Runners don’t like strength training. It’s easy to understand. We like to be outside in the fresh air, not stuck in a sweaty gym. In recent years however, the evidence is starting to pile up. The benefits of strength training in terms of improving running performance and running injuries are becoming more apparent and runners are starting to pay attention.
Strength training can improve running performance by 5-8% (Jung 2003). Given that 8% off a 4 hour marathon is a 19 minute improvement, this is worth paying attention to. Also, strength training has been shown to reduce injuries by up to 60% (Lauerson 2016). Any given runner has about a 20-80% chance of developing an injury in any given year (Van Gent et al 2007).
So if you are training for a race, not only will strength training improve your performance on race day, it will help make sure you get to the start line without injury in the first place!
How to DIY your Strength Training Routine
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that you should consider strength training an essential ingredient in your training plans. The next question is, what should you do? If you just want a routine to follow, then I would recommend checking out my blogs Strength Training for Runners in 20 Minutes a Week and The 5 Best Kettlebell Exercises for Runners. However, if you want to really understand strength training so that you can design your own program, read on.
The first thing to wrap your head around is to think in movements, not muscles. If you have ever seen a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Bible of Bodybuilding” then you know it’s a huge volume detailing like 20 exercises for every muscle in your body. This is not exactly encouraging for us runners who want to be in and out of the gym as fast as possible. We want bang for our buck, and that’s where the 5 fundamental movements come in.
The 5 Fundamental Movements
A few years ago I came across Dan John and instantly fell in love. Why do I love Dan John? Because he made strength training so simple for me. 5 fundamental movements. Take these 5 movements, build a strength training program and you will strengthen all aspects of human sports performance. We don’t need complicated routines with an exercise to isolate and strengthen every muscle in the body. We just need 5 movements.
Pick something heavy up, start moving. That’s carrying. Carry it in one hand or two, by your side, up by your chest, on your shoulder or even over your head. Make sure it’s heavy and carry it until you’re knackered. Job done.
You can also think of “hinging” as “lifting”. It’s quite an unfamiliar movement for most runners. We are trying to bend at the hips and keep the back straight. So the movement is like a “bow”. For the hinge we want a maximum hip bend and a minimum knee bend. That’s what makes it different from the squat. Your chest ends up facing the floor as you “bow” forwards. Hinge is a tricky movement, so read on to the end and watch the videos for examples.
Squats are a simple movement. Think of someone squatting, and there you have it. We squat when we get on and off a chair, on and off the floor, on and off the bed and even on and off the toilet. When we pick up a heavy box or something we tend to squat beside it to lift. When we walk upstairs, we do a series of single leg squats, and the same when we do lunges. Squatting involves a maximum knee bend and a maximum hip bend. That’s how it differs from the hinge. You keep your chest pointing forwards throughout the movement.
Pull something heavy towards you. Done.
Push something heavy away from you. Done.
Choosing your exercises
Basically, pick one exercise from each fundamental movement.
- Farmer Walk
- Suitcase Walk
- Waiter Walk
- Walking Lunges
- Sled Drag
- Sled Push
- Romanian Deadlift
- Single Leg Deadlift
- Kettlebell Swing
- Cable Pull Through
- Hip Thrust
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Split Squat
- Single Leg Squat
- Step Up
- Bent Over Row
- Pull Up
- Cable Row
- Lat Pull Down
- Reverse Flys
- Bench Press
- Shoulder Press
- Chest Flys
- Push Ups
- Chest Press
Choosing your Reps and Sets
Now this is a more complicated question. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve. Strength, power, endurance, hypertrophy. That’s all well and good but I like to keep things simple. So, if you’re a runner and you want to start strength training: 3 sets of 8 reps. Simple.
Choose a weight so that it feels really hard to do 3 sets of 8. So hard that you couldn’t do 3 sets of 10. That’s a really good start. Runners often worry about getting big and bulky. That’s not really going to happen. It’s hard to put on mass. You would have to spend hours in the gym every week and if you’re running any more than about 30k per week, it’s just not going to happen.
Over the coming weeks, try and increase the weight and reduce the reps. A good target is 5 sets of 5. Make sure the weight is crazy heavy, so you really struggle to hit the 5 reps.
Choosing your Frequency
This one is a little complicated too. However, I don’t like complicated. So let’s keep it simple. If you are currently strength training zero times per week, do your strength routine once a week. If you are currently strength training once a week, do it twice. If you are currently strength training twice a week, you are doing enough strength training.
Say you are already strength training twice a week and you are doing so because you want to be a better and more resilient runner. You are better off working on improving the quality of your strength training, rather than just adding more sessions. Strength training should complement your running training, not detract from it. If you want to improve the quality of your strength training, I would recommend finding a really good strength trainer. If you can’t find one of them, you can work with me 😉
- Choose one exercise from each of the fundamental movements
- Choose a weight for each that you can do 3 sets of 8 reps but find it really hard
- Schedule in at least one session per week
Here’s a quick playlist of me demonstrating one exercise from each of the 5 fundamental movements.
Are you already strength training? Are you including all of the 5 fundamental movements? Let us know in the comments.