Designing a general strength circuit for distance runners

Weights, general strength circuits, plyometrics, and hip/core strength exercises all have their place in the training of a distance runner.  Today, I'd like to focus on general strength circuitsspecifically. 
Each word in that phrase has a particular meaning.  General means not specific. i.e. not exercises that are very similar to running or that involve running.  An example of a more specific strength exercise might be uphill sprinting or bounding.  Strengthmeans more or less what you'd expect it to be—resistance exercises for muscular strength.  Finally, circuits denotes that we're talking about a high-intensity strength routine with many different exercises and short recovery. 
Why should a distance runner do this type of strength work? There are three reasons, and each of them illustrates one of the three domains from which a good coach will draw wisdom.
Why do strength circuits?
1.  Anecdotal observations on strength
The first domain is anecdotal observation.  Subjectively, I (and a lot of other coaches) have noticed that fast, injury-resistant runners tend to be stronger and more athletic than their slower, injury-prone counterparts.  Of course, there are exceptions—a skinny, uncoordinated kid who wins the state meet, for example—but if you spend enough time around budding distance runners, you'll find the general trend is undeniable.  This alone is reason enough to do some type of work for improving strength and general athleticism, since it's also evident to any experienced coach that "just" running won't make you strong and athletic.
2.  A physiological argument for strength circuits
The second is drawing from physiology and training theory.  In distance training, we know that it is advisable to build a base of general, less-specific running before moving to race-specific workouts.  We can apply the same principle to both strength work in general and to high-intensity circuits in particular.  Before we start doing any heavy weight lifting, high-intensity plyometrics, or hill sprinting or bounding, it makes sense to improve our general strength and athleticism so we're better-prepared for higher-intensity, more running-specific stimuli further down the road. 
Additionally, there's a general-to-specific argument to be made for high intensity circuits with regards to development of a finishing kick.  Think about what happens when you kick at the end of a race: you call upon your fast-twitch fibers to work at a high intensity, even though they're already awash in acidosis.  We can train this in a specific way by doing certain workouts (or just by racing), but how could we train, in a general, non-specific way, the ability to recruit fast-twitch fibers in a fatigued state? A general strength circuit is the perfect solution.
 3.  Scientific research on strength circuits and hormone levels
If you keep up with pro running news, you'll know that there has been a lot of buzz recently about the possibility of illegal doping being much more widespread than was previously thought.  There are three go-to pharmacological aids for drug cheats: EPO, which boosts your red blood cell production, testosterone, which boosts muscle growth and recovery, and human growth hormone, which also aids in muscle growth and recovery.  Wouldn't it be great to be able to boost levels of these hormones naturally?
With EPO, we're out of luck unless we live at altitude, but with regards to hGH and testosterone, the situation is a little more interesting.  Scientific research shows that a general strength circuit designed with a couple of guidelines in mind will boost levels of human growth hormone and testosterone in the blood for several hours post-exercise.1
By now, it should be clear that strength circuits should be a part of any competitive 800m to 10,000m runner, and should be a serious consideration for long-distance runners from a recovery and injury-resilience perspective too.  The next question is how to actually design a general strength routine.  To do so, we'll look to the scientific literature for guidance. 


Scientific guidelines for designing a general strength circuit
As described in a 2005 review article by physiologists William Kraemer and Nicholas Ratamess, the amount of testosterone and human growth hormone released in response to resistance training is dependent largely on four variables: the total volume of resistance exercise, the intensity at which it is performed, the amount of recovery between reps, and the amount of muscle mass involved.1 
Each of these four variables points to general strength circuits as an optimal strategy for boosting hormone levels.  A whole-body general strength circuit involves a large number of reps and sets, it is done at a high intensity with short recovery, and, if you choose the right exercises, you can use most of the muscles in the body. 
Notably, some of these characteristics are not fulfilled by low-rep, high-weight lifting, which is currently popular among advocates of strength work for distance runners.  Even though the weight is heavy, the total workload (reps x sets x weight) is too low with a low-rep/high-weight strength protocol to elicit a big surge in growth hormone and testosterone levels.
Additionally, as demonstrated by Cathy Pritzlaff and colleagues at the University of Virginia, to boost growth hormone levels, our strength circuit routine should be ten minutes or longer, and it should be at an intensity high enough to exceed the lactate threshold.2  If we choose enough exercises and do them at maximal effort, neither of these should be a problem.
Kraemer and Ratamess also recommend "compound" exercises, meaning ones that involve lots of different muscles working together as opposed to exercises that only target one or two muscles—so squats or lunges are preferable to knee extensions or hamstring curls.
Building a strength circuit
We've now reached the point where we can start discussing specific exercises and routines.  However, no one specific circuit is going to be ideal for every runner.  You might not have the same access to facilities and equipment as I do, so something like medicine ball throws may not be viable for you.  You might also have certain exercises that you can't do for injury reasons.  Because of this, I'll walk you through the general process of constructing a circuit, then show how I take my own individual needs into consideration while making a circuit for myself. 
The first thing to do is to decide what type of strength exercises you want to do.  For convenience and practicality, I prefer exercises that require either no equipment at all (body weight exercises) or simple, easily accessible equipment.  Circuits involving Nautilus-style machines are great, but unless you have the gym all to yourself, there's no guarantee you'll be able to get on the machine you want when you want it.  
In the routine I'm building, I only want to use two pieces of equipment: a 10 lb medicine ball and a pull-up bar.  I'll use a padded floor mat if it's available, but it's not necessary.
Broadly, you can divide general strength exercises into upper body exercises, lower body exercises, and core/whole body exercises.  In some cases, these distinctions are arbitrary, but they're still useful, since we'll rotate between each of these three types of exercises in our circuit.
You'll also want to mark down types of exercises you don't want to do because of facilities limitations or injury/anatomical difficulties.  For me, I want to avoid any kind of back hyperextension exercise, since I tend to "pinch" my vertebrae with these and get some lingering low back pain.  I also don't do any straight-knee back plank variants, since they aggravate the insertions of my hamstring tendons.  Finally, I have a history of sacrum and sacroiliac joint injury, so I don't do anything that involves strong, rapid bending at the waist.  This means V-sits, good-mornings, and a few other exercises are out.  You, or the runners you coach, will probably have different needs; remember, this is just an example! 
When I sorted out the different exercises I wanted to include in my routine, it looked something like this:

Upper body
Clap push-up
Medicine ball overhead throw
Medicine ball side toss
Medicine ball perpendicular toss
Kneeling medicine ball toss
Lower body
Prisoner squat
Single leg squat
Rocket jump
Standing lunge
Calf hops
Lunge jumps
Medicine ball hurdle reach
Box step-ups
Core / whole body
Mountain climbers
Front plank with leg lifts
Front plank, pushup stance, with leg lifts
Prone elbow stand flexed knee hip extension
Legs-up crunch
You might have your own preferences or beliefs about what kinds of exercises you should be doing, and your list will probably be different than mine.  And that's okay! As long as you select a variety of compound exercises that target your upper body, your lower body, and your core, you'll have no problem fulfilling the criteria of an optimal general strength circuit routine.
How to do the circuit
You can choose to do each exercise for a certain number of repetitions, or for a certain duration.  To ensure you have a good variety of exercises in your routine, you probably shouldn't do more than 20-25 repeats or 30 seconds per exercise.  Remember, you should be doing these at a very high intensityfor optimal benefits.  As for recovery, I recommend not taking any—move immediately from one exercise to the next.  Rotating between upper body, lower body, and core/whole body exercises should be plenty of rest.
In my routine, I'll be doing 15 repeats of each exercise (except pull-ups, since I can only do 12 for now).  I start with 15 push-ups, then do 15 prisoner squats, then 15 burpees, then keep repeating the same pattern: pull-ups, single-leg squat, mountain climbers, etc., cycling through each of the three types of exercises line-by-line.
You don't need to bother doing the math to ensure sure one go-through of your circuit lasts long enough.  If you get to the end, you can just start at the beginning again, moving from exercise to exercise until you've reached the requisite duration—at least ten minutes. 
Should you go longer than ten minutes? For getting the most value out of your general strength circuit, my coaching intuition tells me that you only want to go for 10-15 minutes.  This is long enough to get a big boost in hormone levels, and it's also approximately the same duration as most commonly-contested middle distance events on the track (800m-5000m).  Yes, a 10k takes about half an hour, but you're also not in oxygen debt for most of it. 
However, there is some precedent for circuit training sessions of up to one hour.  In Better Training for Distance Runners by David Martin and Peter Coe—a book which was hugely influential on middle distance training for much of the '80s and '90s—Martin and Coe discuss strength circuits as a method for increasing strength, endurance, and injury resilience in runners: 
Schedule no more than about 8-12 exercises [...] and ensure through variety that all major muscle groups are exercised.  Next assign an acceptable number of reps to permit completion of the circuit in about 12 to 15 min.  This restricts each exercise to about 1/2 minute in duration. [...] Plan to do from two to five reps of the circuit, depending on fitness level, which provides a training period lasting approximately from 30 min to 1 hr. Take no more than 2 to 3 min of rest between the completion of one circuit and the start of the next circuit repetition. (Martin and Coe, p. 273)3
Though the scientific research on hormonal responses to strength training is much more recent than Martin and Coe's book, they pretty much nailed the optimal way to do circuits.  Martin and Coe do note that this longer type of session should be treated as a real workout, done on an easy day with another day of easy running to follow.
When to do strength circuits
This brings up another question you have probably been wondering about.  When and how often should you do strength circuits? Coe and Martin recommend once or twice per week, depending on the time of year, but this is for their 30-60 minute circuit. 
Given that our circuit is only going to be 10-15 minutes long, and given that it's not running-specific, it's safe to do fairly often.  Let's return to the three original rationales for doing general strength circuits for some insights on when and how often to do them. 
For building basic strength and athleticism, doing strength work more than 2-3 times per week does not appear to be necessary.  You certainly could, but I don't think you need to. 
In terms of building a general base for muscle fiber recruitment under fatigued conditions, one or two sessions per week should do it—this is how often we train other general factors (think strides, hill sprints, etc). 
For growth hormone, it helps to—work with me for a minute here—pretend we are doping.  If we were drug cheats who knew we had zero chance of getting caught, how often would we inject ourselves with testosterone and hGH? Probably every day, or almost every day.  So if our only goal was boosting hormone levels, we should do a strength circuit on any day that we aren't already doing an interval workout at or above the lactate threshold—remember, a running workout can boost anabolic hormone levels too, as long as it includes at least 10 minutes of running at or above the lactate threshold. 
There is some argument for "making your hard days hard" by doing strength circuits the same day as your interval workouts, but hormonally speaking, this is inefficient.  By doing strength circuits on easy days, we enjoy the benefits of higher anabolic hormones more often.
Are there any training sessions we wouldn't want to combine with strength circuits? Heavy weight training should probably have its own dedicated day at the gym.  Doing circuits and traditional barbell lifting on the same day might be too big of a stimulus to adequately recover from.  Additionally, you probably do not want to do circuits after a very hard interval session or a long run—you'd probably be too spent to perform the circuit at a high enough intensity anyways.  If you'd like to do circuits (or traditional lifting) on long run day, at least wait for 6-7 hours afterwards to do your strength work.  Remember, it's very important to be able to do your circuit at a high effort level.
What about concerns over "chronic acidity" from too much hard strength training? John Cook's old stable of distance runners, including Shannon Rowburry, Leo Manzano, Shalane Flanagan, and Erin Donohue, was notorious their prodigious volumes of strength and agility work.  In a talk at the 2009 USTFCCCA annual convention, Cook says that his runners would do up to 20 training sessions (including running workouts, strength circuits, and technical work) per week—it worked out okay for them! Doing circuit training three times per week should not prove to be a problem.
Again, because these are not running-specific, I think the danger of overdoing it with circuit training is far less than with hard interval workouts, especially if you're only doing a 10-minute circuit. 
Fitting the general strength circuit into a comprehensive schedule
How would strength circuits fit into a comprehensive training schedule for a distance runner? We need to consider how to fit in not only running workouts, but other ancillary work as well.  Here is what a two-week block of training might look like for a high-level collegiate 5k runner in pre-season training (no competitions yet):
30min easy
8x1k at LT
weights + plyometrics
30min easy
60min easy + strides & drills
GS circuit
70min progression run
Weights + plyometrics
30min easy
60min easy + strides & drills
GS circuit
70min easy
13mi with last 3mi progressive
GS circuit
60min easy
30min easy
12x500m at 5k pace
Weights + plyometrics
30min easy
60min easy + strides & drills
GS circuit
45min at aerobic threshold
Weights + plyometrics
30min easy
60min easy + strides & drills
GS circuit
30min easy
16x200m at 3k to mile pace
15mi long run
GS circuit (optional)
40min easy
This looks like a lot.  It is.  But it's easier to start with the hardestquestion—"How do I fit general strength circuits (GS circuits on the schedule) into my training alongside weight lifting, plyometrics, drills, strides, workouts, and long runs?" This schedule shows how a committed runner can fit in five to six GS circuits every two weeks. 
If your schedule is less dense, it's a lot easier to figure out.  This is just one example intended to show that you don't have to choose between traditional weight lifting and circuit training, or circuit training and plyometrics—you can do everything, assuming you have enough time to train, sleep, and recover between workouts.  If you don't, it's easy to drop things.  Skip plyometrics entirely, only do circuits twice a week, etc.  If you really wanted to, you could only hit the gym twice a week and do a very short lifting routine (3x5 low bar back squats and nothing else, for example), take several minutes recovery, then do your 10min GS circuit.  It's not optimal, of course, but it's better than nothing.
Building a general strength circuit does not need to be some mystical hocus-pocus task that only a certified strength coach is able to do.  The ideal routine, and how often you do it, will depend on the facilities available to you, your training schedule, and other variables unique to your situation. 
All general strength circuits should follow the same principles.  They should:
  • Take ten to fifteen minutes to complete
  • Be done at a high intensity
  • Have little or no recovery between exercises and between sets, if applicable
  • Target many different muscle groups with compound movements involving many muscles being activated at once
  • Be done 2-3 times a week, preferably on easy days
As long as you follow these guidelines, you can tailor your general strength circuit to fit your needs or those of the runners you coach.  If you want to do a classic weight circuit on Nautilus machines, fantastic.  If you want to use body-weight exercises so your circuit can be done without any specialized equipment, that's great too!
The science, the physiology, and the coaching expertise demonstrate that low-weight / high-rep style strength work has its place in training distance runners alongside the heavy weight, low-rep barbell training that's currently popular in coaching circles.  Each type of ancillary exercise, whether it's barbell lifting, plyometrics, drills, or general strength circuits, serves to stimulate a particular physiological adaptation.  By understanding these, you can learn how to fit each of them into a comprehensive training program for distance runners.

1.         Kraemer, W. J.; Ratamess, N. A., Hormonal Responses and Adaptations to Resistance Exercise and Training. Sports Medicine 2005, 35 (4), 339-361.
2.         Pritzlaff, C. J.; Wideman, L.; Weltman, J. Y.; Abbott, R. D.; Gutgesell, M. E.; Hartman, M. L.; Veldhuis, J. D.; Weltman, A., Impact of acute exercise intensity on pulsatile growth hormone release in men. Journal of Applied Physiology 1999, 87 (2), 498-504.
3.         Martin, D. E.; Coe, P. N., Better Training for Distance Runners. 2 ed.; Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL, 1997.

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.

6 thoughts on “Designing a general strength circuit for distance runners”

  1. Dear John,
    Could you please comment on the following questions:
    May the GS circuit be done immediately after an easy run? Or there should be a little rest between these two workouts? I have my running workouts in the evening, so there is no so many space to have two workouts separated by significant rest.
    Thank you in advance!

  2. Hi John,

    Jack D mentioned you were coaching him and told me to check out the website. How do the hormones produced post-workout compare to the ones produced after, say a 6mile run. I think I read something from Magness that talked about growth hormone production following runs as short as 30min.

  3. Great article! Which exercises would you reccomend fir a circuit like you suggested with absolutely zero equipment and no restrictions based in injury?


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