For many runners, strength training is a low priority, playing second fiddle to logging more miles and the occasional track workout.
But, to run fast (and pain free), weightlifting should be a part of every runner’s game. I’m talking about the heavy stuff too! Not mall-walking with hand weights, but lifting weights where the 5th rep is hard.
Here are the reasons why strength training should be a part of every runner’s PR training plan…
How Strength Benefits Runners
VO2max—the measure of how much oxygen the body can take in and consume—is a classic performance metric for runners. It’s considered the gold standard for aerobic capacity and is linked to running performance. But, VO2max by itself never determines who will win a race. There are many other factors that are as important (if not more important), that don’t get talked about near as much.
This is the amount of energy needed to hold a given speed. Related to a vehicle, a car that gets 30-miles per gallon, is more economical than one that only gets 20-miles per gallon. This is important for running, because the runner who’s more economical, will have more firepower to go harder throughout the race.
The greatest impact on running economy is body type. East Africans dominate the distance running scene. This is believed to be due to their remarkable economy. Their smaller size and thin limbs require less energy to move them forward (ref).
But, there are also training components to building better economy. Specifically, training both heavily, and explosively, produces muscle and tendon adaptations. This improves the elastic components of the muscle, making the body more “springy.” A degree of springiness is good! It improves running economy by allowing the body to work less while going at a higher speed.
In a study of well trained runners, an 8-week strength training program improved strength and running economy. But most important to the runners in this study, was the 20% increase in time to exhaustion. Meaning they could go 20% longer when working at their max capacity (ref).
It’s important to note these runners didn’t put on any weight as part of the strength program, which is one of the biggest fears for many runners when it comes to strength training.
2. Power Output
Distance running isn’t considered a power sport. Yet, the ability to generate power, especially when fatigued, is important to running performance. Power output generates speed!
In fact, a muscle power test called vMART, appears to be a better predictor of running performance than VO2max (ref).
vMART is measured by 20 second runs with a 100 second recovery between the runs. The speed increases each round and goes until exhaustion. Having good aerobic capacity is helpful for this test, but equally as important is the ability to generate power under fatigue. A good vMART shows the ability to push faster speeds when the going gets tough.
Research proves that greater power improves speed without increasing the cardiovascular demand (ref). And strength training is an important part of the equation to more powerful running.
To this point it’s been all about performance. But what about the runner who wants to log miles with their friends and show up for the occasional weekend race? Strength is important for this class of runner as well.
Strength is necessary for joint stability to protect the knees, hips, and back. Without adequate strength, the ligaments, tendons, and a smaller support muscles take on the brunt of the load. This excess strain leads to pain and injury.
We get in-depth on the injury risk due to poor strength here: The Big Risk Factor for Running Injuries.
4. The Added Bonus
Weight training is also good for aesthetics.
Despite thousands of calories burned, long runs backed by beer and burritos doesn’t build a body to impress.
Many assume strength training is about being big and bulky. A stereotype perpetuated by bodybuilding magazines, and scores of dudes showing up daily for bench and curls.
First, nutrition is most important to getting big (that goes for muscle or fat gain). With calorie intake in check, a few weight training sessions per week, can provide muscle definition for those shirtless runs, without turning into the hulk.
It’s Not Wrong to Be Strong
Regardless of your goals, strength is the cornerstone of an active and healthy body. If properly structured, it doesn’t hinder running ability, but instead boosts running performance (ref). Thus, regular strength training should be a part of every runner’s routine.
To help structure your workout, check out our Glute & Core Guide here: Crossover Symmetry Glute and Core Guide.