Strength Training For Runners

Whether you are young or old, fat or skinny, a long distance runner or a sprinter you can probably benefit from strength training. The increase in lean muscle mass that results from strength training is the key to overall strength and to your body's ability to burn calories. Over the age of 30, muscle mass starts to disappear. As this occurs, the aging individual, sooner or later, notices that they can no longer eat all that they used to without gaining weight. For those over 50 this can be an increasing problem and manifests itself as "sarcopenia" in older individuals. This is a clear cut case of use it or lose it.

Overall fitness requires more than just cardiovascular fitness. A balance of endurance, strength, and flexibility must be achieved. The most often recognized components of fitness include: Leonardo's Man

  • Musculoskeletal Fitness
    • Muscular Strength
    • Muscular Endurance
    • Flexibility
  • Cardiovascular Fitness
  • Physiological
    • Body Composition (a guide to how you are really doing - not a pure component of fitness)
    • Lipid Profile
    • Blood Chemistry
    • Bone Density (also included in musculoskeletal fitness)

Running gives the quickest results in the area of cardiovascular fitness, but besides strengthening a few specific muscles and rapidly burning a lot of calories does not adequately contribute to the other measures of fitness.

Strength training or resistance training may help contribute to the other areas of fitness. Resistance training can also improve performance for a variety of sports. While its impact, may, in some cases, be limited for the long distance runner, it certainly can help the performance of a triathlete, and many other athletes who participate in a variety of sports. There are benefits to participating in strength training for the long distance runner. Those sore shoulders and tired arms at the end of long run, and those achy backs might become less troublesome. The long distance runner may find a bit more power for the sprint to the finish line and may find that improved arm strength allows for an easier crank up a hill and better balance on trails.

Strength Training Effects

  • Increase in bone strength.
  • Reduced risk of osteoporosis.
  • Improved strength of connective tissues, which increases joint stability.
  • Increase in muscle functional strength.
  • Increase in lean body mass and metabolic rate.
  • Decrease of body fat.
  • Improved self-esteem and confidence

The older runner will find that he has lost lean muscle mass from the aging process. Muscular strength declines approximately 5% per decade for the untrained individual. You may weigh less at 45 than you did at 35, but body composition testing might show you that your body fat percentage has increased and what you've lost is lean muscle mass, not fat. Resistance training can help increase lean muscle mass. This training has the added benefits of improving upper extremity and back bone density and may help limit osteoporosis. The strengthening of the ligaments, tendons and musculotendinous junction, along with other connective tissue can benefit everyone and reduce stress to the joints. The higher metabolic rate that results from an increase in lean muscle mass can help the dieting individual. Fat just sits there, but muscle burns energy to sustain itself. Strength training also improves self confidence, self image and might even make you look a bit better at the beach.

The fear that you will "bulk up" is not grounded in reality. It takes a special genetic make up, lots of work, and a considerably different muscle structure than most long distance runners have to "get big". Long distance runners have primarily aerobic slow
“... You may weigh less at 45 than you did at 35, but body composition testing might show you that your body fat percentage has increased and what you've lost is lean muscle mass, not fat. ...”

twitch fibers that do not enlarge as do the Fast Twitch muscles found in most body builders and in sprinters. Sprinters with their high concentration of anaerobic capable FT (Fast Twitch) fibers can show more muscle mass gain with strength training. This training is a requirement to compete at a high level.

Runners frequently develop muscle imbalances that lead to pain. The runner with low back pain may benefit from strengthening of the abdominal muscles, lower back muscles and stretching of the hamstrings. Posture is an important component for both optimal running performance and elimination of pain. Strength training can help with this. A variety of knee and hip problems can also be helped by strength training. Imbalances between the Quadriceps and Hamstrings can be corrected by strength training. According to Tim Noakes, MD, in "The Lore Of Distance Running", the proper strength ratio of quadriceps to hamstrings is at least 3:2 . The vastus medialis, which is important to strengthen, for the treatment of patellofemoral complex pain (runner's knee), and helps stabilize the patella (knee cap) can also be strengthened through training.

Recently, it has been reported that more former world class runners, particularly those who are older and not winning races at the 10K to Marathon distance any more are now adding lower extremity strength exercises to their strength training programs. Many of them, did not do much in the way of lower extremity exercises at the height of their careers. I believe that upper body strength and abdominal strength is helpful and usually deserves more strength training than the lower extremity. While the lower extremity should be worked, I recommend low weights and higher repetitions for this body region. Exercising the legs with too much weight will make them feel tired for your runs and draggy during your speed work. During the active racing season go easier on your lower extremity strength training. Stop all lower extremity weight work a month before a marathon and at least 10 days before an important 10K race.
...begin any exercise program with caution...

Bill Rogers in his heyday used dumbbells for upper body strength but did not work perform strength training for his legs. Alberto Salazar, reportedly a late convert to lower extremity strength training, did not perform lower extremity strength training while running his 120+ mile weeks and winning marathons. I would suggest going easy on the legs, using strength training cautiously, with high reps and low weights while doing more upper body work. And for those of you thinking hard about what to do, consider incorporating some one legged exercises into your routine. You may use body weight exercises, dumbbells or light barbells or a combination of these. Machines, in general, are of less utility.

It is always important to begin any exercise program with caution. Before using new equipment you should be well instructed in its proper use. If you are over 40 you should have a physical before starting an exercise program. And it makes sense to check with your trainer and coach before adding strength training to your program.

Additional Information:
Strength Training Programs For Runners: Principles

Strength Training Programs For Runners: Recommended Exercises

Blog entry: The Three Pillars of Fitness