Weight training for runners should pretty much be a non-negotiable. One or two days a week dedicated to resistance training is super beneficial for improving overall performance, as it helps you prevent injuries and increase speed.
“Strength work accomplishes three big goals for runners,” says Jason Fitzgerald, USATF-certified running coach, founder of Strength Running in Denver, Colorado. “It prevents injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues; it helps you run faster by improving neuromuscular coordination and power; and it improves running economy by encouraging coordination and stride efficiency.”
The stimulus needed to put on muscle—in a way that wouldn’t be beneficial for running—is much higher than people realize, and unless you’re either lifting pretty heavy and frequently and/or eating a hyper caloric diet, you’re unlikely to put on muscle, says Joe Holder, Nike+ Run Club coach in New York City. “Just think about strength training one to two times a week, focusing on compound movement patterns, such as a lunge or squat, and shoring up the areas that could lead to increased injury if they are weak, like the hips.”
Also, keep in mind that weight training for runners doesn’t have to be intense in a way that gets the heart pumping. “Some strength workouts—like CrossFit WODs or circuit-based fitness classes—include too much of a metabolic or cardio component to be effective at prioritizing the main goals for runners, which are strength and power,” Fitzgerald says. He says runners get enough cardio, so he recommends focusing on relatively heavy weight for a moderate number of repetitions with full recovery.
Don’t forget that your own body can serve as weight. So if picking up a barbell or dumbbells is a big stretch for you, ditching the weights and instead adding in bodyweight exercises can still help build strength, particularly if you’re new to strength training.
How to Choose the Right Weight
Before you add any resistance to an exercise, make sure you master perfect form with your own bodyweight. If you’re just starting out in the weight room, focus on these four things to help you choose how much weight to add:
- Begin with a weight you know will be too easy
- Perform 3 sets of 10 reps
- See how you feel, and slowly add more weight from there
- When the last few reps of the third set are really tough, start with that weight next time
3 Common Weight Training Mistakes Runners Make
Remember, you’re a runner using weight training to improve your running, not a weightlifter who also runs. Here, Fitzgerald shares some common weight-lifting mistakes to avoid:
→Going too heavy: The weight room is no place for ego, so check it at the door. “Not every lift has to be superheavy and superhard. Don’t risk injury trying to be a hero in the weight room.”
→Lifting too light: On the other hand, if you’re always lifting low weight for high reps, you’re building endurance in the weight room. That’s a fine place to start if you’re new to weight training, but you want to work toward going heavier for fewer reps. “Runners work on endurance all the time with every run. The goal with weight training needs to be strength and power.”
→Focusing on specific body parts: “Runners don’t need to lift that often, for as long, nor isolate individual muscles. You can lift full-body twice per week for 30 to 60 minutes,” Fitzgerald says. You’ll get everything you need with that setup.
Essential Weight Training Exercises for Runners
Below are nine weight training exercises that are the most beneficial for runners according to Holder and Fitzgerald. To build your own workout, you can choose one from each area (upper body, lower body, or core) and create a circuit of three moves. Each move is demonstrated by Christi Marraccini, instructor and head of production at NEO U.
For a quick cheat sheet of moves, scroll to the bottom of this article and pin, share, or screenshot the workout.
Works: chest and core muscles
Start in high plank, wrists under shoulders, core engaged so body forms a straight line from head to heels. Bend elbows to lower chest to floor then press back up to return to starting position. Keep core tight throughout, don’t let hips dip or lift. Perform 3 sets of 15 reps.
Beginner: use your own body weight
Advanced: add a weighted plate (15-35 pounds) on back
2. Bent Over Row
Works: back and core muscles
Start standing, soft bend in knees, with a dumbbells in each hand, palms facing in. Hinge at the hips, sending butt straight back, so arms hang perpendicular to floor. Keep back flat, core engaged. Bend elbows to pull weights up to ribs, drawing shoulder blades back and down. Lower weights back down, extending arms. Repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.
Beginners: use your own body weight
Advanced: use 10- to 25-pound dumbbells
3. Reverse Fly
Works: back of shoulder and rhomboid (mid back) muscles
Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart and dumbbells in hand. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back, so that torso is nearly parallel to floor, knees softly bend. Let the dumbbells hang straight down, palms facing each other. Keeping back flat and core engaged, lift arms up and out to sides until they’re in line with shoulders. Your upper body will form a “T,” with a slight bend in elbows. Lower weights back down with control. Repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.
Beginners: use 5-pound dumbbells
Advanced: use 10- to 15-pound dumbbells
Works: core muscles
Place hands directly under shoulders on the floor and step feet back, placing them hip-width apart. Engage core and squeeze glutes to stabilize body. Keep neck and spine neutral. You should form a straight line from head to heels.Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat for 3 sets.
Beginners: use body weight
Advanced: add a weighted plate (10-25 pounds) on your back
5. Leg Raise
Works: abdominal muscles
Start lying faceup on a mat with hands next to hips for support. Lift legs straight up so body forms an “L.” Engage core and slowly lower legs until feet hover just above mat. Slowly raise legs back to starting position and repeat for 3 sets of 10 reps.
Beginners: use body weight
Advanced: add a 10- to 25-pound medicine ball between ankles
6. Single-Side Weighted Sit-Up
Works: core muscles including obliques
Lie faceup on mat with feet flat on floor and a dumbbell in right hand extended straight up so that wrist is directly over shoulder. Engage core to lift chest and dumbbell up toward ceiling, coming into a full sit-up. Keeping arm straight, slowly lower back down to floor. Repeat for 12 reps then switch to other side. That’s one set. Complete 3 sets.
Beginners: use 5-pound dumbbell
Advanced: use 15-pound+ dumbbell
Works: hamstrings, glutes, back, and core muscles
Stand with a soft bend in knees and feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand down in front, palms facing you. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back, back flat, and core engaged, weights staying close to legs. Focus on just hinging at the hips, not squatting. When you’re torso is nearly parallel to the floor, drive through feet and engae glutes to stand back up. Repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.
Beginners: use 15- to 25-pound weights
Advanced: use 25+ pound weights or a weighted barbell
Works: quads, thighs, and glute muscles
Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand, down at sides. Take a big step forward with right leg and lower body until right thigh is parallel to floor and right shin is vertical, left knee hovers just off the floor. Press into right heel to stand back up. Continue on right leg for 8 to 12 reps then repeat on opposite leg. That’s one set. Complete 3 sets.
Beginners: use 10- to 25-pound dumbbells
Advanced: use 25-pound+ dumbbells
9. Single-Leg Glute Bridge
Works: hip and glute muscles
Lie faceup on mat with feet flat and knees bent. Lift right leg up, knees in line. Press into left heel to lift hips off mat. Slowly lower back down. Repeat for 15 reps. Then repeat on opposite leg. That’s one set. Complete 2 sets.
Beginners: use body weight
Advanced: add a 10-pound weighted plate or dumbbell to hips, hold in place with hands
Images: Julia Hembree Smith