Whether you’re looking to prevent injury, improve mechanics, or simply bag a new PB, strength training should play a vital role in your training program. We let the experts explain.
The first time you put on a pair of running shoes, you’re unlikely to be thinking about breaking records. Run for as long as you can without stopping, and you’ll be happy. Naturally, the best way to improve is to just get out there and get some miles in.
Stick with it and – as any runner knows – and you’ll soon be feeling fitter though. This is when you’ll start thinking about how you can run faster and further, be that a 10k, a half marathon, or something even more challenging (our marathon training guide has some pointers there).
But here’s the rub; from shin splints to runner’s knee, running is a sport that loves an injury – and when you have a race coming up, that’s the last thing you need.
To injury-proof your body – or simply get an edge ahead of an upcoming competition – it’s important you treat strength training as a vital part of your running practice.
To help you do that, we consulted our expert panel. Anthony Mullally is an ex-Leeds Rhinos and Ireland international rugby prop, who now coaches and leads a number of retreats focused on helping men reach their peak. Lewis Moses is an ultra runner and former Team GB athlete, now working as running advisor at INCUS Performance and lead coach at New Levels Coaching.
Together, they know everything there is to know about building strength training to keep you fit for the long-run.
When it comes to incorporating strength training into your running regiment, you’ll be working to gain benefits in three key areas:
“The main benefit is injury prevention,” says Mullally. “It’s about strengthening our muscles and connective tissues, making them more robust and more able to tolerate the greater pressure we produce when running. As a professional athlete, strength training was an absolutely crucial part of our day-to-day training.”
New runners are particularly at risk, as this randomized study of New York City marathon runners found. Of the 720 runners surveyed, 8.9% suffered a “major injury” during the run, while 48.5% suffered “minor” injuries – proof, according to the authors, that rigorous strength training programs need to be developed before attempting this type of run.
Strength training helped former Team GB middle distance runner Moses through his career in a number of ways. “The three main benefits were staying injury free. helping me to tolerate more workload, and developing more power and strength, which in turn helped me to develop my speed.”
In other words, taking time to fine tune your legs can improve your running economy, making you a more efficient – and faster – athlete. According to a recent study review, the evidence “robustly shows” that regular lower limb resistance exercise improves running economy, and performance.
“Strength training should be part of an integrative system alongside flexibility, balance, and mobility exercises,” says Mullally who has suffered with niggling injuries after neglecting mobility work as a pro rugby player.
According to a study in the National Library of Medicine, balance training can be effective for postural and neuromuscular control improvements which will help you maintain good posture and foot placement while running. Interestingly, a 2022 study found gait and neuromuscular improvements to be evident in experienced runners just 24 hours after interval training sessions.
Build strength training habits in the long-term then, and you’ll reduce your risk of injury, improve your gait and coordination, and start to run faster and for longer.
If you’re aiming for a certain mileage each week, adding more work on top of that can feel exhausting. But, for long-lasting benefits, it pays to dial back the mileage temporarily while you build gym work into your plan.
Mullally stresses how often you should hit the gym depends on your levels of fatigue and muscle soreness.
Moses agrees, explaining that how often you focus on strength training should be down to the individual. “Try not to become obsessed with a seven-day cycle, thinking "I need to do two gym sessions in my week,” he says, explaining that a better approach might be to fit in two strength training sessions over eight to nine days.
“The important thing is that you are consistent and it's a regular part of your training plan,” Moses continues. “If you feel like you struggle to run fast the day after a gym session, due to the DOMS, then don't be afraid to give yourself extra time to recover.”
We’ve explored why strength training is beneficial, and how you might fit gym work into your running plans, but what exactly should this strength training look like?
Here, Moses shares his tried-and tested exercises. Whether you’re looking to build speed or distance, incorporate the below into your gym sessions as often as you’re able and you should notice results in no time.
Technique: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips, or holding dumbbells by your sides.
Step back with one foot and lower your body down until both knees are bent at a 90-degree angle, with your back knee hovering just above the ground.
Keep your front knee aligned with your ankle and your back knee pointing down toward the floor.
Push through your front foot to return to the starting position.
Repeat on the other side, stepping back with the other foot.
Top Tip: Start with bodyweight to master the movement and then add a kettlebell or dumbbell up to 20kg.
Why does it help? “A reverse lunge is a lower body exercise that involves stepping backward with one leg and lowering your body down until the front knee is bent at a 90-degree angle,” Moses explains. “This primarily targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, and can be performed with or without weights. It's a great exercise to include in lower body workouts, as it targets multiple muscle groups and helps improve balance and stability, especially on single leg, which is crucial for runners.”
Technique: Try bodyweight to start and progress to a 5kg - 10kg dumbbell in one hand (the side you are working on). A weighted backpack or weighted vest can also work.
Stand with the ball of your foot on the edge of a step or raised surface, with your heel hanging off the back of the step.
Lift one foot off the step and balance on the other foot.
Slowly lower your heel down below the level of the step, feeling a stretch in your calf muscle.
Push through the ball of your foot to lift your body up as high as you can, contracting your calf muscle at the top of the movement.
Top Tip: Performing a single leg calf raise off a step or raised surface can increase the range of motion and make the exercise more challenging.
Why does it help? “A single leg calf raise is an exercise that targets the calf muscles, particularly the gastrocnemius muscles. The beauty of this exercise is it can be performed pretty much anywhere and requires little or even no equipment, making it an easy addition to a home or gym workout routine for runners,” says Moses.
Technique: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight in front of your chest with both hands, keeping your elbows close to your body.
Brace your core and keep your chest up as you squat down, pushing your hips back and bending your knees.
Keep your weight on your heels and aim to get your thighs parallel to the ground, but don’t go too deep that you compromise your technique or form.
Pause for a moment at the bottom of the squat, then push through your heels and squeeze the glutes to return to the starting position.
Top Tip: You’ll need weight for this one. It’s best to start around 5kg, building up to a max of 25kg – any more and you risk injuring your legs.
Why does it help? “A goblet squat is a type of squat exercise that involves holding a weight, such as a dumbbell or kettlebell, in front of your chest as you perform the squat movement. This exercise helps runners to improve lower body strength and stability, as well as core strength,” Moses explains.
Technique: Start by standing in an athletic position with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and arms relaxed at your sides.
Focus on generating power from your legs and hips.
Begin the movement by quickly descending into a quarter squat position, loading your leg muscles.
Explosively extend your hips, knees, and ankles to propel yourself off the ground.
Swing your arms forward to assist in the upward momentum.
As you reach the peak of the jump, tuck your knees towards your chest and aim to land softly on the box or platform.
Absorb the impact of the landing by flexing your hips, knees, and ankles.
Step back down from the box and repeat the exercise for the desired number of repetitions.
Top Tip: Minimizing rest between rounds will keep your heart rate up, and improve the anaerobic fitness needed for sprinting.
Why does it help? “An explosive box jump is a plyometric exercise that involves jumping onto a box or platform from a standing position with maximal force and speed,” says Moses.
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