How do you structure strength training for runners? What are the main considerations? And how do you integrate it into your run training plan?
In this article, we cover the answer to those questions as well as the relevant sports science.
Have an Overall Goal
The first planning consideration is your goal for the event you’re training for or your running goal for the season in general.
This is because your strength training should be aligned to that goal.
Just to be clear, although our article suggests that strength training is for runners, it doesn’t always lead to better running, as shown in multiple research done as recent as 2018 (see research papers 1, 2, 3, 4).
However, when strength training is done in specific ways, it can indeed help you improve your running. Some benefits found through research include running economy, power output, and time to exhaustion at VO2 max. (See research papers 5, 6, 7, 8.)
Set A Strength Training Goal
The next planning consideration is to select a specific strength training objective. To simplify things, here are three categories of strength training goals:
Strength work, which is a broad term for increasing overall strength, core strength, and having strength in the range of motion required for running.
Unilateral work, which includes abilities in your single-leg and single-arm exercises.
And plyometric work, which basically is a technical term that refers to jump training.
The combination of two of these categories, namely strength and plyometric, will most effectively improve your running, as shown in studies in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
And the reason for the third category, unilateral work, is that not everyone is ready for plyometric training.
To be exact, a paper in 2015 states that “the most significant contraindication to plyometrics is when the athlete does not have the foundational strength or training base upon which a plyometric program can be built.”
The recommendation if you’re new to strength training, to quote the words of another review, is that “less well conditioned athletes should focus on developing strength before emphasizing power-type training, while those more experienced athletes may begin to emphasise power-type training while maintaining/improving their strength.”
Lastly, a meta-analysis also states that “unilateral resistance training exercises should be chosen for improving unilateral jumping performance, and bilateral resistance training exercises should be chosen for improving bilateral strength performance.”
As running is a sport where you land and take off one leg at a time, single leg plyometric should hence be included in your strength training. And consequently, unilateral strength work as well.
To sum things up, it’s recommended that you start with some strength work if you’re new to strength training, and then follow it up with unilateral work and plyometric work. Once you’re comfortable with all three different categories of exercises, you can then mix and match them in different amounts to help you reach you particular running goal.
Volume and Frequency
To be exact, multiple research in 2016 and 2018 (9) (10) (11) showed that there’s no difference in strength gains when volume is the same even when frequency is different. This is in contrast to running, where five short runs and a long run are not the same, even if they are equal in distance. But as mentioned in multiple research, more volume is possible through higher frequency, and hence multiple strength sessions can lead to greater strength gains.
Number of Reps
As for number of repetitions of each exercise, also known as reps, a recent review have stated that in general, carrying heavier loads between the 1-5 rep range will result in greater strength gains, as compared to lighter loads at a higher rep range.
For plyometric exercises, however, the rep range varies according to intensity of the exercise. For example, you’re recommended to do lesser reps per set for higher intensity exercises and more reps for lower intensity exercises.
Number of Sets
Next we come to the number of sets, and for strength gains, it’s recommended that you do more than five sets per week per exercise, as stated in a meta-analysis in 2017.
Training to Failure
The last rep of each set should feel tough, although there’s no need to work to complete failure to see improvements in strength. And this is backed up by multiple research in 2020 and 2022. Nevertheless, one of the papers also states that training to failure does not seem to have detrimental effects either. So feel free to give it your all if it makes you feel better.
As for rest time between sets, when training for strength, studies (12) (13) (14) have shown a rest between 2-5 minutes to be optimal. In practice, how much time you should rest is usually based on how much time you need to recover without sacrificing the performance for your next set. This is because you would want to do as much as possible each time you hit the gym.
Order of Exercises
Lastly, studies in 2010 and 2012 states that the exercise order should be based on your training goal, with the exercises that have greater effects coming first.
Adding Strength Training to Your Running Plan
To add strength training into the plan, you can choose to put them either on your running day, non-running day, or both. The fundamental guideline is that your strength sessions don’t affect the performance of your key workouts, which in this case are the intervals and long runs.
To be specific, a 2017 study indicates that high-intensity plyometrics and resistance training may impair running economy, but that effect lasts for less than 24 hours.
At the same time, another study in 2014 states that a 6-hour recovery period following resistance training may minimize attenuation in easier runs. Specifically, the workouts that are below anaerobic threshold. However, this might not be the case for sessions above anaerobic threshold. And that’ll include your sprints, strides, anaerobic capacity intervals, etc.
Hence, a general guideline will be to have 24 hours between your high intensity strength workouts and your key run sessions, if possible.
On top of that, you can always find ways to insert low intensity strength training into your program. This can something like 10 minutes of bodyweight exercises, a short pilates session, or some drills during your warm up. In fact, a 2020 research found that in comparison with the control warm-up protocol, a routine with plyometrics can improve your running economy during the run session. Hence, it’s something you might want to consider.
Finally, another way to insert a low-intensity strength session is to do bodyweight exercises post-workout. Although this might not lead to as much strength gains as sessions with heavier loads, it will still help you increase your strength, as mentioned in a research in 2021.
Periodisation of Strength Training Plan
In essence, for most cases, how much you lift in the gym does not matter as much as how it’s affecting your run.
In a meta-analysis published this year, researchers also found that for trained adults, even though a linear periodisation is better than no periodisation, an undulating periodisation is even more optimal for strength gains.
If you’ll like one-to-one guidance on strength training for runners, i.e. personal training, please reach out to us.