Do Runners Really Need Strength Training?

file_000-4Many of us assume that with all our running we don’t need to add more to our workout routine, that running alone will keep us healthy from head to toe. You might have heard that strength-training can help us avoid injury, but maybe you’ve been lucky enough to escape injury sans strength work.

There is another reason that it’s important, though: muscle mass starts to decline as early as age 30. This makes strength training an important exercise for everyone, not just runners.

Why You Need to Strength Train

Maintaining overall muscle strength can help prevent injuries in daily life as well as in running. Also, running creates some muscle imbalances that can be remedied through strength building exercises. You may think “I’m a runner-my legs don’t need any more exercise!” But surprisingly, runners can be weak in muscles of the hips and gluteus. Weak hips can cause more strain on other muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments, resulting in injuries. Strong muscles help carry some of the load so that other areas are not overcompensating.

More than Just Your Legs

Muscle imbalances can also arise for many other reasons, but especially  if you work a job that requires any held position for a length of time (lots of sitting, standing, or typing with strained neck shoulders, etc.), or if you do a lot of track running in the same direction or run on a road with a camber. Single leg exercises are a gold standard in exercising each leg equally; if you do both legs at the same time the stronger leg may be doing all the work.

A strong core is the foundation of a healthy body, again, not just in running but in daily life. A strong core will enable stability and balance (especially important for trail runners).  It will also allow you to have better posture, thereby improving your ability to breathe efficiently while running. If there is any doubt, do this exercise: Sit in a slumped position. Inhale a deep breath. Repeat this, except with a straighter back and relaxed shoulders. Which position allowed you to breathe more easily?

It may seem as though the arms are not as important in running, but try running up a hill without using your arms!  Pumping the arms assists in propelling the legs forward-watching any 100 meter sprint is evidence of that.  If you find you are unable to move your legs any faster, try increasing the cadence of the arms.  In addition to arm strength, type of arm swing is also important.  Raised shoulders and arms that cross the body will hinder your running performance.  Relaxed but controlled arms should be rehearsed along with leg speed and stride.

Lower body exercises are instrumental not only in strengthening the muscles used for running, but in preventing injuries caused by running. Injuries in areas such as the IT band, hips and hamstrings can greatly benefit from exercises that strengthen the upper legs, particularly the hips and buttocks.

Ways to Fit Strength Training In

Body Weight Exercises

These are good for on-the-go runners who may not have time to get to the gym. Although fancy gym equipment is fun sometimes, body weight exercises work just as well, if not better. You can do them anywhere! Here are just a few of my favorites:

Push ups

Although most people know how to do push ups, not everyone does them with proper form. Here is a quick refresher: Prop yourself up with your hands and feet at shoulder width apart. Place your palms directly under your shoulders so that your arms are not too far forward or back towards your body. Bend your elbows and lower your body down until your chest almost touches the floor, then raise yourself back up again. Be sure to keep the back level, not collapsing inwards or upwards. Form is everything. You can also do a modified push up with the knees resting on the floor. Do three sets of 15 reps, with the option to increase as needed.

Muscles worked: delts, pecs,triceps

Planks

Find a mat or soft (yet firm) ground to rest your arms. Rest your forearms on the mat, clasping your hands together. For a more difficult version, you can do these in all out push up position. Again, concentrate on form, especially the back. You will want to collapse as you fatigue, or upwards to make it easier. Fight the urge. If it feels hard it is probably right! Hold for 30 seconds to a minute or more. One armed side planks can also be performed on each side.

Muscles worked: This exercise recruits many muscles, mostly the muscles of the chest, abdominals, lower back, shoulders, trapezius, biceps and triceps

Clam shells

Lie on one side with both knees bent. Slowly lift the outer leg up then back down for 15 reps. You should definitely feel this in your outer hip. Do three sets of 15 clam shells on each side.

Muscles worked: hip abductors and gluteus medius

Bridge pose

Lie on your back with your arms to your side and your knees bent. Raise your body up towards the sky, keeping your arms and shoulders grounded. Align the chest and hips. Tighten the glutes. Hold for 30 seconds.

Muscles worked:  gluteus maximus, muscles of the back

Single leg squats

Stand on one leg with your other leg suspended in the air in front of you at less than 90 degrees. Slowly lower yourself down and then back up. For the sake of your knees, be sure not to squat down farther than 90 degrees. Aim for three sets of 15 reps on each leg.

Muscles worked: glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves

Yoga

Depending on the style/difficulty of the yoga you are doing, it is almost always a strength workout as well as a strength-training session. If you don’t like yoga, or don;t have time for an hour-long class (impatient runner here!) you can just learn a few simple poses and do them separately after a run. Many yoga videos and classes are available through online sources such as Youtube. These are ideal for people who can’t always go to classes, and of course, more economical.

My favorites are “Yoga for Runners” classes and videos. They only about 20 minutes long-definitely more manageable than an hour long class. They include useful runner-specific stretches for classic problem areas such at the  IT band.

Getting Started the Smart Way

If you have never strength trained before, it can seem a bit daunting. Like any exercise, it is best to ease into it. Start with the body-weight exercises I mention above and add more reps as you get stronger. If you’re trying a class or tutorial online, start with a short one or join a beginner class at your local gym. If you feel completely lost you can hire a personal trainer for a short amount of time. I won a package of personal training sessions at my local gym and ended up working with that trainer for about a year before I moved. After that, I had a good idea of exercises to continue and did them on my own.

With any new exercise, your muscles may be sore. After a substantial arm workout, it is normal to be sore for 2-3 days. On the other hand if you are doing a very light workout you may not notice any soreness the next day. As with running, you can recognize the “good” kind of soreness vs. the “bad”. If your muscles are sore, that is a good thing; they have worked hard and are getting stronger.

However, any pain that signals injury is not good pain. Because we are runners, we do not want our legs to be sore from strength stuff during our run. For this reason I choose to do my leg exercises the day of a hard running workout, after that workout is complete. If I am tapering for a big race, I also taper my strength exercises at the same time.

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Although strength training is no substitute for running, it can help to build fitness and prevent running-related injuries. Strength training may not improve your running performance in itself but stronger, more balanced muscles often mean less injuries. And a non-injured runner will always be faster than an injured one!

Do you strength train?  How often and what kinds of exercises do you do?

I am a dedicated runner and classical musician. I am currently chasing a sub-3 hour marathon (3:00:38 PR). I often feel like the underdog going up against "serious" runners-I took up running after college, I do not have a typical "runner's body type", and I am mostly self-coached. I travel a lot to perform with different orchestras and run when I can, where I can. I love to (over) eat and that is my number one motivation for running! Follow me as I chase my goals!

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8 comments

  1. I really appreciate the clamshell exercise! I definitely need to work on my hips and glutes. I climb 2-3x a week, which is excellent for core and arms, but also great for lateral leg movement. When I can’t get to the climbing gym, I’m a big fan of Jillian Michaels’ Yoga meltdown video. It’s a kickass, 30 minute workout (2 levels), and I’m always feeling it after!

    1. I do clamshells pretty much every day due to my high maintenance right IT band. I will have to try that yoga…30 minutes is just my speed. An hour, not so much!

  2. Yes, a million times yes! I try to get strengthening work done 2-3x a week and find it really helps with staying healthy. It’s hard sometimes to get it all in, but when I don’t think I have time I think to myself, “But you have time to run all the miles and and risk getting hurt…” It seems to be helpful :)

  3. I totally agree with this. I am soooooo bad about strength training, but when I do it, I run better. I have been really into lunges and squats lately as my go-to for legs. I find that strengthening my glutes really helps me! Finding the time when training for a race can be pretty hard, but I’ve learned even to take a day off of running to do cross-training and strength exercises is as beneficial as easy miles. Thanks for the post!

  4. SO IMPORTANT! I’m a much better, less-injured runner because of strength training. I’m a Pilates junkie. We do almost all of the above exercises in the classes I teach (including single-leg squats in my Pilates Strength class). If you’re doing single-leg squats, please use a mirror and make sure your knee is tracking over your toes and not collapsing inward or outward!

    I love the Jasyoga site — she has everything from 30-45 minute classes but also 5-minute “resets” for different parts of the body. It’s a little bit different approach to yoga than RLY.

    And if anyone is really into this topic, I recommend “Anatomy for Runners” by Jay Dicharry. Great book recommended to me by my physical therapist (aka the person who makes me do single-leg squats and deadlifts until the sun comes up).

  5. I strength train twice a week and it takes about 45 minutes. I started doing it after running trails and almost rolling my ankles a few times. I just wanted to be more durable. For strength training I do about 6 exercises for 2 sets of 15 reps. Also, after each run, I do bodyweight squats, crunches and push-ups. This takes me less than 5 minutes and has done loads for my balance, mobility and ankle strength. Needless to say, if you can fit it in, I think at least some bodyweight movement is wonderful.

    1. That is great! I have a similar 5 minute strength regimen, also for areas like my injury prone ankles. It is amazing how a little can go a long way in terms of injury prevention!