You Don’t Need the Gym to Become a Stronger Runner
Seriously. Here are 3 proven ways to increase running strength — and speed, economy, power and injury resistance — without lifting a single weight.
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Strength exercises are proven to be enormously beneficial for runners. Studies show that weight lifting improves speed, economy, and power. Strength training also toughens connective tissues and bones — helping improve injury resiliency — and improves body composition and lean muscle mass.
Lifting weights is often considered the “gold standard” for strength, power, and force production. Strength training is such an integral part of training for runners that I don’t even consider it cross-training — it’s just another piece of the training program.
Alas, ideal training is not always possible. We all have limitations on our time and resources: It’s understandable if you’re unable or unwilling to visit a gym.
The good news is that you can still get many of the same benefits of strength training without ever stepping foot in the weight room. You don’t even need to do any bodyweight strength exercises at home (though that’s still recommended to correct for imbalances created by our sedentary lifestyles and lack of variety in activities).
Given the training load that these strategies add, you’ll likely want to incorporate one at a time into your training rather than pile on all three at the same time.
Strength Strategy #1: Run High Mileage
This is our most advanced strategy and one that you should gradually work on for months and even years. But the performance and injury prevention benefits of high mileage are powerful.
First, high mileage makes you stronger. Running is essentially a series of quarter-squats (done plyometrically) with low weight. The more you run, the more quarter squats you’re completing. Months and years of high mileage running have the effect of creating very strong runners.
High mileage also toughens your muscles and connective tissues much like strength training. A higher workload increases stress and the demands on your legs—which respond by adapting to that stress. Those adaptations include increased strength.
While this is an indirect way of getting stronger—lifting weights is more efficient—it still works quite well, and in comes in combination with building other running systems such as aerobic and metabolic efficiency. Just note that building mileage is riskier than maintaining mileage. Increase your volume gradually!
Strength Strategy #2: Run Hill Workouts
Legendary American marathoner Frank Shorter wisely noted that “Hills are speedwork in disguise.” They’re also very effective at making you a stronger runner.
While any type of hill training will improve strength, if this is your primary goal it’s best to focus on relatively short repetitions on a steep hill. Reps of 10 to 90 seconds at efforts of 5k pace or faster are ideal for developing strength, power, and for reinforcing sound running mechanics. By working against gravity at higher speeds, all those fast quarter-squats are giving you a lot of strength and power gains.
A side benefit of hill workouts is that running hard uphill is easier on the body. Since you’re working against gravity, there is less impact and wear and tear on the joints. If you’re prone to injuries, hill workouts can help you boost strength while prevent more injuries.
Most hill workouts are performed with a jog back down the hill as the recovery. Make sure you’re taking at least a minute in between repetitions, but you may need more if the reps are short and fast. This gives you time to take it very easy on the descent and avoid the danger of hurting yourself with the increased pounding.
Strength Strategy #3: Train Like a Sprinter
It might sound counterintuitive, but sprinting is very much like running for 2–3 hours in that both activities force your body to recruit large numbers of muscle fibers. Those fibers are then more accessible to you when you’re tired late in a workout, long run, or race, and you’ll be able to call on them to stave off fatigue and continue running fast.
Most distance runners aren’t familiar with these types of workouts, which are very short, fast, and require more substantial recovery than traditional endurance workouts. Remember these three principles of any speed development session:
- They are run at max speed, which means sprinting as fast as you possibly can.
- Recovery between repetitions is walking, not running, and far longer than you’re used to taking. Take the time and don’t rush the recovery interval. You should feel fully recovered—like you never even ran the previous one—before you start again.
- The first rep can be at 98% intensity to allow yourself to fully warm up.
- Start with only a 2–4 reps: These will cause a lot of muscle damage.
- These are advanced, difficult workouts (don’t underestimate how sore you might feel!)
A simple example of a sprint workout is 4 x 20-meters with up to two full minutes of walking for recovery.
If you don’t have access to a gym, or can’t make the time, you can structure your training to include some or all of these training elements. You’ll be stronger, and a more injury resistant, powerful runner!