Why Runners Need to Lift

As a college athlete, our field event teammates called us distance runners the “skinnies.” For us, the weight room was optional and any organized training program was, well, disorganized. Things are starting to evolve more recently and many distance runners are no strangers to weight rooms now. But for those who coach the skinnies, strength training can still be an overwhelming world of muscle-bound information that is difficult to pare down to what is most beneficial for endurance creatures.

As a former distance runner turned throwing coach, I now spend much of my time implementing speed/power and sprint mechanics programs for endurance athletes. I also teach strength training to other track and field coaches through the Track and Field Academy, a coaches’ education program sponsored by the USTFCCCA. In speaking to many high school and college track coaches around the US, I am impressed and encouraged by the number of coaches who are thirsting for knowledge on the topic of strength training for their runners.

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

Most good distance coaches recognize that a strength training regimen will enhance their athletes’ durability, coordination, and therefore efficiency of movement. But where to start? Even if coaches do understand how to interface strength with endurance, they face countless logistical challenges such as managing their team numbers safely, lack of a weight room, short training times between after school/job and darkness, and many more. With all the time constraints of high school, collegiate, and post-collegiate distance runners, weight training tends to fall by the wayside as the season progresses. However, there are numerous ways to keep strength training the program year-round while navigating these unique challenges.

This post is the first in a series of article that will first justify WHY a strength/power program is beneficial for endurance athletes. Then will discuss WHAT are the most important activities for distance runners. Finally, we will break down HOW to practically implement a strength/power training program into the busy schedules of distance athletes. One thing to note before we begin: the terms “strength training” or “weight training” include a wide array of training modalities including pure speed work (intense, short sprints with full recovery), medicine ball and bodyweight activities, traditional weight room activities, plyometric training, and sprint development drills.

How Lifting Helps Runners

A consistent strength training program for your runners will:

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

Reason 1: Improved Running Economy

Simply put, running economy means that a runner gets from point A to point B with as little wasted movement as possible. Less wasted movement means less chance for injury. Research shows that the number one influence on running economy is a runner’s ability to apply force off the ground.1 2 3

For runners, quality force production means they efficiently absorb each landing and push off the ground with each step. In general, distance runners have a simpler job of force application than some other athletes (sprinters, footballers, etc) because they are nearly always running in an upright position. They do not run laterally or backwards or cut and pivot quickly. They also do not start from a deep crouched position like their sprinter teammates. In distance events, with a few specific exceptions (800m runners and steeplechasers), runners apply force in one direction—vertically. Therefore, with your distance runners, concentrate your strength training activities on movements that enhance their vertical force application abilities.

Runners should concentrate lifting on exercises to enhance vertical force application.… Click To Tweet

Does this mean that your strength sessions consist solely of vertical jumping? Of course not. There are several subskills, or “ingredients,” that they need to be competent with, in order to gain the larger skill of force production. Those ingredients are: developing coordinated muscular firing patterns, maintaining good posture, changing direction efficiently (i.e. “coupling time”), and building a balanced network of soft tissue development. So now you can add exercises that hone in on one or two of the “ingredients” that contribute to the overall skill of vertical force production.

Reason 2: Variety of movement

Not only does weight training teach valuable movement skills, it also provides opportunity to move in directions, planes, and amplitudes that differ from the repetitive, forward-moving motion of distance running. Why is this useful? For the health of your runners’ soft tissue development. Think of a plant that you keep in a room with only one window. Over time, that plant’s stem arches towards that window, seeking the sunlight that shines through. If you rotate the plant, you will notice that the stem will stand more upright and eventually lean the other way to face the sunlight once again. You are providing a change or stressor to the plant that alters its growth pattern.

Learn more: Listen to coach Lane as a guest on Episode 51 of the HMMR Podcast.

This is similar to how soft tissue works with the repetitive, relatively small contractions of distance running. Soft tissue “grows” in one way, causing strength in commonly used planes and amplitudes, and weakness and strain in less commonly used movement patterns. If you change the stress—like when you rotate the plant—you will strengthen the tissue throughout the body, not just where it is most used during running efforts.

In short, you can use strength training to greatly enhances durability in the muscle, fascia, and joints. Thus, your runner becomes more robust and coordinated.

Strength training to greatly enhances durability in the muscle, fascia, and joints. @coachcarrielane Click To Tweet

Reason 3: Accelerate recovery

There are some amazing recovery benefits that strength training offers endurance athletes. Employing certain protocols (sets, reps, rest) can complement and enhance the recovery process so that your athletes are ready to go on hard workout days.

Weight lifting allows distance runners to put more tissue under tension than they do when running at sub maximal paces or performing bodyweight strength exercises. When they tap into those less-used, but very large, muscle fibers, the body responds by releasing hormones that start the recovery and rebuilding process. While sprinting at maximal efforts (as hard as you can for 30-60 meters) also taps into these muscle fibers, weight lifting is a way to train muscle recruitment, rate coding, and neuromuscular coordination without additional pounding on the legs. 4 5

While lifting heavy provides a contrast in intensity that offers hormonal (anabolic) release for recovery, other strength training protocols complement the run intensity to also enhance recovery. For example, you usually follow a killer workout with an oxidative, recovery run. You can enhance the recovery effect of these aerobic runs by adding certain strength training protocols on your aerobic days. These protocols usually come in the form of up-tempo bodyweight, medicine ball, and simple weight circuits. But, different from recovery runs, the circuits provide movement patterns that offer variety to, and relieve stress from, the most commonly used contractions of sub-maximal running.6

Circuits are where most distance coaches live when it comes to strength training. They are effective and safe to implement with a group and can be executed with limited time and limited equipment. When performed properly, they are an excellent complement to the recovery runs that you are already doing.

From Why to How

Above I explained why lifting can help runners. In coming week I will write further about what training methods can be used to address these needs in training, and then how to put it together into a plan.

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


  1. Mann R, Sprague P. A Kinetic Analysis of the Ground Leg During Sprinting, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 1980. 51;2, pp 334-348.
  2. 2. Weyand P, et al. Faster top running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces, not rapid leg movement. J Appl Physiology. 2000. 89, pp 1991-99.
  3. Weyand P, et al. Biological limits to running speed are imposed from the ground up. J Appl Physiology. 2010. 108, pp 950-961.
  4. Sale D. Neural adaptation to resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988. 20 pp s135-145
  5. Kraemer, W. J., et al. Hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 1990. 69, pp 1442-1450.
  6. Schexnayder, B, et al. TRACK AND FIELD ACADEMY SCC 301 CURRICULUM. 2013. www.ustfccca.org/track-and-field-academy
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