7 Best Strength Training Exercises for Runners (Expert Tips)

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Published by Christiana Mikesch, CPT | Senior Coach
Last updated: January 8, 2024
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As a certified fitness coach, I've encountered many runners who fear strength training as they assume it will build bulky muscles, thus slowing them down.

But that is not the case. Unless you are following specific bodybuilding rules, such as eating tons of extra calories, then you are good to do strength training.

In this article, I will detail the best strength exercises you can perform as a runner and the benefits and tips of doing the strength training exercises.

Quick Summary

  • The seven best strength training exercises for runners are squats, walking lunges, single-arm standing cable row, step-ups, single-leg deadlift, leg raise, and glute bridge.
  • Strength training is crucial for runners as it enhances muscle and connective tissue strength, improves neuromuscular coordination, and boosts stride efficiency.
  • According to the National Institute of Health, incorporating unilateral exercises in strength training can help correct muscle imbalances, which are often a cause of injuries in runners.
  • In my view, incorporating strength training into a running regimen not only improves performance but also contributes significantly to overall body health and fitness.

Best Strength Training Exercises for Runners

A person doing squats for strength training

1. Squats

Squats improve the main muscle groups utilized in running, lowering the chance of injury.

How to perform:

  1. Take a standing position with feet hip-width distance and your toes pointed outwards.
  2. Lower yourself, bending at the knee and hip like sitting on a chair.
  3. Keep your knees above the ankles and your chest high. Concentrate on your butt moving back.
  4. Lower yourself to a sitting posture, then push up through the heels to return to your starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Also Read: 7 Squat Exercise Variations

2. Walking Lunges

“Walking lunges increase one-leg balance for better running performance, stability, and coordination. It also lengthens your stride, allowing you to run quicker.”

- Ultra-Marathoner & Outdoor Enthusiast

How to perform:

  1. Stand with both feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Take a significant step forward with one leg and drop your torso and back knee to the floor, careful not to make contact.
  3. Maintain an upright posture by keeping your front knee above your ankle.
  4. Push off your back leg and stride backward to meet the back leg.
  5. Repeat for reps, alternating the lead leg.

3. Single-arm Standing Cable Row

A person doing a single arm standing cable row workout

Upper-body and core strength and excellent posture are required for efficient running.

This exercise fulfills all of those demands. The activity can also be done with a resistance band attached to a solid base, like a door or a squat rack.

How to perform:

  1. Stand in front of the cable machine, feet hip-width apart, and a cable between your belly button and chest height in your left hand. To remove the weight plates from the stack, take a step backward.
  2. Legs should be slightly staggered so the left foot is slightly behind the right.
  3. Starting with the left arm straight, draw the load back toward the hips, beginning with the left elbow. Keep your lower body still when pulling the weight back, and avoid rotating your hips to the left. During this move, the upper body may turn slightly.
  4. Slowly release the cable and extend the left hand to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

4. Step-ups

Step-ups work all of the major muscles in the legs, increasing running power.

How to perform:

  1. Stand in front of a box or bench that can support your weight.
  2. Place one foot on the box or bench and push off your back leg to step forward, maintaining your torso tall and your knee on your supporting leg above your ankle. Consider raising your hips forward and up instead of pulling forward with your knees.
  3. Raise your trail leg to a high knee posture without letting it touch the bench. Then drop it to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

5. Single-leg Deadlift

A person doing a single leg deadlift

The single-leg deadlift develops the glutes and hamstrings, which improves stability and reduces the chance of injury when running.

How to perform:

  1. Stand with both feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in your left hand.
  2. Lift your right foot off the ground and stretch your right leg behind you. Bend forward at the hips while keeping the back straight and the right hand extended to the floor.
  3. Maintain a slight bend in your left knee and level hips.
  4. Bring the load almost to the ground and the back as nearly horizontally as possible before returning to the starting position and repeating on the other side.

Read More: 4 Best Deadlift Alternatives and Substitutes

6. Leg Raise

Leg raises help to develop your hip flexors, which are in charge of knee lift as you run. It also works the lower abdominals for a more balanced body.

How to perform:

  1. Lay on your back with your arms by your sides.
  2. Bring your legs together and raise them as near to vertical as possible.
  3. Lower them carefully back to slightly above the ground.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

7. Glute Bridge

A person doing a glute bridge in the gym

The glute bridge exercise increases the mass and stimulates the glutes for better activation during running.

This will assist you in keeping your pelvic region level and your feet, pelvis, and torso aligned when running, increasing your stability and hence your running efficiency.

It also works your core.

How to perform:

  1. Lay on your back with arms at your sides and legs flat on the ground.
  2. Raise your hips to form a straight line between the knees, hips, and shoulders.
  3. Maintain your shoulders on the ground to safeguard your neck.
  4. Hold for a few seconds before slowly descending back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Benefits of Strength Training Workouts for Runners

Top view of a runner jogging outside

As a personal trainer, I recommend complementing your running regimen, whether on trails, roads, treadmills, or tracks, with strength weight training to enhance your running performance and benefit your overall body health and fitness.

Related: 8 Outdoor Workouts 

Strength Training for Runners Aids in the Prevention of Overuse Injuries

Strength training workouts for female and male runners can help avoid overuse problems by preparing your body to endure better the impact and musculoskeletal requirements of running.

Strength training for runners improves the muscles and connective tissues' ability to withstand larger loads, reducing stress on your bones, cartilage, and joints.

Runners may also incorporate unilateral exercises into their strength training routines to rectify muscle imbalances, which, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), frequently result in injury [1].

Strength Training Boosts Running Economy and Efficiency

A person running outside

A strength training routine serves to strengthen neuromuscular connections.

Thus, according to NIH, your brain becomes better at recruiting and signaling the muscle fibers you currently have to contract [2].

This leads to stronger, more forceful motions, which can lead to a more efficient running economy.

As your running economy improves, you can run faster and farther before becoming fatigued.

Strength Training Can Help You Better Your Running Form

As a trainer, I always recommend strength training to my runner clients to enhance their running technique, biomechanics, and stride through improved core and supporting muscle stability.

According to NIH, you can keep a more upright stance even in the last miles of a marathon if you strengthen your core [3].

“After a long run or race, a hunched running stance or tight shoulders can impair your capacity to take a full breath, potentially leading to injuries and side stitches.”

- Cynthia Taylor, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Stronger hips and glutes will reduce hamstring strain and make you a stronger uphill runner.

Strength Training Helps To Increase Bone Density

X-ray vision of a runner's leg bones

Strong bones are essential for a good lifespan in running sports. According to NIH, low bone density can harm runners of all ages, mainly if your calorie intake is insufficient [4].

Strength training for runners promotes bone density since bones respond to the demands placed on them by strength workouts by growing stronger.

As noted by NIH, strength exercise stresses the bones, causing them to lay down the extra bone matrix and minerals, resulting in stronger bones [5].

Furthermore, as your muscles strengthen, they can pull harder on the bones when they contract.

This stress also stimulates your body to deposit additional minerals and build bone structure.

Strength Training Raises Your Metabolic Rate

A running strength training session is considered anabolic, which means it develops your body up, but a running workout is regarded as catabolic, which implies it tears your body down.

According to a study from the National Library of Medicine, strength training increases lean body mass, the fundamental predictor of metabolic rate or the number of calories burned daily [6].

By gaining muscle mass, your body burns more calories, allowing you to burn fat and reduce body weight, thus improving or enhancing your body composition for running.

Tips for Strength Training for Runners

A coach and a runner running side by side outside

Strength training for runners might be challenging if you're not used to it, but I will detail some pointers to help you get the most out of your exercises.

Work With a Coach

Most fitness centers include a free session with a certified trainer who will show you how to do basic workouts like lunges and squats correctly and utilize various resistance devices.

Concentrate on Your Form

Proper form is essential for two reasons: it minimizes injuries when exercising and ensures the maneuver is efficient. If you can't keep the proper form for all the repetitions, switch to a smaller weight or end the set early.

Use a Guided Workout

Consider utilizing a training app or searching the Internet for a free strength program for runners.

Don't Go Too Light

Close up shot of a kettle ball in the gym

Some runners use light weights because they are afraid of bulking up.

Because running already boosts muscle endurance, strength training for runners ought to focus on improving muscular strength and power.

You must employ enough resistance to create a load that strengthens your muscle groups.

Vary Your Routine

Similarly to how it is healthier for your body to alter your running routes and speed, varying your strength training routines by adding different exercises and sources of resistance will assist you in growing stronger.

Similarly, as you gain strength, increase the difficulty of your exercises to keep your body challenged.

Nutritional Considerations for Strength Training in Runners

For runners engaging in strength training, nutrition and hydration play pivotal roles in muscle recovery and maintaining energy levels.

  • Prioritize a balanced diet rich in protein for muscle repair, complex carbohydrates for sustained energy, and healthy fats for overall wellness.
  • Post-workout, consume a mix of protein and carbs within 30 minutes to aid muscle recovery.
  • Hydration is crucial; aim to drink water consistently throughout the day, not just during workouts.
  • Electrolyte-rich drinks can be beneficial post-training to replenish lost salts.
  • Don't overlook micronutrients; vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables support overall health and recovery processes.

FAQs

How Many Times a Week Should a Runner Do Strength Training?

A runner should do strength training twice a week. Although once a week is preferred over nothing, research, and practice have shown that the optimal frequency of strength training is 2-3 times weekly.

Should Runners Lift Heavy or Light?

Yes, runners should lift heavy weights. Running is an endurance workout, similar to low weights and high repetitions. Therefore, there is no reason to work on muscular endurance in the fitness center. Lifting heavy weights with few repetitions increases strength, power, and muscular coordination.

Should Runners Do Squats?

Yes, runners should do squats. Squats can enhance knee stability, leg strength, and body awareness while also helping to prevent frequent running injuries.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5972467/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5033663/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30849105/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6901417/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22777332/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3661116/
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