A Runner’s Guide to Strength Training
Lifting weights can be intimidating for runners. Here's everything you need to know to get started, including when to schedule it, what equipment you need, and how to reach your goals.
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.
Over the last few years, more runners have begun to add weight-lifting to their training regimens, and that’s good. Substantial research shows that strength training enhances performance and helps prevent injury. It makes sense: strong muscles and tendons are what make you fast, efficient, and durable. Furthermore, lifting weights may even improve cognitive function and muscular strength is protective against all-cause mortality. (Plus, if you care about having a toned physique, there’s no substitute for pumping iron.)
If you’re new to strength training then you may be confused or intimidated. Also, there are some misconceptions about lifting weights that should be dispelled. First know that starting a strength program isn’t complicated, you don’t have to spend endless hours in the gym, and no, you won’t get “too big.”
Before we go further, we must acknowledge the pandemic. COVID-19 has, as we all know, made everything more difficult, including strength training. Going to a gym now may not be the right choice for you. But if you do decide to join a gym, then please practice safe habits including wearing a mask, social distancing, spraying and wiping the equipment you use, and frequent hand washing.
COVID-19 is also an obstacle to outfitting a home gym. Weights are scarce due not only to supply chain disruption but also to fitness enthusiasts shopping for home gym equipment. Ordering weights will probably require a wait. Scouring Ebay or Craigslist may yield good deals.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the principles in the article hold true.
If gaining strength is your goal, then you need to use weights. Bodyweight workouts are good, but weights allow you to more easily load your body and expand your exercise variety. Here’s a list of weight training equipment that will serve you best:
- Olympic barbell and plates. These are cornerstones of traditional strength training. Barbell exercises such as back and front squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, cleans, presses, bench presses, and rows are indispensable. The minimum number of plates you’ll need are two each of 45 lbs., 35 lbs., 25 lbs., 10 lbs., 5 lbs., and 2.5 lbs.
- Squat rack or power rack. Front and back squats are most easily done with a rack. Good racks can also be used for presses, bench presses, and pull-ups.
- Dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, cables, and bands/tubing are also excellent strength training tools.
A barbell and plates alone will take you a long way. A rack will maximize the use of a barbell. Most gyms and recreation centers have barbells, plates, and racks. If you’re outfitting a home gym then you’ll spend $700-$800 for used equipment or $1000+ on new equipment.
Flat, uncushioned shoes are best for lifting. Typical running shoes aren’t ideal. There are many appropriate, affordable shoes from which to choose. Many powerlifters prefer the Converse Chuck Taylor, the old-school canvas basketball shoe. It’s cheap and durable. Several minimalist running shoes are a good choice as well. Xero Shoes, Vivo Barefoot, Altra Solstice XT, Topo Athletic ST-3, New Balance Minimus, Merrell Trail Glove are some examples. Dedicated weightlifting shoes are an option but not necessary.
When to Lift?
Here are some questions to consider: Are you new to lifting or are you experienced? Where are you in your running season? How much time do you have?
It will take some trial and error to figure out when to lift, but there are some general guidelines:
- Avoid lifting on the same day as a tough run.
- Try to lift on off days or easy run days not adjacent to hard workouts.
- You may benefit from replacing some easy “junk” miles with time in the gym.
A lifting session may take as little as 30 minutes if you’re only doing one main exercise. Plan for 45-60 minutes If you’re doing mobility work, one main exercise, and one to three assistance exercises.
If you’re learning to lift, your nervous system is adapting and learning to coordinate unfamiliar movements. With frequent lifting/learning sessions, you can expect to make rapid progress.
Three sessions per week is ideal with two sessions being the minimum. You should separate your sessions by 24–48 hours.
At this stage, you’ve spent 3–6 months lifting with good technique and you know how to lift. You’re still gaining strength, but at a slower rate than a newbie.
You can continue to make progress with as few as two sessions per week separated by 48–72 hours.
If you’re in the thick of your season and training hard, then you’re likely pressed for time as your body can fully recover from only so much hard work. This is not the time to build more strength, but you can maintain your strength and movement proficiency with one session per week.
Reps and Sets
Strength and Power
Use 1–5 reps for 3–6 sets to build strength. This is heavy lifting. It promotes both neurological and tendon adaptations that make you more efficient and durable. Most runners should spend time lifting in this range, as heavy lifting benefits sprinters and ultra-distance runners alike.
Hypertrophy (muscle growth)
Use 6–15 reps for 2–4 sets for hypertrophy. Although runners don’t need much additional muscle mass for performance, you may benefit from muscle growth in other areas. For instance, if you have a history of calf or hamstring injuries, adding some muscle in those areas may help. If you simply want a more muscular physique then this rep/set range is for you. (Note: You won’t get “too big.” No one ever got “too big” by accident. That’s like a brand new runner being scared of accidentally running an ultramarathon or qualifying for the Olympic Trials.)
Use 15+ reps for 1–3 sets. You’re a runner who’s already doing endurance work. Don’t use weights for more endurance. If you’re learning to lift though, high-rep sets make sense from a learning perspective. Lifting weights is a skill and the more time you spend doing high-quality reps of new exercises, the faster you’ll master them.
Intensity and Progression
As with running, when it comes to lifting you want to work hard but avoid total exhaustion. Stop one or two reps shy of failure when lifting and maintain strict technique. If you’re doing sets of five reps, then you should feel like you’re almost able to get seven. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets. That’ll feel like a long time but you need those fast-twitch fibers to recharge for another high-quality set. You should feel fatigued but good at the end of a workout, not nauseous or beaten down.
Proper progression is also like running in that it should be gradual. New lifters will add weight more rapidly than experienced lifters. Generally, look to add 10 lbs. to lower-body exercises and 5 lbs. to upper-body lifts per week for several weeks. Progress will slow eventually. It’s natural. Pay attention to how you feel. On certain days you’ll feel very strong, while other days you’ll be fatigued. Adjust your workout accordingly, don’t try and force progression.
Should You Hire a Trainer?
As a personal trainer myself I’m biased, but I do believe that professional instruction in any discipline from the violin to scuba diving to lifting weights is a good idea. You don’t know what you don’t know. Learning to lift via books, articles, and videos is much more difficult. A trainer can personally evaluate you and will teach you proper breathing, how to brace the core, pack the shoulders, hip-hinge, proper squat depth, and how to maintain neutral spine. A good trainer will demonstrate and explain exercises in a concise way and she or he will cue you to move well. Your trainer will progress you correctly with expertise to help you avoid injury. She or he will give you enough work load to be challenging without pushing you beyond your limits.
You will probably find yourself sore when you start lifting. Runs will seem harder initially. Stick with it though and you’ll adapt. It’s worth it. You’ll soon become faster, stronger, and more durable. You might even discover that picking up heavy stuff can be fun!