Why runners should care about strength and muscle-building
Like so many things, getting better at something requires practice and repetition. Running is no different. If you want to get better at running, well, running more definitely helps.
However, there’s more to it than just putting in the miles. Many runners may think of running as purely cardiovascular, when really it can be a total body workout, and strength training is proven to not only make you a better runner, but lower your risk of injury.
Let’s talk about why strength training for runners is so important, and how to do it.
When it comes to an endurance sport like running, strength training may feel counterintuitive. After all, elite distance runners typically power their way through races successfully on their lean frames. Bulging biceps and quaking quads are nowhere in sight.
What we’re talking about here, though, isn’t bodybuilding or body composition change, but rather increases in strength through resistance training. As a runner — whether you're a marathon runner, triathlete, or casual runner — you’re training for your strength, not your gains.
“There are 1,771 published studies on strength training and endurance performance, going all the way back to the 1970s. The vast majority of them find very positive performance results,” Dr. Joel French, Tempo’s Head of Exercise Science explains.
While it may not feel like it, every stride you take, every strike of your foot on the ground is a total body movement. Sure, certain muscle groups, like your legs, are propelling you forward and absorbing the brunt of the shock, but your core — your hips, your glutes, your shoulders — all need to be firing to stabilize your body to make you a more efficient runner that can keep good form even towards the end of a race.
“Strength training is so important as an endurance athlete. Imagine if each foot strike propelled you farther, forward, faster. That’s the benefit of strength training.” Dr. French said.
By developing your different muscles group, you generate more power and muscular endurance. Think tackling elevation with more ease and rebounding after every step with more energy and resilience. You also reduce the chance of injury by strengthening your muscles and connective tissues, something incredibly important for a high-impact sport like running.
Research has found that endurance athletes should strength train in a very similar way to everyone else.
And as an added bonus, your increase in muscle will also increase your body’s capacity for glycogen storage, which is basically your body’s engine that keeps you going until you “bonk” out — something especially important for those of you who are half, full, and ultra marathon runners.
“Research has found that endurance athletes should strength train in a very similar way to everyone else.”
The most important strength training for runners consists of heavy squats and lunges, but you’ll also benefit from performing a mix of single-leg/balance exercises, core work, and upper body movements. (It may not always feel this way, but a strong upper body means you can maintain good posture and good form — hello, arm swings — for longer).
“Research has found that endurance athletes should strength train in a very similar way to everyone else,” Dr. French explains. “Athletes should focus on heavy weights, fatiguing at less than 12 reps, with exercises like a barbell back squat, which hit large muscles in a movement style that is similar to running.”
Now that you know why strength training for runners is important, let’s talk about how you can do it.
Below are total body exercises that are great for any runner to implement into their training. You’ll be able to find all of these exercises on Tempo taught by our expert coaches during class (more on that below, too).
Weighted squats and lunges are instrumental to developing power and strength in your legs. If you’re unsure of how to get started with these movements, try out one of our beginner programs, like Coach Cole’s Strength Foundations program. With Tempo, it will continue to learn from your performance and will recommend consistently challenging weights to ensure you’re getting the most benefit from your heavy squats and lunges
Isolating and working one side of your body at a time can improve strength and also address unilateral (one side of the body) weaknesses. These exercises will help:
Single Leg or B-Stance Deadlifts
Single leg Eccentric Focused Hip Thrusts
Reverse Lunge to HIgh Knee Balance
Banded Sumo Walks
Banded Hip abductions
Literally everything you do requires your core — from running and weightlifting to sitting and standing. Give it a little extra TLC with these three movements:
Hollow Holds and Hollow Rockers
Runners will tell you that the upper body does surprisingly play a role in propelling your body forward while running. To boost your upper body strength, try these:
Push Ups with T-spine rotation
Close Grip Chest press
There’s nothing wrong with upping the mileage the more advanced you get as a runner, but putting in those double-digit runs can eat up your time.
Try slotting in metabolic conditioning (MetCon) — or workouts that incorporate high intensity intervals with short rest time — into your training regimen as a form of the ever-important cross-training. Any Tempo Shred or Sweat classes that leave your heart pounding and you dripping with sweat, like Coach Colby’s Sculpt and Shred program, are a great choice.
In these shorter workouts, weighted or bodyweight, you’re pushing your anaerobic capacity, which translates to aerobic benefits that are crucial to improving as a runner — all without having to put your body through the high impact of extra miles.
By trading in some miles every week for a shorter, more intense MetCon, you’re engaging more of your muscle groups, reducing stress to your joints and bones, and exposing your body to different types of stress (and rewards) that you wouldn’t get by logging a longer run.
In fact, MetCons, paired with strength training can increase your running economy, or how much oxygen your body needs to sustain your running speed, by taxing your body in a totally different way.
Every runner should put in the time to find out where that magical amount of muscle mass is for them.
A common concern for runners and endurance athletes when it comes to strength training, Dr. Joel says, is the fear of gaining weight.
While this is a reasonable concern, Dr. French says it’s all about striking the right balance when it comes to putting on muscle mass. A runner, for instance, may find that they’re running faster and have improved performance.
However, there is a point of diminishing return. A runner may pack on 15 pounds of muscle and find that while they are stronger, they may be running slower due to the added weight.
“Every runner should put in the time to find out where that magical amount of muscle mass is for them.” Dr. French recommends. “Measure your current muscle mass and weight, strength train three or more days per week, keep an eye on your race or workout times and muscle mass. When you start to see your times suffer, switch the focus to maintaining — versus building — your current muscle with one or two strength workouts per week.”
If you’re a runner who’s used to only running or are very new to strength training and metabolic conditioning, it can seem daunting.
The key is to start slow and get familiarized first, particularly when it comes to strength training. You’ll want to make sure you get your form down and understand your baseline fitness before going too hard. With Tempo, you’ll be able to rely on its real-time form corrections and expert coaches to assist you in nailing the basics while you get more and more comfortable with strength training.
Once you feel more confident, it’s a matter of balancing your running with strength training and MetCons (and resting when you need to).
For those experienced athletes who are ready to run full steam ahead, we’ve put together a Runners’ Collection of a healthy mix of multi-muscle group strength training, MetCons, and total body recovery (can’t forget about that!) classes. Try slotting these into your training schedule and doing a benchmark workout before and after you start with this collection and see how you improve.
You’ll find the Runner’s Collection in the Classes tab of your Tempo.
We’d love to hear about your progress — share with us and fellow runners here on our Facebook Group!
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