Back when the coronavirus outbreak forced gyms and fitness studios to close many of us were forced to get creative with our running and training routines. One popular running add-on that emerged: a weighted vest.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the idea of working out or running with a weighted vest originated, but the military and firefighters have long used weight vests in training to mimic the load of equipment they carry during duty. The trend then became more mainstream when CrossFit gyms started incorporating weighted vests into certain memorial Workout Of the Days (WODs) to make them more challenging.
But can adding heft actually improve your running performance? And is running with a weighted vest the best choice for you? We asked running and fitness experts to break down the benefits, risks, and everything you should know if you’re considering running with a weighted vest.
What are the benefits of running with a weighted vest?
Wearing a weighted vest while walking or running essentially increases the load on both your muscles and connective tissues. “That weight increase brings a challenge and a new stressor on the body, and change only occurs when the body is stressed,” says Mat Forzaglia, certified personal trainer and founder of Forzag Fitness in New York City. “By adding stress, you can improve your overall fitness.”
Sure, you can add stress by doing speed intervals or lifting weights, but “the idea is that by increasing weight while walking or running, the athlete is making weighted training as specific to their sport as possible,” explains Jason Fitzgerald, USATF certified coach and creator of Strength Running in Denver.
When it comes to boosting endurance and increasing speed, it’s possible to move the needle when done safely and progressively, explains Fitzgerald. In fact, one systematic review published earlier this year found that wearing a weighted vest during sprint training for three to seven weeks, with a weight equal to about 6 percent to 19 percent of body mass improved sprint times. (The researchers did note that we need more science to back up the benefits.)
Another older study on just eight subjects, published in 2012, found that weighted vests could improve running times, and researchers suggest going for a weight that’s 5 to 10 percent of body weight.
Even if you’re not initially running at the same speed or intensity that you usually can (and you probably won’t be able to!), you can still reap rewards. “Weighted walks or low-intensity running are more challenging than the same activity without a vest, so respiration will be higher at lower intensities, and that can help boost endurance while reducing an athlete’s risk of injury,” says Fitzgerald. “Plus, added strength gains will help mitigate injury risk—and staying healthy is one of the best performance enhancers possible.”
Can running with a weighted vest build muscle?
While running with more weight on your body will help you build some muscle, it will be marginal compared to other forms of resistance training. “It won’t be like if you were to squat or deadlift,” says Forzaglia. “It can help you learn to endure heavier weight for longer periods of time.”
Can it help you lose weight?
Just like with all other forms of exercise such as walking, running, cycling, and weightlifting, running with a vest is one method that burns calories. But your diet and lifestyle play important roles in long-term weight loss and it’s more complicated than simply focusing on calories in being less than calories out.
“Adding weight and stress to your runs will help burn more calories, but how quickly you lose weight will vary depending on your body composition, nutrition, and other factors,” says Kenny Santucci, NASM-certified personal trainer and creator of STRONG New York in New York City.
“The extremes of exercise will always be more productive, such as high-intensity, long-duration, and very frequent exercise,” adds Fitzgerald.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t run with a weighted vest?
If you recently got spine surgery or heart surgery, it’s probably best to avoid running with a weighted vest, says Brian Beutel, P.T., D.P.T., founder of Forge Physio of the Restoration Space in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at least until you’re fully recovered and your doctor says it’s okay. Also, if you have a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or any condition that makes breathing without added weight challenging, then you also probably want to ditch the extra weight while clocking miles.
How to Properly Run With a Weighted Vest
If you’re going to try it, it’s important that you’re ready and capable of running with added weight in order to prevent injury. “One of the most important things to consider when it comes to training is being prepared to train,” explains Santucci. If you’ve never run before, or you don’t typically use weights to train, Santucci doesn’t recommend running with a weighted vest as the joints won’t be prepared to handle the load.
“Running with extra weight does increase the stress of running, so it can be an injury risk,” explains Fitzgerald. “I’d advise that you begin by hiking [or walking] with a weighted vest, and once that feels good, reserve only very slow running for the vest.” In other words, strap on a weight vest for your shorter, easier running days.
You don’t want to slot this in on recovery days as the extra load will not allow your body to fully recover. Forzaglia also suggests using a weight vest during the off-season. “It’s a tool you can utilize in the strength-training block, early in the off-season,” he says. “It’s not something to try as you’re leading up to a race.”
What to Consider Before Running With a Weighted Vest
In addition to using a weighted vest on low-intensity runs, hikes or walks, Beutel says it’s always a good idea to start with conventional strength training before adding a weighted vest. “A stronger body, with balanced strength and recovery, is a body that can run longer. Adding the vest after a strength-training regimen is established could offer some great trunk and lower extremity benefits if used appropriately.”
He also advises that a runner should consider their overall goals for running when determining if they should go at it with a weighted vest. For example, are you aiming to increase mileage, speed, or prepare for upcoming races? “With those goals, you could absolutely see a benefit, especially if you are increasing and recovering steadily. With weighted vests, like any added challenge, recovery (including sleep quality and duration, mood, soreness, and maintaining energy levels) can be challenged,” Beutel says.
If your goal is a faster pace or more mileage, Beutel also suggests testing those numbers before you start running with a weighted vest so you have a baseline for comparison. Then, every two to four weeks, check the progress you’ve made and use that to determine if it’s worth continuing.
Beutel also says that runners can risk injury with any quick increases in weight load and stress. “The body is highly adaptable, but we humans like to rush the process and that can get us in trouble. Being mindful of the physiological processes that occur during training, individual recovery times, and being patient with the training plan can keep the injury risk low,” he says.
Finally Beutel suggests checking in with your body and being aware of how it feels running with a weighted vest. Ask yourself questions like: Is there any pain or concerns that linger? Do I improve over time at the same load? How does the next day feel?
How to Choose the Best Weight
Training with a weighted vest adds a whole new load onto the body. In order to not end up too sore—or worse, injured—you should start light, with a weight possibly even less than you think you can handle so your body can get used to this new load. “Err on the conservative side and wear enough weight that you just notice it at first,” says Fitzgerald. “You can always add more later.”
Santucci recommends starting with 10 pounds and then gradually increasing from there. “You’ll work up to the standard weight vest amount for women, which is 14 pounds, or men, which is 20 pounds,” he says. “Your goals will determine how much weight you add.”
How often should you run with a weighted vest?
This really depends on your goals, but Beutel says, “slow adaptation is key for any new or increased stressors.” Doing too much too often with a weighted vest may end up sidelining you—and that goes for the amount of weight you run with, how many workouts you incorporate the vest into, and how long and hard you run with it.
“The frequency with which you wear a weight vest does depend on the race you’re training for but in general, a few times per week will work well for most runners,” says Fitzgerald.