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Strength Training For Runners: Why You Need it

Written by Gustavo Ramos

July 6, 2019

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As a runner you’ve probably avoided strength training and heard things like:

"It’ll make you slower"; "it’s going to add weight to you"; "it’s going to overtrain you"

Let me be the first to tell you that strength training is the key to your running longevity. 

Strength training is the most important thing you’re not doing to improve your running. 

So let me show you why strength training is great for everyone, but especially for you. 

Gain strength without Weight

Because of how strength gains happen, you don’t necessarily have to get bigger to get stronger.

With strength training, your muscles get stronger through two primary mechanisms: more muscle, and more recruitment of fibers.

More muscle happens by increasing muscle fiber size. The larger your muscle fibers the more force you’ll be able to generate. Normally this takes weeks to months to happen and there are two types: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy. 

You will grow more muscle with strength training, but it won’t be much unless your program is purely focused on muscle growth and you’re in a caloric surplus. 

The other way strength improves is through the nervous system, this is the mechanism you’re looking to really drive your strength adaptations as a runner. 

Improving the nervous system through strength training can increase the number of muscle fibers that are contracting during a movement, increasing force production with the muscle you already have. This is valuable since there is no increase in body weight with neurological adaptations. 

Another benefit of training your nervous system is the improvement in motor control. Motor control increases strength by enhancing the ability to contract the appropriate muscles at the right time—this creates the most efficient and stable movement possible for a joint. 

For example, improving motor control of the hip musculature through proper squats and banded hip thrusts will allow you to use those muscles properly when running. This leads to increased hip stability, which carries down to the knee and ankle joints--allowing you to push off the ground with greater force. 

Neurological increases don’t need much time to happen and can occur independently of gaining more muscle mass. 

With the right program, you can begin to strengthen muscles for running; taking the strain off of joints and improving your running pattern.  

And don't be afraid of gaining muscle because no one gains 10 pounds of muscle overnight.

Again, to add muscle you would have to eat in a caloric surplus and train for hypertrophy with lots of sets and reps.

But even if you gain a pound or two of muscle, chances are it will still improve your running.

Please don’t fear muscle gain!

Strengthen more than muscle

The awesome thing about strength training is that your muscles aren’t the only things that get stronger. 

Lifting weights also places loads on connective tissue: bone, tendons, and ligaments.

When you challenge these structures through proper training they also break down and rebuild stronger than before.

Strength training will help your body handle an increase in running mileage which is when most aches and pains tend to come up.

Tendons especially need time to be challenged, recover, and build up strength. 

Using compound lifts in your training program will provide the most stimulus for muscle and connective tissues.

Compound lifts are exercises that involve more than one moving joint like squats, deadlifts, or bench press. Compound lifts should be the priority in your strength training routine. 

Fix quad dominance

Most people, without strength training and tons of sitting, become quad dominant. This means that you are using mostly anterior (front of your body) muscles: your quads, hip flexors, and shin muscles to engage in running.

This changes your stride leading to increased forces on the joints of the lower body and a less efficient stride; holding back your run times while increasing your quad and shin burn.  

You need strength training to improve your running. Changing your stride may help, but strengthening the proper muscles is the only way to solidify a good stride and shift the load to the right muscles. 

The posterior muscles of the lower body—mainly the glutes and hamstrings—are key to a correct stride. Strengthening these muscle groups will allow you to stride correctly and improve your efficiency.

I recommend posterior dominant compound movements like low-bar squats, deadlifts, and split squats along with glute isolation movements like hip thrusts.

 

Get strong

Strengthening the glutes and hamstrings should be your main focus when training—but you should still have a complete strength training routine to maintain balance.

Yes, even upper body work. You need it to swing your arms properly and to improve your posture. 

I recommend following a solid strength training plan, luckily our beginner program is free to download and is a great way to start.

If you’re having knee pain when you run, which is very common, check out our article on fixing knee pain with strength training.  

Download the Seriously Strong Beginner Program