Strength Methods for Distance Runners

Earlier this week we looked at why runners need to lift. Now that you understand the why, let’s look at what kind of strength training provides the specific neuromuscular and physiological benefits we discussed above. To review, there are three purposes to lifting:

  1. Improve running economy;
  2. Provide movement patterns that contrast the repetitive nature of running; and
  3. Accelerate recovery to prepare for the next hard workout and to reduce injury potential.

Learn more: Our latest webinar with Carrie Lane covers this topic and includes video of sample exercises and lifting circuits for distance runners.

The first reason – improving running economy – requires certain protocols (sets, reps, rest intervals) to teach the skill of vertical force production. The last on – accelerating recovery – requires different protocols (namely in the form of circuit training) to elicit recovery responses. However the second reason – to provide variety of movement (our plant in the sun analogy) – references the exercise selection that you should use in either set of protocols. Your exercise selection should provide variety, regardless of your purpose for the session. Here is a graphic that illustrates this point:

Activities to improve running economy

First lets tackle what your strength training session should look like if you’re trying to enhance your athletes’ running economy. In its simplest form, running efficiently is just a series of soft tissue loading and snapping, like sling shots, over and over again. To achieve efficient “slings,” no muscle works in isolation. In basketball, a point guard’s passing skills only go so far if her teammates do not run a proper offense or cannot catch a ball. Similarly, if you’re looking to improve running economy, train the entire “team” of muscles, not just one or two “players” in isolation. Choose activities that closely mimic the loads, velocities, and muscular coordination needs that athletes will encounter while running. Slower movements with no load, such as bodyweight lunges or pedestal exercises, are not specific enough in load, velocity, or positioning to transfer to the skill of applying force. (Stay with me, as these activities DO provide benefit, which I will discuss further down.)

Here are the types of activities you should hone in on during your force production skill sessions:

  1. Sprint development drills
  2. Hurdle mobility
  3. Spontaneous “play”
  4. Jumping and throwing
  5. Fast, short sprinting
  6. Olympic lifts and reactive strength exercises
  7. Static lifts (multi jointed, heavy resistance exercises)

Or course, you need not include ALL of these exercises in EACH training session. Remember, these activities train the “ingredients” that provide comprehensive force production training. In fact, with large groups or more developmental runners, you may never advance to #6 and #7. Choose exercises from the above categories that employ variety of movement, match the developmental age of your athlete, include elements of coupling time (that is, athlete’s ability to change direction quickly), challenge your athlete’s coordination, and strictly adhere to postural control.

See examples: Join now and watch as Carrie Lane walks through examples of each training method.

Programming play – A note on spontaneous “play” situations, which are often overlooked as a quality warmup option. When my college track athletes came to practice looking less than enthusiastic, I would throw away our traditional structured warmup and substitute it with a light game, like soccer, knockout, or the “slap ninja” game (fan favorite). They still got low level plyometric training and variety of movement, but they could move in a less structured format that reinvigorated them. Furthermore these “games” allow for brain re-training, especially in the case of an injured athlete.1 One important point is the inclusion of rotational, lateral, and backward work to provide variety to movement.

Spontaneous play can be a great warmup method and athletic development tool. @coachcarrielane Click To Tweet

While you could implement numbers 1, 2, and 3 every day as part of your warmup or cooldown with any level of athlete, you eventually may be able to progress to jumping, throwing, short sprints, and/or traditional weight room activities. These activities, particularly those not involving the weight room, should be implemented as early as possible in the training cycle and modified for your lower level athletes.

Coaching cues for jumping and throwing – When it comes to jumping and throwing, good coaching cues are critical and this can be difficult or some distance coaches as technique is not always a focus. Here are some suggested coaching cues for jumping activities, which can then be transferred to throwing and most reactive and Olympic lifts:

  1. “Slow to fast” – When jumping, throwing a ball, or lifting a dumbbell, cue acceleration of the implement or body, so that it starts slow and finishes fast.
  2. “Long-short-long” – Make your athlete aware of power of the stretch reflex. For example, when hopping over a hurdle, cue the athlete to “get long” by standing up onto her toes, fully extending the arms, hips and knees. Then have her “get short” by dropping into a squat, and finally cue her to “get long” again before pushing off the ground and taking flight. This third phase will be the most difficult to coach, as novice non-jumper athletes, tend to lean towards their landing area and skip the second “get long” phase. Cuing athletes to jump up and out, and fully swing their arms, will help.
  3. “Drop and drive” – Once, they grasp “long-short-long,” they need to speed up the entire movement, so they get effective “snaps” from their soft tissue “slings.” At this point, cue to “drop and drive” the hips quickly. This will communicate the idea of speed and tempo through the movement. You can also cue the lower body to “stiffen” like a tight trampoline that rebounds quickly after it yields to the person jumping on it.
  4. “Push the ground” – Finally, connect the skill of being elastic with the skill of applying force off the ground. Put these two concepts together by cueing the athlete to push the ground down or away as she gets airborne.

In all your force production sessions, allow ample time for athletes to rest in between sets. This is NOT aerobic training, and lactate buildup in the muscles can inhibit the learning process. Keep the quality high on all repetitions, even in your game-playing.

Strength training is not aerobic training; rest between sets to increase quality. @coachcarrielane Click To Tweet

Force application training in its simplest form can be accomplished in an efficient warmup and can progress to jumping and throwing with minimal equipment needs and time constraints. I cannot emphasize enough that including faster, power-based movements early in your runners’ training cycles, even if drastically modified for ability or time of year, will serve your athletes well as they strive to improve overall movement economy. Do not wait to employ these movements until your athletes are more developed or until it is “racing” season. Simply modify the activity to match skill levels and training phases.

Activities to Accelerate Recovery

Many of your training days are designed to improve aerobic fitness and provide oxidative recovery to prep your athletes for their next butt-kicking workout. Circuits can be useful here a recovery-based strength circuits can be used to enhance recovery-based and threshold-pace running sessions.

The categories of strength training that help to accelerate recovery include:

  1. Bodyweight circuits (we call them “General Strength” in most track and field applications)
  2. Medicine ball circuits
  3. Bodybuilding circuits

Learn more: Carrie Lane demonstrates examples of circuits in our most recent webinar on lifting for distance runners.

These circuits will be the bread and butter of most of your strength training efforts. They are staples of many quality track and field programs, thanks mostly to the coaching education literature compiled by Boo Schexnayder and Dan Pfaff. They are easiest to employ with large groups of varying ability. You can also get these done outside the weight room and in a short amount of time.

Building a circuit – Not all circuits are created equal, and this is where I see many endurance coaches implement less-than-ideal circuit protocols. Circuits should not be death marches or gossip sessions. For circuits to enhance recovery, the athletes’ effort level needs to be high enough to elicit mild amounts of lactate into the blood, but not too high that they “go lactic” looking like an elephant just jumped on their back. The body responds to mild lactate levels by releasing valuable recovery-oriented hormones.2 3 4 As you observe your athletes, ask yourself if they are “moving with intent” through each exercise. To maintain effort somewhere between a too slow “gossip session” and a too intense or too long “death march,” keep your bodyweight and medicine ball circuits to 8-12 minutes in total duration with low work- to- rest ratios. For example, 30 seconds of work (bodyweight squats) followed by 15-30 seconds of rest, then followed by another activity (v-sits) with the same work- to- rest combination. Continue with a variety of movements, employing large muscle groups, for 8-12 minutes.5 Going longer than 40 seconds per exercise bout or longer than 12 minutes for the circuit will reduce the intensity that the athlete maintains. Thus, lactate will not build as it should in the blood, and you lose the valuable recovery benefit of the circuit. You can of course combine a few of these short circuits together, taking 2-3 minutes of rest after each one.

Circuits need to be in the sweet spot between death marches and gossip session. @coachcarrielane Click To Tweet

These circuits are where lunges and planks, amongst a large variety of other movements, can be used. While there are complex strategies to choosing the types and order of exercises for these circuits, in general, start with the biggest movements in your first circuit (lunges, mountain climbers, v-ups, etc) and progress to circuits focusing on smaller muscle groups (core, planks, barefoot work) next. The key is that athletes have little wasted movements on their reps. Also there is a prevalence of rotational and posterior chain-focused movements:

Weight Room Circuits – If you do have weight room access and want to do recovery-based lifting, consider implementing “Bodybuilding circuits” with your runners. These circuits involve simple, non-technical weighted movements, such as lat pulldowns, bicep curls, step ups, weighted sit ups, etc organized in a way that provides an endocrine-based recovery response. These circuits have also come to popularity with track programs, thanks largely to coaches’ education efforts of Schexnayder and Pfaff. Bodybuilding circuits offer muscular endurance, variety of movement, and endocrine responses that accelerate recovery. The general protocol for a Bodybuilding circuit is 10-12 exercises, 2 x 10 reps each exercise at approximately 75% of max effort (meaning the last 1-2 reps should be slightly difficult), with 60-90 seconds rest between each exercise.6 7 The specific exercises should address all regions of the body, but the lifts should not be technical in nature. Bodybuilding circuits are fairly simple to organize with a large group, as you can set up weight “stations” and assign 2-3 athletes per station. Grouping athletes at a station will ensure they rest as needed while still getting quality work.

While none of the exercises in your bodyweight, medicine ball, or Bodybuilding circuits should be complicated, here are some cues that I continue to emphasize during circuit sessions:

  1. Move with intent. As I already discussed, power output remains high for the entire duration of work. If effort drops, then you should drop the work interval time or lengthen the rest interval.
  2. Respect the rest time. Many distance runners love to hustle through circuits because continuous movement means aerobic adaptation. For these circuits, shift the mentality so that the work time is fairly intense but the rest time is respected. The cumulative effect of this mildly intense work interval, combined with proper rest, will foster the recovery effects.
  3. Don’t waste movement. Your exercise choices should be simple enough that your athletes understand how to do them and can execute continuous repetitions.


  1. Knowles, B (interview). Reconditioning with Bill Knowles. GAINcast episode 49, Jan 26, 2017
  2. Gladden, L.B. Lactate metabolism: a new paradigm for the third millennium. J Physiol. 2004. 558, pp 5-30.
  3. Phillip. A., et al. (2005). Lactate- A signal coordinating cell and system function. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 208, pp 4561-4575.
  4. Brooks, G.A. The lactate shuttle during exercise and recovery. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1986. 18, pp 360-368.
  5. Schexnayder, B, et al. TRACK AND FIELD ACAEMDY SCC 301 CURRICULUM. 2013.
  6. Schexnayder, B, et al. TRACK AND FIELD ACAEMDY SCC 301 CURRICULUM. 2013.
  7. Kraemer, W. Influence of endocrine system on resistance training adaptation. NSCA Journal. 1992. 14:2, pp 42-45.
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