Strength training for runners | an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure

Earlier this week, I was invited to speak to the participants of a local half-marathon clinic on the topic of strength training for runners.

strength training for runners

As the group was heading out for a tempo run immediately after my presentation, I didn’t want to burden them with handouts of exercise descriptions and strength training protocols. Instead, I promised to recap the talk, including our quick Q&A session here on the blog. Enjoy!

Strength training for runners: why you need it and how to do it

I’ve trained a fair number of endurance runners. Many have had to deal with injuries at one point or other. Most of their injuries can be traced back to one (or more) of the following root causes:

  • forward leaning postures; while most of us suffer from postural deviations caused by sitting too much, endurance running can exacerbate the problem if the runner consistently extends the head, neck and shoulders forward.
  • muscular imbalances; front of the body muscles become stronger than back of the body muscles leading to lower back pain and overly tight joints
  • weak lateral movement patterns; side to side and rotational motions are rarely trained, compromising agility, core strength and increasing the potential for knee and ankle injuries
  • too much of the same thing; repetitive stress injuries frequently occur once a particular ‘threshold distance’ is reached. These injuries are often difficult to rehab without completing stopping the activity that caused them.

When designing weight training programs for my runner-clients, I tend to focus on the following four muscle groups:

  1. hamstrings and gluteus maximus; due to constant forward motion, runners are often ‘quad-dominant’, that is the quadriceps are much stronger than the muscles that ‘oppose’ them.
  2. obliques and erector spinae; improving core strength can not only reduce the likelihood of lower back and hip pain, it can also improve athletic performance by making proper running posture easier to maintain. In most runners, the obliques and erector spinae (lower back) are typically the weakest link in the core-chain.
  3. gluteus medius and adductors; strengthening weak medial glutes and inner thigh muscles can help improve knee tracking, thereby reducing the likelihood of a variety of knee injuries as well as ITB syndrome (here are some ideas for working out with a knee injury)
  4. posterior deltoids, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi; strengthening the muscles of the upper back can improve posture and running form; not to mention make you look taller and five pounds lighter!

Below are a list of the exercises I recommend for strengthening the weak muscle groups described above. If you’ve ever suffered a running injury before, you’ll notice that many of the exercises I suggest are the same ones you performed during rehab; an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure!

Click through the links to see demonstrations of proper exercise form and suggestions for progression.

Hamstrings and gluteus maximus:

Obliques and erector spinae:

Gluteus medius and adductors:

Back of the shoulder and upper back:

And OF COURSE, I always remind all of my clients to spend some time foam rolling and stretching after their strength workout. Focus on stretches that target the muscles you’ve just worked, as well as any other tight spots that you’re aware of!

Strength training for runners: Q&A

Q1: How should we combine the above exercises? How many reps and sets of each?

A1: Try choosing one exercise from each of the categories above. Perform 10 to 12 repetitions of each, circuit-style, with minimal rest between, 2 to 3 times through.

Q2: How often should we be strength training? As our half-marathon training progresses, we don’t have much time left in our schedules for more exercise!

A2: Aim to fit your strength training workouts in twice each week. The above workout should only take 20 minutes and can be easily done at the end of one of your shorter runs (when you’re already warmed up and should be thinking about stretching anyways 🙂 )

Q3: You mentioned foam rolling after a workout. I’ve always been told to do it before my runs. Which is better?

A3: In my opinion, you can’t foam roll enough! Doing it before a run can loosen up adhesions and tight muscles; but make sure you’ve done a bit of a dynamic warm up first. I find both foam rolling and static stretching to be much more effective when performed on warm muscles, regardless of when in your workout you do it. Experiment and see which works best for you!

Thanks so much to the Port Coquitlam Running Room for inviting me to chat about one of my favourite topics!

Runners, do you include weight training in your exercise schedule?

If so, how has it affected your running?

Disclaimer: Although I am a certified Personal Trainer, I am not YOUR Personal Trainer. The exercises described above may not be the exercises YOU need to improve your running and avoid injury.

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Comments

  1. I laugh as an avowed STRENGTH TRAINER I do frequently wonder if I need a slathering of RUNNING in my life.
    Miz recently posted…The CLEANSE (guest post).My Profile

  2. Fantastic list of exercises. I have had so many issues with my hips/glutes/hammies, but never really thought so much about the forward leaning issue. Just pinned this!
    Heather (Where’s the Beach) recently posted…Where We Would RunMy Profile

  3. Excellent. Will be my Saturday share in my CF page of Facebook!
    Contemplative Fitness recently posted…Sustain-ABILITY…My Profile

  4. Yes – I love to incorporate strength training – it has improved my running a great deal over the past 7 years or so!!!
    Great exercises and tips!
    My biggest weakness is still stretching and foam rolling!
    Kim recently posted…Sleep: It’s OptionalMy Profile

    • I love to hear runners talk about the benefits of strength training. So glad it’s helped!
      Stretching and foam rolling is always an afterthought, isn’t it? Once the run is done, you feel like you’re all finished!

  5. I LOVE this!!! I never believe it when I was told that building my quads would help with my knee pain when running… but it really does! Squats and the leg press are great exercises, too.
    Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table recently posted…Strange But Good: Blueberry Thyme Protein CakeMy Profile

    • So true, Laura. Knees are a huge issue for many runners (and most people I train in the gym don’t have the quad strength to keep their knees aligned when we first start training!)

  6. LOVE!! I so both as you know & I think it has helped me in all regards! BUT I will be clocking thru all the exercises to make sure I am covering my bases. It looks like I am BUT I am getting old & I do feel the hips & all taking their toll even though I stretch & roll & lift & work all parts of the glutes – I know I have to be so careful even more with age!
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted…Losing Weight Will Make You all You Want to BE – Truth?My Profile

  7. As a runner who’s been injured far too many times, and who knows that every single injury I have had can be traced back to these muscle groups not being strong enough — I would recommend doing ALL these exercises. Some of them daily. But at least once a week!
    calee recently posted…Food Allergies: A force (not?) to be reckoned with.My Profile

    • Definitely at least once a week and I’d recommend twice or three times (but always with a day off between; don’t wanna over-train them either!)

  8. Such good advice, Tamara. Thanks for it. I know that my hamstrings get way too tight any way and are so much worse when I run a lot.

    I think most long distance runners don’t do enough upper body work too. The ones in my area all look emaciated!

    • You’re so right, Elle! Upper/lower body muscular imbalances aren’t great either functionally or aesthetically either. I always try to get my running clients doing the work that will help their running first; then when I get them hooked up weight training I add in the upper body exercises!

  9. I love this Tamara!! So much great information. I’ve been trying to focus on strength training since my surgery – but I need to remind myself to continue to do my exercises. Sometimes it’s so much easier to just go out for a run! For me, I’m focusing a lot on my hips and glutes since muscle imbalances there seem to be the root of my problem. Thank you for this!
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted…Friday Round-Up: Owning ItMy Profile

  10. I wish I had this info. years ago before I developed IT band issues. I ran for 15 years without a problem and then out of the blue pain in the anterior of me knee. I was told I suffered from weak glutes among other things. I went to physical therapy and massage therapy and the pain with distance running never went away. Were any if the runners responsive to your advice? I hope so. . . .
    Kim lindsey recently posted…grass fed beef: part oneMy Profile

    • Kim, I hear you. So many long distance runners don’t educate themselves about the potential problems of long distance running until they suffer from an injury. And yes, the group I spoke to was VERY responsive! Most of them had been injured at one point or another and about 1/3 of them already were doing strength training.

  11. Thanks for the info! This is something that I have started to do. I normally exercise 6 days a week with one rest day, unless I really feel like my body needs another. I will rotate strength training and running. I don’t run long distance, but the one thing that I have noticed is how my legs feel when I run now since incorporating the strength part. I’m starting to love my legs!! They feel strong and I love that. For the first time in a very long time, I don’t mind my legs and that’s the best part!
    Brandi recently posted…FoggyMy Profile

    • Alternating days is a great idea Brandi! Your body needs a break from each specific form of exercise so that you can come back stronger the next time. Happy to hear that you love your legs!

  12. Excellent! I couldn’t have said it any better! The number of endurance athletes who don’t realize that they can benefit from proper strength training is legion!
    evilcyber recently posted…Of Gyms, Sweat And MakeupMy Profile

    • Thanks! One of my missions in life is to re-educate people about what long slow distance training can and CAN’T do for them! Happy Monday!

  13. I learned a long time ago how important strength training is! I hated it, thought it was boring, I never saw results (Because I didn’t do it consistently) and was a cardio junkie. Various running injuries changed my mind and now I LOVE strength training. I also noticed how much of a difference it makes. For example, I’m a good swimmer but always hated the backstroke. It was hard, I was slow, I couldn’t swim in a straight line. But all the weight training and strengthening of my core has made it easy and I’m fast at it now!
    Lisa recently posted…Weekend Wrap-upMy Profile

    • Yes! Consistency really is key, isn’t it Lisa! So glad you’ve come over to the ‘dark side’ LOL!

  14. ANy tips on how to get rid of my shin splints?! The pain in my foot (that I complained about on Twitter about 2 weeks ago) has turned into full blown shin splints on BOTH legs! 🙁
    GiGi Eats Celebrities recently posted…An Australian Get Away, Thanks To Teas’ TeaMy Profile

    • Oh, so sorry to hear this! Step 1; Rest, ice and ibuprofen. Step 2; Get to a physiotherapist for a proper diagnosis!. Step 3; Look into proper footwear for your feet. A good orthopaedic sports store is the best place to start. Shin splints, alas, tend to be a chronic thing; they don’t go away easily and are readily re-triggered.

  15. Thank you! This is so great. I hope this is encouraged more and more with young runners. I did not hear about this 12 years ago when I started running. It would have saved me so much pain with my knees. I am hoping my knees are not too far gone. I am always on the lookout for new ways to help my petallafomoral syndrome. Build awareness! I love the saying an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure 🙂

  16. Running and Biking has been doing wonders for me. I guess it running helps more with the Cardio though, but biking goes for more miles and reflexes.

  17. This article is great. I see many runners wih these problems and I myself am definitely “front dominant ” (although I’m working on balancing my body out). I definitely have a natural forward lean which is probably due to imbalances.
    I’ll add a set of these exercises to my strength programme.

    Another big issue for many long distance runners is having tight muscles, especially hamstrings. I’ll look out for additional stretches for variety. Might purchase a foam roller.

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