The different roles of strength training for distance runners

Strength training for distance runners is a pretty popular and contentious topic in the world of training, and I don't have much up on my blog about it.  I recently got an email asking about my opinion on strength work for distance runners, and it spurred me to condense what I know so far about the subject, so I've adapted my response to that email into a blog post.
Strength work, and especially weight lifting, is in a bit of an awkward place right now, because (unlike most things with training) the science is actually ahead of the coaching—or at least the coaching material that's out in the open.  Weight lifting was dismissed for so long for distance runners that there's very little training literature on how to actually go about integrating it into a training routine.  On one hand you've got running coaches who know nothing about lifting saying you should only do body weight stuff 1x a week, and on the other you've got weight lifting coaches who know nothing about running saying you should lift heavy 3-4x a week and not run on those days.

Whether it was fears that weight lifting would cause a runner to "bulk up" and slow down, or claims that most strength work isn't specific enough to distance running, a comprehensive theory of how strength training fits into an overarching training plan is distinctly lacking in the coaching literature.  I don't doubt that there are plenty of coaches out there who are far more knowledgeable than I am on this subject—there certainly are—but there's a distinct lack of literature (books, articles, interviews) describing how to go about piecing together a comprehensive strength program.  Sure, you can watch a video on Flotrack of Galen Rupp doing single-leg barbell squats, or read a magazine article about how Shalane Flanagan does hurdle drills for hip mobility, but there's no Daniels' Running Formula for strength work.  This problem is particularly bad when it comes to weight lifting.
When evaluating whether a certain kind of strength work is useful for you, you need to ask yourself "what purpose is this serving?" and "is this the best way to achieve the outcome I want?" Weight lifting and strength training in general can serve one of several purposes in training: injury prevention, general strength, maximal muscle fiber recruitment, or running-specific explosive training.  I'll go through each of these four purposes one by one.

Strength work for injury prevention

A lot of people think that you should lift or do "core work" to prevent injury, but really, the best kind of strength  for injury prevention is boring, physical-therapy style exercises for hip strength.  Scientific research supports strengthening the hip muscles, ESPECIALLY the abductors and external rotators, as a way to prevent injury—especially knee injuries like runner's knee or IT band syndrome, but hip strength appears to be connected with overall injury rates as well.

There's a huge range of hip strength exercises out there.  Based on some rudimentary research on muscle activation patterns, I particularly like these four:
*Side leg lifts
*Clamshell leg lifts
*Glute  bridge with leg lefts
*Monster walk with theraband
I myself do these four exercises six or seven days a week, 20-25x for the leg lifts, 90-120sec for the glute bridge, and 2x30 for the monster walk.  This is just one example, and there are a lot of other exercises that are likely equally good, but if you're ONLY looking to prevent injury, this is the kind of strength work you want to do.  It's not fun, it's not exciting, and it's not physically challenging in the same way a pushup is.  That's why I call this routine "the boring exercises" with the high school runners I coach.  Instead of a 30min ab strength routine, you're far better off just doing hip strength.  Ab strength isn't bad,  per se, but it's not been directly connected to injury risk.

Instead of core strength routines that only strengthen the abs and the lower back, I'm partial to the Pedestal routine, developed initially (I think) by Dan Pfaff and probably popularized among distance runners by John Cook, who coached a number of American elites, including Shannon Rowberry and Leo Manzano.

Jay Johnson has a nice video showcasing the pedestal routine.  I have runners do a few of the exercises differently because of personal preference, but the differences are mostly trivial.  Again, this is only one example; there's a wide variety of hip and core strength workouts you could devise or uncover.
Building general strength

In terms of building general strength, there are a huge number of ways to go about doing this.  When I say "general strength" what I mean is just all-around muscular endurance and coordination.  This is not specific to running in any particular way, but it serves two purposes in runners.  First, it improves overall athleticism, which I feel is beneficial in runners from an injury prevention perspective (but there isn't great scientific evidence for this just yet), and second, it serves as a general background for the running workouts in which you will need to recruit your muscle fibers while you're fatigued.  Think about it this way: when you are about to kick during a race, you need to recruit a lot of muscle fibers to change gears and increase your speed.  A general strength circuit simulates this same type of situation (muscle recruitment while very fatigued) but in a general, non-running specific way.  In this manner, it serves as a foundation for running-specific muscle recruitment while fatigued, which can be developed later.

To achieve these goals, I think that general strength work should be circuit-based: you should do a medium number (10-25) of repeats of several exercises (total of 5-15 exercises) in quick succession, taking little or no recovery between the different exercises.  These exercises should also target the whole range of muscles in your body, and they should be done at a very high intensity (i.e. not sandbagging it).  Doing a general strength routine at anything less than full effort won't properly improve muscle recruitment while you're fatigued.  General strength work can be done in the weight room with a circuit comprised of different weight machines, but body-weight exercises are at least as good, if not better, at achieving the goals of a general strength routine.  Multi-joint body weight exercises like burpees, rocket jumps, mountain climbers, and push-ups are all great candidates to be done as part of a general strength routine.  Since it is, after all, a "general" strength routine, the specific exercises you do isn't that important, as long as you're hitting a lot of different muscle groups, ideally with multi-joint compound exercises.

Again, I've co-opted most of my general strength work from John Cook (who in turn co-opted much of that from Dan Pfaff).  This sheet showcases several different general strength routines, each named after a famous battle in human history.  The idea is that each strength day (2-3x/week) consists of the pedestal routine followed by one of the general strength routines, followed by one of the medicine ball routines (named after various tools of war), followed by one of the "multi-jumps" routines, which serve as a precursor to plyometrics.  Successive weeks cycle between 10, 15, and 2x15 of each exercise.
John Cook's general strength circuits
The tricky thing is decoding what these exercises actually mean.  This Flotrack video gives a demonstration of Pedestal, GS - Waterloo, and MB - Gas.  It's evident that not everybody does a multi-jump routine at all points during the season, and I prefer to incorporate jump training into a self-contained plyometrics routine instead.
The nice thing about body-weight strength work is that you don't need any facilities to do it.  A weight or medicine ball circuit can pose a problem if you've got a cross country team with 60 kids on it who are all trying to do strength work at the same time.
Maximal muscle recruitment

Most of the running research in the past several years on weight training has been directed at routines designed to improve maximum muscle recruitment.  This is where the weight room really shines: with body weight stuff or even actual running (with the possible exception of steep uphill sprints) it's not possible to get the kind of muscle recruitment you can get in something like a heavy squat.  However, the kind of lifting that runners were so afraid of for so long  because they thought it would bulk you up with excess muscle.  As it turns out, it's basically impossible to add any significant amount of muscle mass if you are running a lot.  The biological mechanism that signals your body to increase muscle size (mTOR) is overridden by the biological mechanism that signals for improvements in endurance (AMPK for the biologically-inclined). 

To improve maximum muscle recruitment, the star exercises for this are heavy, compound lifts—meaning lifts that use multiple joints.  Since we obviously want to improve leg muscle recruitment, far and away the two best exercises are the squat and the power clean, with deadlifts as a possible third candidate.  Now from what I've read, to actually target maximum muscle recruitment, you'd be looking at doing something like 2 sets of 5 or 3 sets of 4 reps, at pretty close to the maximum weight you could manage for 4/5 reps.  Leading up to these "work sets" you'd have 1-3 warm-up sets at substantially lower weights.  However you do need a good base (i.e. several weeks or months) of general strength before starting weight room stuff, since distance runners are notoriously weak.

The problem with this kind of work, and the reason I'm hesitant to recommend it to everybody, is that it creates an injury risk if you are lifting very heavy weights and have no idea how to do the lift properly.  The deadlift and especially the power clean are most susceptible to this, but there are plenty of ways to screw up the squat, too.  In an ideal world, you'd have a strength and conditioning coach to work with who can show you the correct way to do these lifts, but that's just not the reality for everyone.  You can do the leg press as an okay substitute for the squat and deadlift, but the power clean really has no substitute. 

The other downside about lifting very heavy is that it's quite taxing to your central nervous system to do on a regular basis.  The general consensus appears to be that you should only lift heavy 2x per week at most, and maybe only 1x per week if you have a race that week.  

Distributing weight training within an overall training schedule is one of the areas in which the coaching literature is painfully silent: how often should you lift heavy if you're running high mileage? What's an appropriate lifting workload during a phase of heavy training? And are there ancillary strength exercises, like hamstring curls or Romanian deadlifts, that might be best accomplished in the weight room while you're doing your maximal strength training? I imagine there's a good number of college and post-collegiate coaches who can answer these questions, but I haven't found any good resources on that.  Let me know if you know of any!
Weight lifting buffs and their coaches have a solid idea of sets, reps, weights, and exercises when it comes to adding mass or increasing strength, but they're completely in the dark when it comes to distance training.  They can't fathom that jumping right into several sets of heavy squats to failure might not be compatible with putting in fifteen or eighteen miles the following day.
Just like building up your running mileage, it's probably best to build up your workload in the weight room.  There isn't much agreement on whether you should jump into low reps/sets immediately and just build up the weight you put on the barbell, or if you should first start with low weight/high rep and progress down to high weight/low rep.  There are strong arguments for either, and developing a complete lifting program with weights, sets, reps, and exercises is beyond my level of expertise right now.  Always, there is more to learn!
On the bright side, the time spent in the weight room really is not very much if all you're doing is squats, power clean, and maybe deadlift.  There is no real reason to lift upper body with heavy weights.  Doing upper body strength as part of general strength is fine, and probably desirably, but it's pointless for a runner to be on the bench press or doing military press with lots of weight.  You do not need to maximally recruit those muscles when you run.
As alluded to earlier, another way to increase maximum muscle recruitment while running is with short (~8sec) hill sprints with long recovery.  Like anything else, this is something you introduce gradually.  Coaches disagree on how often you should do them, but if we view them as a high-intensity workout analogous to a heavy lifting session, a MAXIMUM of twice per week seems right.  Elite Kenyan distance runners like Caleb Ndiku do 10-15 hill sprints about once per week—starting out with more like 5 or 6 is more appropriate for less experienced runners.  Do note that these are sprints, meaning they should be done as fast as possible, while still maintaining good form.  "At 98-99%" is the pace I give when the high schoolers I work with do hill sprints. 
Building running-specific explosive strength

Finally, to build running-specific explosive strength, you want to use plyometrics, a.k.a "jump training."  Doing plyometrics requires a good general strength basis as well.  A good plyometric routine should progress from more basic and non-running-specific exercises like double leg hops towards more advanced, higher impact, and more running-specific work.  The "gold standard" of plyometrics for runners are power skipping (skipping for height AND distance) and bounding.  Plyometrics have some very good research behind them—even one study that looked at elite-level 3k runners (the average person in the study had run a sub-9:10 two mile equivalent 3k).  Most studies have the runners do plyos 3x per week, but from what I've read in the coaching literature, doing them 2x per week is more appropriate.  The coaching literature also cautions that heavy weight lifting AND plyometrics at the same time can also overload your nervous system, so ideally you'd phase out the heavy lifting as you phase in plyometrics, only returning once a week or so for some "maintenance lifting."

Building a good plyometrics routine is a huge pain.  Again, in the ideal world you'd have a strength & conditioning coach do this for you but that's not realistic for everyone! You can find some decent schedules in books on plyometrics, but they are mostly designed for long jumpers, soccer players, or sprinters. 

When designing a plyometric routine, you need to account for progression in exercise intensity (e.g. not starting up immediately with depth jumps or 100m of bounding), total number of contacts (impacts with the ground, the unit used to measure the workload of a plyometrics session), and the specificity of the exercises you're doing to running.  Steve Magness talks briefly but very insightfully on this topic in his book, The Science of Running.  Unfortunately, he does not provide any complete plyometrics programs.  I'm currently developing a 16-week plyometrics routine designed specifically for distance runners.  I'll make another blog post about it once I've finished (and perhaps tried it on myself!).

When it comes to putting it all together, injury prevention work should be priority #1.  Do hip strength, plus any other rehab exercises you need to do to stay healthy—this will vary from person to person; maybe you've sprained your ankle a lot and need to do balance work, maybe you have tight calves and need to stretch them several times a day, etc.— pretty much every single day year-round.  You can add a short core routine like Pedestal or some mobility/light leg strength like lunge variants if you'd like.  Once you've gotten used to that, you can add on a general strength circuit (body weight exercises, weight machines at low weights, medicine ball throws, or whatever suits your fancy) three times per week to build general strength.  AFTER you've mastered your general strength work (a process which will take at least several weeks!) you can start going to the weight room for maximal muscle strength lifting if you so desire.  With this, keep it simple: build up over time to high weight, low reps, only a few sets, and only a handful of compound exercises.  Also AFTER mastering general strength, you can add in a plyometric routine instead of or in addition to weight lifting. 

How important is strength work? For the strength stuff that keeps you from getting injured, very important.  If you're not healthy, you can't train.  Everything else helps—potentially a lotbut isn't absolutely vital.  Kenyans do a good bit of body weight exercises, but they don't all hit the gym to lift heavy 3x per week.  On the flip side, almost every American pro these days spends a lot of time in the weight room, so it's obviously useful if you can spare the time and you're generally doing the right thing.

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

9 thoughts on “The different roles of strength training for distance runners”

  1. After in almost all cases. Some people like the idea of doing strength work before running so the biological signal for endurance improvement "overrides" the signal for strength improvement more strongly, but this happens anyways, and being fresh for your run is more important to me—especially if you're doing a quality workout. Also, if you do general strength IMMEDIATELY following a run, it can effectively lengthen the duration of the run in some ways, leading to a slightly bigger aerobic stimulus without the concomitant impact that usually comes with adding 5-15min more running.

  2. Thanks for the question! I am a big fan of doing drills, but I view them as "technical work." So I like doing drills as part of warm-up routines for workouts, or as a precursor to strides following an easy or moderate run. You could very reasonably categorize drills as light plyometric work too, and some exercises, like bounding or skipping, are at least as much of a drill as they are a plyometric exercise.

    The reason I differentiate plyometrics from sprint drills is that plyometrics are ALWAYS done at a "full effort," i.e. 100% explosiveness on each exercise. Sprint drills can be explosive and quick, but I believe the primary goal should be perfection of the technical movement. I'll do another post some day on drills!

  3. Why are you such a big fan of drills? Isn't "technical work" a misguiding term? I quote Steve Magness: "Technique drills used for improving mechanics are basically useless. Drills can be used for other reasons, but for improving running mechanics they are pointless."
    Or is it just the plyometric value you're looking for?

  4. This is one area where I disagree with Steve. There is definitely some plyometric value in many drills (and hence the difficulty of classifying some as "drills" and others as "plyometrics"), but I do see value in the technical aspects of drills and how they apply to the running stride. In my own coaching, I have found that good runners tend to be good at doing drills, and bad runners tend to be bad at drills. I suspect many other coaches share this sentiment. Doubtless, there are a few good runners who are terrible at drills, or poor runners who are excellent at them, but the general trend I see is that better coordination and technical skill execution = better running. John Kellogg has written a good deal about why drills are an excellent supplement to a distance runner's training; I can share that if you wish.

  5. My experience with strengh training and distance running:
    I have been running for a long time and also been lifting heavy. Sometimes at the same time.
    Other times only running and only heavy lifting. My experience is like the athor says glute/hip strength is of high importance. For injury prevention and also I feel my sprint speed is getting faster because of my butt muscles get more reqruited. I dont have good experience with heavy lifting in the gym at the same time with distance running. Deadlift, squats and so on if done heavy are taxing on the nervous system and they create soreness.

    My best experience is with bodyweight type exercises for upperbody after interval days. Push ups, inverted rows in TRX, chins.

    After speed days, exercises like step ups, 1 legged RDL with weights, and 1/2 squat/1/2 deadlift going low I feel is the best exercises. Because they are done on 1 leg. Just like running. It challenges your balance and you are using you butt in a running specific way.

    I think heavy lifting is in most cases not necessary for distance runners. There are many things that can go wrong with trying to lift heavy and distance running. Teqnicue, CNS overload, soreness, time consuming. So I think the risk outweights the small improvement you potentially can get.


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