runners (Sports Medicine, 1998).