Distance runners, like all athletes, can benefit tremendously by adding a strength training routine to their overall training plan.
A runner with a strong core and more powerful legs can run more efficiently and improve their performance. Even more importantly, a strength training plan can help runners stay healthier by reducing their risk of common running injuries like runner’s knee and tendonitis.
In this guide I’m going to try and tackle some of the most common questions I get from runners when it comes to incorporating lifting weights into their running regimen.
How many days per week should runners strength train? Should you lift weights on your run day or your off day? Lift weights before or after the run?
Hopefully after reading through this article, you’ll feel confident in knowing exactly how strength training fits into your running.
Table of Contents
- Do Long Distance Runners Need to Lift Weights?
- How Many Times a Week Should Distance Runners Lift?
- Should Runners Lift on the Same Days They Run?
- Final Thoughts
Do Long Distance Runners Need to Lift Weights?
Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve been working in sports performance for two decades. Some athletes, like football players for instance, are pretty easy to convince that lifting weights will benefit them in their sport.
Distance runners, however, are sometimes a bit more skeptical.
Some fear that they’ll get too bulky or that weight training will somehow slow them down. Let’s dispel those worries.
Will Lifting Make Me Bulky?
If lifting weights a couple times a week could make anyone look like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, trust me, you’d see a whole lot more dudes walking around looking like superheroes. You should add a few pounds of muscle through strength training, but nothing remotely close to what would be considered ‘bulky’.
Will Lifting Make Me Slow?
Secondly, a strength training plan will actually improve your performance – not hinder it. More powerful legs can apply more force to the ground and potentially increase your stride distance. It’s something we work on all the time to improve 40 yard dash times and the same concept applies to distance runners as well.
Stronger legs and core also help you do the same amount of work (aka running) more efficiently which will also improve your performance.
Think about it. Why do people always ask the strongest person they know to help them move? Someone strong can do the same amount of work with less effort. It’s just easier for them.
And let’s not forget about the most important reason distance runners should be strength training. Strength training can help to prevent many of the most common injuries found with runners.
How Many Times a Week Should Distance Runners Lift?
Short answer is 2 to 3 times per week.
The difference is whether or not you’re in your off-season or in-season. I recommend three days per week for off-season training and two times per week while in-season.
If you’re running cross-country this is a little easier to mark on your calendar. Consider in-season starting about four weeks from the first meet of the season. Outside of that – off-season.
If you don’t have a defined running ‘season’, then pick out 2 or 3 events each year that you really want to perform well at. For many of us more casual runners, 2 or 3 events may be all the events we run at anyway. Change your routine to two lifts per week once you’re four weeks out from each event.
Build Up When First Starting
Just like you wouldn’t start off with a 20 mile run after some time off, make sure to build gradually when you first start incorporating weight training into your routine.
The worst soreness you’ll experience when lifting weights is after the first couple sessions anyway so there is absolutely no need to try and blow it out when first getting started. Allow your body to adapt to the new stimulus and then begin adding volume (sets and reps) to your strength training.
Add An Active Recovery Day In-Season
When you switch lifting weights from three days per week to two, turn that third day into an active recovery day.
An active recovery day could include foam rolling, stretching, mobility exercises or time in the cold tub.
You already have the third day worked into your schedule so it should be easy to utilize that time to help your body recover and prepare for competition.
Should Runners Lift on the Same Days They Run?
In other words, is it better to lift on the same day as a run or should you lift on your off days?
For some, more advanced runners, you’re already running almost every day so lifting on an off day isn’t even an option anyway. But, for intermediate and beginner runners that are running three to four time a week – there is a decision to be made.
Optimally, you should lift on your long run days either just before or right after the run. This may seem counter intuitive, but you want to lift on your long run days for two reasons.
First, by adding a strength training session on your long run days, you’re increasing the overall workload the body is having to perform in one session. This is going to build increased endurance in the legs without adding extra miles (and extra pounding to your feet, shins and joints) to them.
Second, you should protect your light, or off, days to allow for recovery. Your training should include ebbs and flows of high demand and low demand. Asking the body to strain hard, either through a lift or a run, is a recipe for overtraining and possibly injury.
Is it Better to Lift Before or After a Run?
There are pros and cons to each and I’ve found that this really comes down to personal preference.
Lifting before a run will pre-fatigue the legs and somewhat simulate the heavier legs that you’ll feel towards the back end of a longer run. Lifting after a run will teach the body how to continue to strain and push even when it’s already tired.
I would suggest trying both and see which you prefer.
Distance Runners should be strength training two to three times per week, depending on if they are off-season or in-season.
Keep your lifts on your long run days to optimize performance long term and to optimize recovery short term.
Finally, kudos to you for deciding to add lifting weights to your overall training program. A proper strength training program is going to lead to stronger, more powerful legs and decrease your risk of injury!