In 2015 I was training for my first Marathon. Again. I think this was attempt number three. I’d never made it to the start line. The previous attempt had been ruined by Achilles Tendonitis. The one before that was tendonitis in the Tibialis Posterior muscle (a muscle on the inside of your shin). The one before that was a stress reaction in my foot. I think there were a couple of other failed attempts but it’s hard to remember now.
This year, though, I’d finally lost my patience. The previous failed attempt at training for a marathon had really got to me and I was about ready to quit. I was only up for at least one more try. By now I had branded myself as “injury prone”. I knew that if I attempted training for a marathon again there was a good chance I would get injured.
So I started reading. A lot. I read everything I could about injury prevention. Not just in running but in all sports. I wasn’t going to be taking my advice from some journalist who has found the “Ultimate Core Workout for Runners” either. I hit up the good old peer reviewed journals. Very boring, but at least I could review the method and see if the conclusions were reasonable.
It didn’t take me long to stumble across strength training. Strength training has found its way into the spotlight in the running community in recent years. Runners are less worried about “getting too bulky” or “leaving their legs in the gym” now that the research is showing just how helpful strength training can be for runners.
I’ve been strength training ever since. As my body got stornger, so did my running. I’ve now finished two marathons and I can now log up to 200K per month easily. Strength training was not the only thing I changed to get over my injury troubles, but it was a big part.
In this article, you’ll learn the benefits of strength training for runners as well as a simple 20-minute routine that will get you started. You will also learn how much weight to use and how often you should include a strength workout.
The Benefits of Strength Training for Runners
- Injury Prevention
- Improved Performance
Not bad eh?
Let’s talk about each one at a time.
Strength Training to Prevent Running Injuries
Here’s two statistics that should be enough to convince you:
- Running injuries occur at a rate of 20-80% (Van Gent et al 2007)
- Strength training has been shown to reduce injuries by up to 60% (Lauersen et al 2014)
Okay, let’s dig into it just a little. Statistics on injury rates in runners are all over the place. I’ve read 50%, 80%, 20-80%, 15-85%. Well, the reason the estimates vary so much is that not all studies have the same criteria for what constitutes an injury and they often use runners of different ages, abilities and experience levels. So the statistics can be a little misleading.
I think a better way to get an idea of the problem is to just ask your running buddies. If you’re in a running club, even better. Just ask a few runners if they have had any trouble with injury. Be sure not to have anything in your schedule for the next couple of hours though, runners love to talk about their injuries.
What about the effect strength training on running injury rates? Well, there is not a lot of research specifically on runners yet. The study by Lauersen found huge reductions in injury rates for team sports when they included strength training. Acute injuries went down by 60% and overuse injuries went down by 50%. I chose this paper to reference as it is a meta-analysis. That means they pooled the results of many studies to improve the strength of their conclusions. In this meta-analysis they included 25 trials, with a total of 26,610 participants and 3464 injuries.
So we can be very confident that adding strength training reduces injury rates significantly in many sports. A 60% reduction is huge. Even though there is not as much on strength training for runners specifically, the large effect here is enough to convince me that runners should definitely be considering strength training.
Strength Training to Improve Running Performance
Okay, so have I convinced you strength training will help you avoid injuries?
I hope so. Now, can it help improve performance?
In this study by Millet et al 2002 running economy improved when strength training was added to the training program. Running economy refers to the energy cost of running. You can think of it very much in the same way as fuel economy for your car. My 10 year old rusty Mazda 3 uses a lot of gas to get me from Ottawa to Toronto. If I ever get the chance to upgrade to that Audi A3 I’m sure it will be much more efficient. Running economy is the same way. The better your running economy, the more kilometres you will go for the same effort. Or you could go faster for the same effort.
Runners who include strength training are like the Audi A3. Very fuel efficient. Runners who don’t are more like my rusty old Mazda 3.
Full disclosure. The evidence for strength training to improve performance in runners is not as strong as the evidence for its ability to prevent injuries. That being said, it does seem likely that if strength training is slotted into an optimized training program appropriately, running performance will improve.
Strength Training for Runners: The How-To Guide
Okay, by now I hope you’re convinced. I’ve given you the why, here is the how.
Runners hate the gym. Fact. It’s boring and stale. It’s full of mirrors and air conditioning. We would all much rather be outside running along the Rideau Canal in the cool early-morning summer air. I get it. I have to drag myself to the gym a bit too. Especially in the summertime.
So, how are you going to get all the benefits of strength training without having to spend hours every week in a boring old gym? I’ll tell you. The “Runners Bare Bones”.
Runner’s Bare Bones
The Runner’s Bare Bones is a quick 15-20 minute strength training routine designed specifically for runners who hate lifting weights. I’ve picked just two exercises and a simple template to help you continue progressing. I’ve chosen these two exercises very deliberately to maximize the strength training effects so they carry over specifically into making you a stronger and more resilient runner.
The two exercises are the Rear Lunge and the Single Leg Deadlift. Both are performed with a unilateral load. That means the load is on one side. Here’s a couple of demo videos…
The rear lunge was chosen primarily strengthen the quads and gluts. We will also get some strengthening of the calf on the back foot. The rear lunge differs from a conventional lunge in that you will step backwards rather than forwards. This loads the knee joint a little less and focuses the effort into the quads muscle. You can hold the weight by your side, in the “rack position” or overhead. Or mix it up every workout.
Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift was chosen to strengthen the posterior chain. The posterior chain is a group of muscles running up the back of your leg and into your trunk including the calf, hamstring, gluts and spine extensors. The posterior chain is incredibly important for propulsion when running and this exercise really focuses the training load into the hamstring and gluts.
Why Unilateral Load?
Unilateral load just means holding the weight in one hand on one side rather than in two hands in front or on either side. Try standing straight and hold something heavy in one hand. Do not allow your posture to change (no leaning left or right). If you hold the weight in your left hand you will notice the right side of your core working very hard to prevent you from leaning to the left. This allows you to strengthen your core without doing loads of pointless sit ups or boring planks. In the rear lunge you are resisting a side bending force or a frontal plane load. In the single leg deadlift you are resisting a twisting force or a transverse plane load.
Why Single Leg?
You will notice that both exercises require you to strengthen one leg at a time. This is very important for runners as we will all have small imbalances in muscle strength, motor control and mobility from one side to the other. Training one leg at a time prevents us from giving the weaker side a free ride.
How many reps and sets?
Three sets of eight reps on each side or 3×8/8.
That should take about 15 to 20 minutes.
How much weight?
Use rep max to determine the weight. Rep max is a simple concept. It just means the heaviest weight you can do the reps with good form. Since we are doing 3 sets of 8 you will just choose a weight with which you can do 3 sets of 8 but you couldn’t do 3 sets of 10.
It is important that you go as heavy as you can. Runners are a nightmare for doing wimpy strength training! Did you know that every time you strike the ground when you are running 3x your bodyweight comes up through your leg as Ground Reaction Force? Okay, now multiply your bodyweight by three. For me, that would be 157lbs x 3 = 471lbs. What colour resistance band should I buy?
If you want to get strong you have to lift heavy stuff!
It is not complicated. Go to a rack of dumbbells and pick up one 10lb dumbbell. Do a few rear lunges and stop. How many do you think you could do in one go? If it is more than 10 pick up the 20lb. Do a few rear lunges. Think you can do more than 10? Pick up the 40lb. Once you find a weight for which you think “I might be able to do 10” then go ahead and do 3 sets of 8. When you finish if you think you could have done heavier, guess what? Next time you will.
You can do this test in a gym or in a shop. If you want to do your strength training at home then do the test in the shop. If in doubt, buy the heavier one. In a few weeks you will be stronger and wishing you had. In the video I am using a kettlebell rather than a dumbbell. It makes no difference really. I recommend the kettlebell if you are going to buy just one weight as it is a little more versatile than a dumbbell.
How do I progress?
Progressive overload is very important in order to stimulate adaptation. The simplest way is to increase the weight. Once you can do 3×8 on each side comfortably, try a weight that is 5 lbs heavier. Still too easy? Add 10 lbs. Simple enough right?
If you are not currently doing any strength training at all, I recommend once a week. After a few weeks you could up it to twice a week. After that you would start to see diminishing returns:
If you want to expand your strength training further you would be better off adding some variety than doing the routine more frequently. If you would like a bit more help with that just drop me an email and I can give you some more specific advice.
So, there you have it. Strength training for runners in 20 minutes a week. Now I have a question for you:
“Can you spare 20 minutes a week to reduce your injury risk by up to 60% and improve your performance?”
Let me know in the comments.
After spending some time over the years reading studies on the role of the calf in running performance and injury rehabilitation I would have to modify the above article a little.
If you want to do a “bar bones” strength program for running injury and performance, it simply must include the calf raise. Same program, 3×8 rep max, just throw the calf raises in there. It might take a little longer than 20 minutes, but it’s essential.