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Strength Training to Optimize Distance Running Performance: Evidence-Based Recommendations

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

It's no secret that strength training increases performance in power, speed, and strength sports but what effect does it have on endurance athletes such as distance  runners? While most coaches and runners  believe that some strength training is beneficial, there are widely conflicting beliefs about the most ideal method of strength training for runners. In this article  we will take a (quick) look at the efficacy of strength training for runners and what research suggests are the most effective types of strength training for runners.

Is Strength Training Worth it for Runners?

The short answer...yes! Most studies on the subject have demonstrated that strength training does seem to modestly increase running performance. The biggest contributor to increased performance--improved running economy.  In 2008, Yamamoto et al. published a systematic review on the effect of ST in well-trained runners and found an average improvement in running economy of 4.9% after a strength training intervention.  Similar findings have been found in more recent reviews as well (Balsalobre-Fernández et al., 2015), not to mention a number of additional individual studies. Keep in mind, these reviews have shown that highly trained runners can improve with strength training, so it is logical to assume that that performance gains seen in novice runners would be even greater. Regardless of training status, there is a large body of evidence suggesting runners should be doing some sort of strength training.

Strength Training the Right Way

So we now understand that strength training is effective, but what types are best for runners? The research suggests that a mix of explosive strength/power exercises (including plyometrics) mixed with low-high intensity resistance exercises is the most effective combination for increasing running economy. This makes sense given the plyometric nature of running. Although distance running is an endurance sport, each cycle of the leg and foot strike is essentially a low-intensity plyometric jump so increasing the power of the lower body with all else staying constant would logically improve running economy. This brings me to a key point in this article. Being a runner doesn't mean you can't strength train at a high intensity. In fact, one recent review found that running economy improved equally as well with heavy strength training (1-15 rep max load) as power training (Ronnestad & Mujika, 2013). So if you're one of those runners using the light weight, mega-rep style of strength training that so many coaches still advocate for, you might want to consider a different approach. ​

Practical Applications

Theory is one thing but putting theory into practice is a whole other thing. So what is the best way for YOU to start? Well, lots of factors go into that such as your age, training history,  running mileage, time availability, etc. All I can say is you need to know who you are and what is realistic for you. In an ideal world, you'd be strength training 2-3 times per week doing plyometrics, other power movements, and moderate-heavy full-body resistance training. As an example however: if you are a sleep deprived, overweight, novice runner then high intensity plyometrics  probably aren't for you. Use the contents of this article to find the right type and balance of strength training that works for you and stick with it. Strength training is definitely something distance runners should consider! Train smart, -Kyle Anderson

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