Strength Training for Runners
A physios guide to improve your running performance

A common trend with endurance runners is avoiding strength training as they consider it an unnecessary diversion of time spent running and have a fear of “bulking up”. However, the benefits of strength training are numerous. Strength training will allow you to run faster, for longer and most importantly, significantly reduce your injury rate.

Before we get into some specific exercises for runners, let’s first consider some key principles of your strength training plan.

1) Train to get stronger not to improve your cardio
You already work on your cardio enough the days you run. Make the focus of your strength training to improve your strength. To do this, avoid exercise programmes such as HIIT and CrossFit. While they could improve the strength of a novice strength trainer, they are far from ideal due to the high repetitions, intensity and lack of running-specific exercises. Instead, make the most of your time by focusing on preforming fewer repetitions of exercises which are more difficult/higher resistance.

2) Find a way to fit strength training into your routine
One way is to sandwich a shorter run between two blocks of strength training. Alternatively, schedule a longer strength session on rest days or with plenty of recovery time before your run.

3) Ideally, strength training should be done in the gym
Using heavier resistance will allow you to build strength faster and more efficiently. Focus on strength exercises using large muscle groups, compound exercises that use multiple body parts and utilise supersets to save time.

Below is a list of exercises that I would recommend. It covers some fundamental movements of strength training and focuses on areas of the body most important to running. The list is far from exhaustive and you should aim to diversify your training where possible, progressing exercises to learn more difficult variations of each exercise.

When you first start out working on your strength don’t aim to lift heavy straight away. Your focus should be on technique over the difficulty in the early stages. As you become more confident, you can begin to increase the difficulty of the exercises by increasing the weight.

Split Squats
Split Squats
This is a fantastic exercise for improving your single-leg strength and stability. It will work your glutes, hamstrings, adductors, core and lower back. Getting good at a split squat will improve your ability to squat, correct any strength imbalances between your legs and should also give a nice active stretch of those troublesome hip flexors.

Technical points
• Make sure that your front leg is doing most of the work, this isn’t a lunge.
• Both feet should point forwards as well as your hips.
• You should feel a deep stretch in the front of your hip on the back leg.
• Make sure your chest is up and your body is stable.

RDL (Romanian Dead Lift)
RDL (Romanian Dead Lift)
This exercise is designed to primarily strengthen your hamstrings and lower back. It should improve your running speed, acceleration and strengthen an injury-prone area for runners.

Technical points
• Keep your back straight to avoid injury to your lower back.
• You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings at the bottom of the movement.
• Drive your hips forwards and squeeze your glutes as you straighten up.

Single-leg Squats
Single Leg Squats
A brilliant exercise to improve your single-leg strength, essential for all runners. This exercise will be a challenge at first and you may need some assistance. I recommend using TRX cables to support you when you’re learning the movement.

Technical points
• Keep an eye on the alignment of the knee, don’t let it drop inwards.
• Work in a range you can control rather than collapsing into the bottom position.
• Work on the same number of repetitions for each side to maintain balance.
• If you master the single-leg squat without assistance, the next step is adding weight to increase the difficulty.

Front Squats
Front Squats
There are different variations of the barbell squat, this one will primarily load the quadriceps.

Technical points
• Make sure your bum goes backwards rather than your knees going forwards.
• Your knees should track through the middle of your feet or wider, don’t let them come towards each other.
• Squat to a depth that feels comfortable.
• Use a mirror where possible to check that you’re moving equally on both sides.

Calf Raises

Your calf muscles are your shock absorbers and your springs when you run. The calf muscles are also one of the most injured areas in runners. There are many variations of the calf raise of variable difficulties. The image above depicts a double leg calf raise. You can vary your calf raises by working on a double leg, single leg and weighted calf raise. Bent knee calf raises are also great for targeting the soleus muscle. As an aim, all runners should be able to perform 30, good quality single leg calf raises.

Technical points
• It should be performed on a step.
• Lower down until you feel a stretch.
• Push up as high as possible making sure your feet are pointing straight ahead

Plank – Side Plank

This exercise is designed to strengthen your core. Your core is responsible for maintaining your trunk stability while running and a strong core will prevent unwanted movement in other areas of the body. The side plank variation is excellent for increasing the stability of both sides of the body. As an aim, you should be able to maintain a stable side plank position for at least 1 minute.

Technical points
• Keep a straight line from your ankle to hip to shoulder, don’t let the hip drop.
• Make sure your body is straight, don’t twist forwards or lean back.
• Find out how long you can hold the side plank with good technique and aim to work ad 3-4x 80% of the maximum time.

Final thoughts on strength training for runners

Beginning strength training can be daunting so make sure you ask for help if you are feeling unsure. Physiotherapist, personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches are all excellent sources of information and guidance. If you experience any pain when performing these exercises, stop the exercise and ask for help. Start small and aim to gradually build up towards heavier weights. Focus on high resistance and lower repetitions. Be patient with yourself, building strength takes time.

Finally, schedule strength training into your weekly training plan. Factor in rest time and figure out how best to fit strength training into your routine.

If you’d like more advice or would like to book an appointment, then please visit our contact page and find a physiotherapist near you