Pumping Iron: Strength Training for Endurance Runners

“Hey, what do you think about strength training for us endurance runners?” This question occasionally comes across my desk and honestly there is no single, easy answer. Like a lot of physiology, answers to this question operate in shades of grey. What we mean by this is that an intervention–a supplement, workout, fuel source, or recovery technique–might work for one person but not another. Because of the inherent individual variability in physiology, there is rarely one answer to questions like these that is correct for the majority of people.

In this article, we’ll address why endurance runners have historically not spent time in the gym (aside from hating being inside), some myths about strength training, and what the science currently says about how endurance runners can apply strength training to their weekly routines in ways that benefit both their running and overall health.

Adam Campbell strength training. Photo: David Holland

The History and Basics of Strength Training for Endurance Runners

Strength training, sometimes referred to as resistance training, can mean slightly different things to different people. In general, strength training in its simplest form is exercising with progressively heavier loads to improve muscle strength, power, hypertrophy (growth), and/or endurance.

Let’s note right away that the type of strength training we are talking about in this article is different than the maintenance strength training you might perform with a physical therapist to manage issues of asymmetry, imbalance, and other slight deficits. This kind of training is important for niggle management, but isn’t the strength training we discuss in this article.

Initial research in the 1980s and ‘90s into concurrent strength and endurance training (over simply doing endurance training on its own) showed little cardiovascular and musculoskeletal adaptations that would warrant the time and energy spent on it (1, 15, 19). It was believed then that because of the different physiological demands of strength versus endurance training, training one of these capacities would impair or diminish the other. This is known as the interference phenomenon (2). This combined with general fears in endurance runners around ‘bulking up,’ or adding body mass that decreases VO2max (or essentially decreases your running efficiency), and endurance runners and coaches alike have quite literally been running from the weight room (19).

However, in the last decade, new research is showing that strength training can benefit many kinds of endurance runners–if the right types of it are done in the right doses. This newer research suggests that strength training can enhance endurance-running performance by improving running economy, delaying the onset of fatigue, improving maximal speed, and increasing anaerobic capacity (15).

Improvements to endurance-running performance with concurrent strength training have been shown in recent research and include improved running economy, time to exhaustion, rate of force development (power generation), and anaerobic capacity. Image: Goldcoastmarathon.com.au/2019/03/22/5-running-mistakes-to-avoid/

What’s with the 180-degree switch in recommendations over the last decade? When we look back at the design of many early studies, we note they simply had three testing groups: a strength group, an endurance group, and a strength-and-endurance group which combined with no adaptations the two aforementioned programs. Studies designed in this fashion did not explore how to balance both strength and endurance training. Turns out, we scientists don’t always get it right! We miss confounding variables and nuances, and we attribute outcomes to the wrong things. But that we keep learning is also the beauty of science.

We May Be Different: The Ultrarunner’s Strength-Training Conundrum

The last decade of research on concurrent strength and endurance training has focused on endurance running defined as running five kilometers up to the marathon distance. When we break down what contributes to performance at these distances, your day is primarily determined by the maximal power production you can sustain over a given distance, or how much work can you do for how long, physiologically speaking (14).

Experienced ultrarunners know that our events have similar and different demands. There are just plain more variables, both physically and mentally, that affect race-day outcome the longer the race gets. Because of this, some of the improvements strength training delivers to endurance-running performance may or may not translate as directly to ultrarunning. Do keep this in mind as we go forward.

The specific demands of ultramarathon performance are wide ranging. The boxes in bold represent the components thought to be most important for ultramarathon success. Image: Commentaries on Viewpoint: Sacrificing economy to improve running performance—a reality in the ultramarathon? (6)

Sarah Lavender Smith strength training. Photo: Tonya Perme

The Benefits of Strength Training for Endurance Runners

Again, when we look at the past decade of research and the new data showing the positive changes that concurrent strength and endurance training have on endurance-running performance, the factors that stand out are an improvement in running economy, delaying the onset of fatigue, improving your anaerobic capacity, and enhancing your maximal speed.

While these factors are all interrelated (15), our primary focus here is running economy, or the oxygen cost to run at a given submaximal speed, which is influenced by force generation and the speed at which your muscles can contract. Essentially, the higher your running economy is, the less it ‘costs’ to run at any given speed. Studies suggest that effective strength training can increase running economy by 2 to 8% (4).

When broken down to its components, strength training temporarily overloads the neuromuscular system, which allows for an improved ability to recruit motor units (individual muscular units), an increase in muscle-firing frequency, increased muscle-tendon stiffness (allowing you to have more stored energy with each step), and improved intramuscular coordination over time (4). These are all minor physiological changes but together and over time equal running-economy improvement which allows you to run a given pace with a little less effort. This is not dissimilar to what we are trying to accomplish with endurance training alone, but think of these two types of training as additive when it comes to performance.

From a systematic literature review, a list of the potential positive and negative performance outcomes from concurrent strength and endurance training. Image: Rønnestad, B. R., & Mujika, I., 2013 (15)

One of the most likely mechanisms behind the increase in endurance performance from concurrent strength and endurance training is the change that takes place at the level of our muscle fibers, both in their recruitment and modification. First, it seems that after strength training, it takes longer for type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers to be recruited during endurance activities, favoring type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers for a longer duration (4).

Second, there is a conversion of muscle fibers after concurrent strength and endurance training when compared to endurance training on its own. This conversion is between two different types of type II muscle fibers, what are called type IIa and type IIx fibers. Type IIx fibers are characterized by their ability to produce high force, power, and speed (lower endurance), whereas type IIa fibers are also fast but they are more fatigue resistant and are better for long-term anaerobic efforts than type IIx fibers. Over 16 weeks of concurrent strength and endurance training, cyclists experienced an increase in type IIa fibers of about 8 to 10% with a slight decline in type IIx fibers (1).

These changes in muscle-fiber recruitment and type as well as the increased muscle-tendon stiffness likely contribute to the increase in rapid-force development, or how fast an athlete can develop force. Altogether, these factors increase our ability to run at a lower ‘cost.’

There are two main types of muscle fibers, type I and type II. Type I are also referred to as slow-twitch fibers and are known for being fatigue resistant. Type II fibers, often referred to as fast-twitch fibers, are known for their rapid firing rate and power production. This study found that after 16 weeks of concurrent strength and endurance training, the muscle-fiber-type distribution changed, with an increase in type IIa muscle fibers (the higher-endurance version of fast-twitch fibers) and a decrease in Type IIx muscle fibers (the high-power, lower-endurance version of the fast-twitch fibers). Image: Aagaard, P., & Andersen, J. L., 2010 (1)

“But Won’t I Bulk Up?”: Addressing Strength-Training Fears

The most common concern I hear from endurance runners is the fear of putting on bulk from strength training. Now there is something to be said for individual variability and genetic predispositions, but resoundingly the scientific literature shows almost a complete lack of muscle hypertrophy (growth) with concurrent strength and endurance training–in correct dosing (4). In studies lasting from 24 to 40 weeks, there were no signs of growth in any gross measurements, however it is still possible that there was muscular growth in individual muscle groups that would be undetectable in girth measurements (4).

Why is this? Muscle hypertrophy with concurrent strength and endurance training seems to be blocked on a molecular level. Essentially, the strength-induced upregulation in protein synthesis and release of a protein called mTOR that otherwise would help build muscle tissue is suppressed by adenosine monophosphate-activated kinase (AMPK), an enzyme that regulates cellular-energy homeostasis that is released in response to endurance exercise (4). It’s a clever cycle given that this means: 1) that in the battle of mTOR versus AMPK, AMPK is the victor, and 2) endurance athletes can increase muscular strength, power generation, muscle-tendon stiffness without the possible negative side effects of mass gain.

As we’ve alluded to a couple times in this article so far, there appears to be a dosing ratio at play. When athletes maintain a 3:1 ratio in the number of endurance sessions to the number of strength sessions they perform, muscle hypertrophy doesn’t occur. So if an athlete wanted to gain mass while still getting some of the benefits of concurrent strength and endurance training, they would need to increase the number of strength sessions or decrease the number of endurance sessions.

Another concern related to muscle hypertrophy is the possibility of capillary-density reduction. Capillary density is important in endurance running because it influences the rate of muscle perfusion, or the rate at which the muscle can receive oxygenated blood (1, 15, 17). If a muscle’s cross-sectional area were to increase without an associated increase in capillary density, this would increase the diffusion distance, or how far oxygenated blood needs to move to get to working muscle tissue. However, without hypertrophy, there is no change in capillary density and so perfusion remains constant. 

Sean Olson strength training. Photo courtesy of Sean Olson.

Strength Training and Injury Prevention

Anecdotally, a lot of athletes will tell you that strength training helps them feel more durable. Now I cannot speak to the scientific community’s thoughts on defining durability, but there is research suggesting that traditional strength training can reduce sports injuries by an average of 66% (10). This is done by increasing your tissue’s ability to manage load (by progressively increasing the load via strength training) while modifying endurance-training volume and frequency.

For example, one study that replaced 30% of an athlete’s weekly running volume with strength training found that athletes remained injury free while improving their five-kilometer performances (1). Additionally, hard strength training has positive effects on circulating levels of testosterone and human growth hormone which can help the body repair muscular damage at faster rates post-hard-endurance and post-hard-strength-training efforts (18).

For many people, some form of maintenance strength training done diligently and frequently, administered by your physical therapist, might be enough to keep niggles at bay. However, what the research suggests is that the workload needed to statistically reduce rates of sports injury is more consistent with doing more significant strength work.

Maybe that’s what durability feels like? That is, creating enough physical change to more than manage your niggles and instead create more significant physiological adaptations that keep fatigue at bay longer and hold your form together longer because you increased your running economy. That is, you became physically stronger. I’m not certain we will ever have a perfect metric to measure durability, but if being stronger keeps you on the trail more consistently, that might be as close as we get to an answer.

By modifying the load you place on your body while increasing your tissue’s ability to manage that load (and progressively more load), you can reduce your injury risk. Image: Running-physio.com/strength-review/

Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Runner

When it comes to aging and declining endurance-running performance, naturally decreasing muscle mass seems to be the main culprit. This is because there is a direct link between the age-related decrease in VO2max and muscle-mass loss. This age-related muscle-mass loss is called sarcopenia, and it starts somewhere just north of age 40 and accelerates rapidly after 70. Between the ages of 40 and 80 and with no intervention, you should expect to naturally lose approximately 40% of your muscle tissue.

Let’s dig into this concept with an example to help us understand it better, a 160-pound male endurance runner who is composed of 45% or 72 pounds of muscle. Between ages 40 and 80, we would expect our example runner to naturally lose 40% or 28.8 pounds of that muscle, what equates to 0.72 pounds per year.

Of note is that the muscle-loss-during-aging process isn’t linear and it generally accelerates as we age. Also of note is that muscle loss in the aging woman appears to happen at a slightly increased rate than men, and is likely why we see a larger decline in 100-kilometer performance for women over the age of 64 compared to their male counterparts (9).

What this means for our aging athletes is that strength training to maintain and build muscle mass is incredibly important. The current, best treatment for sarcopenia is strength training. The general recommendation is that if you are over the age of 40 and not currently strength training, we should probably change that.

That said, there are currently no clear, specific prescriptions for concurrent strength and endurance training for the aging endurance runner beyond what exists for all endurance runners. What we do know is that if you are currently doing a 3:1 ratio of endurance to strength training sessions, then you will probably maintain your muscle mass. Again, the potential, logical next step for an older endurance runner who wants to build muscle mass would be to increase the number of strength sessions, slightly skewing the ratio in favor of strength training (a 2:1 ratio, for example).

Alisha Edmiston strength training. Photo courtesy of Alisha Edmiston.

The Takeaways

Ease In

The first two to three weeks of strength training should be easier, to both avoid injury and not be chronically sore. One tactic is to introduce strength training at the end of your season, after you’ve taken a break and are starting to rebuild for the next year and when endurance training is of less importance. This allows your body to make strength-training adaptations without inhibiting your endurance training.

Dosage Matters

Studies suggest that low volume (less than six weeks of training and not multi-exercise based) and/or low intensity (less than 60% of your one-repetition maximum) strength training do not elicit any positive effects beyond your normal endurance training (1). Essentially strength-training plans that consist of lifting very low weights for more than 15 repetitions will not illicit the positive effects we talk about in this article. Current recommendations for concurrent strength and endurance training places us at using weight that is 70%-plus of our one-repetition maximum (1RM) for 5 to 12 repetitions in 3 sets and with adequate rest in between sets.

I’ve included a chart below to help you estimate workloads that are equivalent to different percentages of your 1RM. For most of us, without the supervision of a strength and conditioning professional, performing a true 1RM effort can lead to injury, so instead I recommend using a method of estimation. For example, a load that you can maximally lift for 12 repetitions is approximately 70% of your 1RM and a load that you can maximally lift for 8 repetitions is approximately 80% of your 1RM. Remember, strength training is supposed to be a progressive increase in load, so in the early weeks choose loads you can lift for 12 repetitions and gradually work up to loads you can only lift for 5 repetitions.

We recommend that to get the most bang for your buck, if you are going to add strength training to your week, you add two sessions a week focusing on 4 to 6 exercises at or above 70% of 1RM (a weight you cannot lift for more than 12 repetitions), and maintain your strength programming for a minimum of 6 to 9 weeks. Also don’t forget about that recommended ratio of 3:1 endurance to strength training sessions per week, so if you’re strength training twice a week make sure you’re doing 6 endurance training sessions a week as well.

Safely doing one-repetition maximum (1RM) for a given exercise comes at an increased injury risk. Here are some approximations to understand what 70%-plus of 1RM might be for you. This means choosing a weight that you can manage for 5 to 12 repetitions. Remember, strength training is about progressively increasing load over time, so start with a lighter load you can lift for more repetitions and build into lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions. Image: Running-physio.com/strength-review/

Type Matters

When choosing exercises to add to your strength program, focus on multi-joint exercises that use free weights (not machine-based) as they provide a much larger neuromuscular stimulus, require greater levels of coordination and multi-planar control, and activate synergistic muscle groups (4). Exercises that fit this bill include back squats, split squats, walking lunges, weighted step-ups, Romanian deadlifts, bird-dogs, kettlebell carries, and lateral lunges.

An example of a Romanian deadlift. Keep your back straight, hinge forward from your hips, push your butt back (not down) until you feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings, and then return to your starting position. Image: Weighttraining.guide/exercises/romanian-deadlift/

An example of a split squat utilizing dumbbells and your back foot on a bench, lunging forward until your knee is at a 90-degree angle, with your front knee remaining over your toes. Image: Weighttraining.guide/exercises/dumbbell-one-leg-split-squat/

An example of a side lunge. This can be done with a barbell as depicted here or with a kettlebell held against the chest. Image: Weighttraining.guide/exercises/barbell-side-lunge/

Timing Matters

Remember that strength training for the purpose of stimulating physiological adaptations is not easy, and therefore in’t recommended for rest or easy days in your endurance-training schedule. In the eyes of weekly planning, I recommend pairing your strength training with your hard workout day(s), thus keeping your easy days easy and your hard days hard. As a bonus, heavy strength training also elicits a hormonal response including an increase in testosterone released (18). This can piggyback off your harder running workout for added muscular recovery. To preserve the quality of your running workouts, I’d place the endurance training in the morning and the strength training in the afternoon, and then give yourself one or two easy days in between that and your next hard workout (2).

Recommendations for incorporating strength into your endurance training. Image: Semrc.blogs.latrobe.edu.au/running-myth-high-repetition-strength-training-needed-improve-running-performance/

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you strength train? What is your general ratio of endurance to strength training of the course of a week? What exercises do you do?
  • Are you an endurance runner who has used strength training to avoid injury in general or maintain muscle mass as you age?
  • Have you found any difficulties in maintaining concurrent endurance and strength training?
  • Have you found your strength-training needs to evolve over your years as an endurance athlete?

Hillary Allen strength training. Photo courtesy of Hillary Allen.

References

  1. Aagaard, P., & Andersen, J. L. (2010). Effects of strength training on endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports20, 39–47. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01197.x
  2. Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. V. (2016). Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(8), 2361–2368. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000001316
  3. Barnes, K. R., Mcguigan, M. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2014). Lower-Body Determinants of Running Economy in Male and Female Distance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research28(5), 1289–1297. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000000267
  4. Blagrove, R. C., Howatson, G., & Hayes, P. R. (2017). Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine48(5), 1117–1149. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0835-7
  5. Carroll, K. M., Bazyler, C. D., Bernards, J. R., Taber, C. B., Stuart, C. A., Deweese, B. H., … Stone, M. H. (2019). Skeletal Muscle Fiber Adaptations Following Resistance Training Using Repetition Maximums or Relative Intensity. Sports7(7), 169. doi: 10.3390/sports7070169
  6. (2012). Commentaries on Viewpoint: Sacrificing economy to improve running performance—a reality in the ultramarathon? Journal of Applied Physiology113(3), 510–512. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00666.2012
  7. Giovanelli, N., Taboga, P., Rejc, E., & Lazzer, S. (2017). Effects of strength, explosive and plyometric training on energy cost of running in ultra-endurance athletes. European Journal of Sport Science17(7), 805–813. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2017.1305454
  8. Karsten, B., Stevens, L., Colpus, M., Larumbe-Zabala, E., & Naclerio, F. (2016). The Effects of Sport-Specific Maximal Strength and Conditioning Training on Critical Velocity, Anaerobic Running Distance, and 5-km Race Performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance11(1), 80–85. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2014-0559
  9. Knechtle, B., Rüst, C. A., Rosemann, T., & Lepers, R. (2011). Age-related changes in 100-km ultra-marathon running performance. Age34(4), 1033–1045. doi: 10.1007/s11357-011-9290-9
  10. Lauersen, J. B., Andersen, T. E., & Andersen, L. B. (2018). Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine52(24), 1557–1563. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099078
  11. Luckin, K. M., Badenhorst, C. E., Cripps, A. J., Landers, G. J., Merrells, R. J., Bulsara, M. K., & Hoyne, G. F. (2018). Strength Training in Long-Distance Triathletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000002716
  12. Mikkola, J., Vesterinen, V., Taipale, R., Capostagno, B., Häkkinen, K., & Nummela, A. (2011). Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners. Journal of sports science, 29(13), 1359-1371.
  13. Pantoja, P. D., Morin, J. B., Peyré-Tartaruga, L. A., & Brisswalter, J. (2016). Running Energy Cost and Spring-Mass Behavior in Young versus Older Trained Athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise48(9), 1779–1786. doi: 10.1249/mss.0000000000000959
  14. Rogers, M. E., Fujita, E., Islam, M. M., & Takeshima, N. (2017). Muscle strength and size gains in older women after four and eight weeks of high-intensity resistance training. International Journal of Sport, Exercise, and Health Research1(1), 22–28.
  15. Rønnestad, B. R., & Mujika, I. (2013). Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports24(4), 603–612. doi: 10.1111/sms.12104
  16. Sunde, A., Støren, Ø., Bjerkaas, M., Larsen, M. H., Hoff, J., & Helgerud, J. (2010). Maximal Strength Training Improves Cycling Economy in Competitive Cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(8), 2157–2165. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181aeb16a
  17. Vikmoen, O., Raastad, T., Seynnes, O., Bergstrøm, K., Ellefsen, S., & Rønnestad, B. R. (2016). Effects of Heavy Strength Training on Running Performance and Determinants of Running Performance in Female Endurance Athletes. Plos One11(3). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150799
  18. Rosa, C., Vilaça-Alves, J., Fernandes, H. M., Saavedra, F. J., Pinto, R. S., & Reis, V. M. D. (2015). Order Effects of Combined Strength and Endurance Training on Testosterone, Cortisol, Growth Hormone, and IGF-1 Binding Protein 3 in Concurrently Trained Men.Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research29(1), 74–79. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000000610
  19. Hickson, R. C. (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance.European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology45(2-3), 255–263. doi: 10.1007/bf00421333

Terry Miller strength training. Photo courtesy of Terry Miller.

There are 33 comments

  1. Danni

    Great article. By way of anecdote: back when I used to lift I found that I could run faster and stronger with less actual running-specific training. I can only assume that pairing it with solid running would reap good results. Most free-weight training also strengthens the core which is pretty helpful. It’s too bad that there are only so many hours in the day. This article comes at a good time though as I’ve just resumed a commitment to lifting – shoulder season/winter is a good time to focus on boring gym stuff.

  2. tom rawls

    do you know if anyone has looked at strength training for endurance using one set to failure? this approach has adherents who cite studies. it’s slightly less time consuming, in my experience. so i’m curious.

  3. Rachel

    Important article – thank you for posting this!

    I normally do one ‘typical’ strength session in the gym, and then dot some Yoga (some strength-based poses, some stretching) in for the rest of the week. I’m three weeks out from a race, about to taper after this week, and I think this is the strongest I’ve ever been. However, the reason why I will strength train is to keep niggles at bay, and I’ve managed to cover a lot of mileage (the most in a long time) this training cycle without as many niggly injuries. When they have reared their heads (pesky ITB), it’s been only for a day or two at the most. This is compared with one training cycle I had last year where next to no strength was done (I should have known better) and I was running lower mileage due to hip and knee issues for a whole month.

    I’ve never understood the aversion to strength training at all. Even if you do put on a bit of mass – surely that’s better than being at ‘race weight’ and injured?

  4. John Vanderpot

    As someone who dreads it (strength training), I really wish this article wasn’t so well written — you make a very convincing case for the necessity…going back to the gym is out of the question (no offense to anyone), but clearly more core reps are in order…thanks?

  5. AT

    I mean this with all due respect,

    Running is the only sport I’ve come across to where there is so much fear and misunderstanding of what strength training can do for not just your performance, but overall health and functionality outside of running.

    Jeff Browning said it very well, as he is probably the most outspoken about strength training. “Strength work gives you full range of motion, and endurance running by nature is catabolic, over the age of 40, we’re only accelerating the aging process..”

    I’ve read and heard on interviews cats like Hal Koerner, and Avery Collins, put regular time in the gym to strengthen their bodies for racing and life in general. All 3 of the mentioned runners look the part, they resemble all around athletes with lean muscle. I guess it’s all about what you desire, but the science to back up strength work that helps stimulates a healthy dose of hormones, full range of motion, and overall vitality is hard to ignore.

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Glad you like it Nat. The beautiful thing about complex physiology questions is there is no simple answer, there will always be so much variability. I think a lot of runners are scared or simply don’t enjoy the weight room, but hopefully we can change some of that.

  6. Albert

    Great information and so important. I know very few runners who truly strength train. I do it 4-5 days per week and have been doing it for pretty much the whole time I’ve ever run, which is 26+ years. No major injuries ever. I swear by it.

  7. Douglas K

    started doing winter weights at age 40, now nearing 60 really should be doing them year-round. Used to start the winter at 9-10 pullups to failure, and go up to 14-16 over the winter, now start at 7-8 and didn’t get over 13 last winter.. But as Danni says, only so many hours in a day. I struggle to get one training session a day, in the nice weather I really resent doing that work indoors in a gym. Had good intentions this year but stopped doing the weights during a spell of knee problems plus shoulder bursitis, now it’s beautiful fall running weather..

    much of my routine is based on exercises to ward off various chronic injuries, to back and calf/achilles and knee. For the rest I like to do some free body movements, pullup, dip, lunges. Then a circuit of the machines, one set of reps to failure with weight to do 8-10 reps before failure. Free weights are better but free weights need a spotter, or to use relatively light weights which is inefficient.

    Tom rawls, I have seen some studies indicating the single set is just as effective as multiple for building strength,

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327286690_Resistance_Training_Volume_Enhances_Muscle_Hypertrophy_but_Not_Strength_in_Trained_Men

    I know I get significant increases over the winter from the single sets, it’s been good enough for me..

  8. Florian Blanc

    Great article, very thorough.

    I notice that there is no mention of direct upper-body strength training (although back squats and especially deadlifts will strengthen your back). Is there any research-backed recommendation in this regard? From a general point of view, I assume that including upper-body compound movements like bench press, overhead press, pull-ups and dips is beneficial for a runner as it would avoid muscular imbalances, and improve the ability to maintain an upright torso and efficiently swing arms while running. This is most definitely my personal experience as a gym-rat turned marathoner somewhere along the way…

    Also anecdotally, but I guess it may be interesting to share, I recently ran my first long trail race (70 km / 2800 vert gain – not considered an ultra here in Europe, sadly) for which I used poles. Poles were an absolute game-changer for me, which I attribute to the long hours spent doing weighted dips and pull-ups in the gym. It seems to me this is a very specific application of strength training to ultra-running (and not to running in general), which makes me wonder if there are some specific training plans to improve pole usage efficiency. Again based on my personal feeling, I have the impression that the movement pattern involved in pole usage is close to an hybrid between a horizontal pull (you are using your lats to propel yourself forward) and a dip (you are pushing with your triceps and your chest at the end of the movement). This makes me think that these two exercises (or variants thereof like pull-ups) could be recommended to ultra-runners who want to improve their pole usage. Thoughts ?

  9. Elizabeth

    I have been going to a strength and conditioning class three days a week for the past five years. It took me about 1 1/2 years before I actually enjoyed the weights. The main reason I started going was to make myself less “breakable” when I fall. Women are especially prone to fractures due to the sex-based differences in things such as school PE, where the boys are doing push-ups, pull-ups and rope climbs, and the girls are mostly doing lower body stuff. I recommend all women do upper body range of motion and strength exercises to decrease their risk of fractures as they age.

  10. Alex

    Thank you for that great article.

    As much as I’d like to commit to true strength training, I, as several people commented above, seem to lack the time to it.
    In particular, I feel that to properly strength train in a way that will actually allow strength gains, I need to lift heavy-ish weight. Even for my below mediocre standards, that means going to some gym to have access to a barbell and iron, as simply lifting my body weight just doens’t do much. That takes time and costs money…

    Some people like Jason Koop also seem to consider strength training as dispensable at best, basically (and I recommand reading his actual thoughts about that on his blog) because running remains the best way to make running specific gains, and, when it comes to injury prevention, resting remains the best tool (which lifting heavy weight is the opposite of). I find that interesting too.

    Other coaches (Brad Hudson for road running, but also Scott Johnston and Steve House who recently wrote “Training for the uphill athlete”) seem to like hill sprints as the ultimate way to build specific running strength. Hudson in particular, uses that exclusively for his athletes (it seems like). That can also be a tool for busy runners!

    All in all, I’m still conflicted as to what I should do. Maybe I’m using as many excuses as possible to justify avoiding the dreaded weight room!

    Thanks again.

    1. AT

      Take Ryan Hall for example.. the way he is training now wouldn’t be traditionally supplemental to an endurance athlete, but he did state, his biggest regret in his career was the absolute fear and neglect of the weight room. Running in small to moderate doses is very healthy, but come on, logging mega miles as a road marathoner or ultra marathoner isn’t exactly building the body up. There is a reason fatigue and chronic injuries are so common in sport. Running is a heavy impact sport, it’s an amazing sport but surely beats the body up. If one of the greatest road marathoners in history stated that lack of strength work was one of his biggest regrets, relatively speaking, some weight room work can only help any of us out there logging miles.

      Don’t confuse what body builders or middle linebackers look like either, there is no way humanly possible somebody logging even 30+ mpw will gain that kind of mass or strength. You’re looking at freak genetics and a decade plus of consistent weight room work.

      Kettle bell swings, squats and or dead lift, push press, shoulder flys, hanging leg raises, med ball work, push/pull ups..don’t need much more than that. I do all of the above throughout the week, not all on one day, just depends how you want to structure it. “Heavy” is a very relative term, minimal weight with full body movement or even body weight would work well too.

      1. Alex

        I don’t think Ryan Hall can be taken as anything more than an example, it’s just his opinion, and I think he’s now into lifting, which may explain some of his reasoning.
        I absolutely do believe that strength training can be useful for a runner, but I just think it’s hard to fit that into a training week, whether it be in terms of time or simply energy.
        Again, as far as I understand it, to make actual gains you’ll need to lift somewhat heavy weight (at least in squats, deadlifts and lunges). This is not about playing around with planks and bodyweight squats, if you want to properly do a 5 X 8 session for example, as the article suggests. Bodyweight movements, for most trained runners, will only have you train endurance (as you’ll probably be able to do a lot of reps), which I think we already train on a consistent basis!
        So, that’s the catch for me, should I make another hard effort in doing strength training to try to limit the risk of injury, or should I just rest, which is even more effective to avoid injuries, but won’t make me stronger per se?

        By the way, I’m certainly not trying to stir the pot here, just having a gentle chat about what is in my opinion one of the most fascinating topic in the endurance world!
        Also, English is not my first language, so you may notice some bloopers, sorry about that!

        1. AT

          Hey Alex, no stirring the pot worries here bro, we’re all learning!

          A lot of Olympians at varying distances favor strength training to some relative capacity. I am strongly biased towards the weight room as I’ve grown up with the weights and had a chance to train under a now NFL strength coach during my Freshman year of college. The volume and amount of weight is drastically different than my HS and College years when I was playing football and running sprints. The emphasis on full body strength work and mobility I believe still can play a role in all our running schedules.

          Nobody’s plan will look identical depending on age, experience, and life demands. A 400 meter runner’s volume will look different vs a road marathoner, but I’d bet there are parallels and similar emphasis during different phases of a build up, or a base period.

  11. Brian

    Interesting, considering that one of the most respected ultra coaches out there, Jason Koop, doesn’t believe in strength training, but thinks the time is better spent putting in miles versus being in the gym.

    Note: I haven’t completed reading his book (about 1/3 done), so feel free to correct me if this is not accurate.

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Brian,
      Jason Koop is actually my boss and coaching mentor, and generally speaking we don’t disagree on much it turns out. Jason wrote a great piece recently about how you have to weight out a number of factors when it comes to choosing to add strength (significant strength) training to your weekly plan. Time is definitely a major factor for most people, if you want to get better at running the one sure fire way to do that is to “generally” run more, and balancing “running more” with a career, family, other commitments can make things like strength training fall to the wayside. I totally get that. What the research seems to show right now though is that adding as much as two ~30-40minute strength sessions a week has a lot of bang for your buck, particularly as we age (something that Koop I think didn’t drill down on enough). For most of us if we were using simple math of replacing X amount of miles with minutes strength training a week, we are still only talking about cutting 6-10 miles for the majority of runners. It’s definitely a personal cost benefits analysis, and maybe that even means prioritizing strength only for specific blocks of time a year, but I do think there is a more modern way to think about it that most (not all) distance runners have brushed off for a long time.

  12. Burke

    Great article. I am happy to see this. After having a disastrous 100 mile race in 2012, I went back to the same race in 2014 with a new approach to the training. It involved strength training. I attribute that to my successful run at the same race in 2014. Just a couple of days of week with very specific exercises made a world of difference, and most of that was done after a treadmill session that allowed me to climb, climb, and climb.

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Burke,
      I love hearing the positive impact mixing up training can have on an individual and race/performance outcomes. I’ve spoken with several runners who find that they feel better off running 80 miles a week and doing strength training vs running 100miles a week without strength training, etc. There’s no one silver bullet, but I do think it’s something many of us will benefit from playing with!

  13. Markus

    A very good read. However, leaves me a little bit sad because “higher load, lower rep number” is not an option for me because I do not have access to a gym. And setting up a complete home gym for higher weights is not really an option either. So what would be the next best thing to “high load, low rep”? Complete waste of time as it does not “elicit the desired adaptions” for concurrent training?

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Markus,
      You are not alone, many of us struggle with access to a gym. There might be ways to be creative with minimum equipment ie my household owns 2x25lb dumb bells, 1 35lb and one 45lb kettle bell, it’s not perfect and isn’t enough load for specific exercises but is for others (a lot of single leg exercises that require more stabilization means you can go down in weight). I think there are benefits from doing “lighter” strength training and PT style exercises such as correct small imbalances and durability but you may not get other benefits that factor more directly into running economy. I’m sorry if that’s not much help. We also joined a climbing gym in our area that, lucky for us, has a large free weights area that we can take advantage of and allows us to kill one bird with two stones while sparring our bank account a little!

    2. Brian

      I’ve been in the same boat. I could go to a gym but I just have 0 desire and I know I would find excuses not to go even if I signed up. I figured it would be way too costly to setup a home gym that would even be beneficial. But then this article convinced me to do some digging. I ended up purchasing a 300lb olympic weight set and have found some cheap racks I am looking at. In total I will have spent less than $300 and will be able to do most of the exercises recommended for runners. Sure it wont be enough if I wanted to become a body builder but should be plenty for strength training for endurance running. Even just a trap bar and a few weights (like the one Hillary Allen is using above) would work pretty well it seems and not too expensive or taking up a lot of space.

  14. Trevor

    Great article. I think runners who neglect weights are the same as lifters who neglect running– sad and somewhat myopic, and experiencing what is likely body dysmorphia about how they are ‘supposed’ to look.

  15. Brad

    This is a great article and certainly presents a path forward for endurance athletes to strength train. Fortunately, for those who don’t have access to a gym and heavy weights for the (very effective) program outlined here, there are other resources and methods out there that require little to no equipment, are very time efficient and effective.

    The first approach I’d recommend is outlined in the book, “The Cool Impossible by Eric Orton. What he presents focuses on foot and leg specific strength as well as full body strength and mobility that also develops athleticism. You need a slant board, balance disc and stability ball to do the program. I’ve been doing it for years and it’s great.

    Secondly I’d recommend the book, “Simple Strength” by Mercedes Pollmeier. This is a book on movement for outdoor athletes, and as such isn’t exclusively designed for ultra runners, but the versatile and challenging all-bodyweight program develops fantastic strength, balance and mobility really efficiently.

    For those who have access to a gym, you’d do well to follow the advice in the article above. For those who would like or need an alternative, I hope the above resources help.

    Happy (and strong) running!

  16. Daniel Lucas

    @Corrine Malcolm,
    Articles like this are a true gem. For those of us who have been in the sport for a while and read the basic books, articles, etc.. this is a refreshing information manifesto. This is NOT clickbait as is often the case with such topics.

    I highlighted several sections and studies that I found especially useful.

    I do have a hard time embracing the concept/idea of 1: Lifting after a hard workout on the same day. If I do speedwork or hill repeats or a long run, I’m usually pretty much spent the rest of the day. I generally try to stay mobile and get in a walk or something. 2: Going high rep to failure. I think there are some benefits to this during the off season or perhaps early in the season, but as someone who is 42 and averaging 40ish miles of trails per week, I’d say that one is toying with the gods of overtraining by doing this during any type of peak marathong training…. OR…. maybe I should roll the dice and try it. I generally recommend 6 to 10 reps and only going to failure during an easier training week.

    I’ve run ultra’s off and on for the last 6 years, including a few 100’s. My best race results came when I was strength training with lower reps (think 5 to 8). I think I was strength training roughly 2 to 3 days a week and I was running about 5 or 6 days a week. Currently, my schedule is something very close to that.

    I will be looking for more of your articles and insights in the future.

    Daniel

  17. Daniel

    Fantastic article and I agree with many of these points. I am a marathon runner who has changed my strength training the past year based on a lot of research I have discovered. I now lift heavy (4-6 reps) for 3-4 sets and only do about 5 strength exercises per session and add on 3 conditioning exercises. I cut my strength training down from 3 to 2 sessions per week. I used to strength train on my recovery/easy run days, however now I strength train in the afternoon of a speed/hard running session. I read Dr Rich Willy saying ‘make your hard days hard and your easy days easy’ and it works. With ratio, I am doing 6-7 runs per week depending on the time of the season and 2 strength sessions.

    Thanks for the article.

    Daniel

  18. Robin Coffey

    I am a 71 year old male competing in 5-7 OCRs every year since starting in 2015. I worked with a personal trainer for 14 months to increase my strength and conditioning. I completed a Spartan Trifecta in 2016 under her tutelage. Now I am training on my own following the recommendations of Body By Science by Dr. McGuff. While I have experienced exponential strength gains, I still have not improved my running ability. Do you have any recommendations for me? This year I am committed to more races than ever and would like to get in better running shape.

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