Smash Your Times With Strength Training For Runners

by Scott Reid

Just like the martial artist or the CrossFitter who shuns cardiovascular training days in favour of strength, the runner who neglects strength training is missing out on a world of benefits, which could have a profound impact on performance.

For tens-of-thousands of years, running has been integral to our survival, both as hunters and as a defence mechanism. Human beings are incredibly good at running, and can learn to regulate breathing and energy stores over enormous distances, like the ultra-runners who cover the equivalent of several marathons at a time.

Every four years, when the Olympics rolls around, we find new ways to push the limits of human performance, shaving hundredths of a second off the fastest 100m sprint time – the runner’s body is a finely-tuned masterpiece of evolution.

What some runners may be missing out on, though, are the levels of efficiency and power that come with regular strength training. We’re talking about isolation weight training, compound lifting movements and plyometrics.


No way! I’m a distance runner and lifting will make me slow and bulky…

Strength Training For Runners

We hate to break it to you, Superman, but adding enough muscle to make yourself an immovable object is way harder than you think. What we’re talking about is functional gains, the kind that even if they do add mass, only add the kind of mass that’s useful for becoming a more powerful and efficient runner.

Imagine the marathon runner who doesn’t do any kind of weight training whatsoever. They’re likely to be on the lighter side, but even so, all of that upper body stuff, those shoulders and that pesky head, all weigh something, and over 26 miles, it adds up. Instead of carrying all of that as dead weight, wouldn’t it make more sense to put it to good use, so that it can help you to move more efficiently, and quicker when need be?


The core

A lot of runners, all they do is run, and run, and expect their tired midline to hold onto all of those vital organs without so much as a single sit-up, plank or pull-up. If it doesn’t lead to back pain or injury, this lack of stability will at least contribute to you slowing down considerably mid-way through your run.

Having a stronger, more stable core puts less pressure on your back over time, and helps to keep your shoulders in a better position.

This is the first step in becoming a more efficient runner. If you can recruit more muscles to share the load over time, you’ll be able to run for longer at a faster pace.


Core workouts for runners

Core workouts for runners

If you’re up for trying some exercises to strengthen your core, the runner in you will probably want to raise your heart rate at the same time, right? ‘Annie’ is a benchmark CrossFit workout designed to be completed as quickly as possible. Go as hard as you can, and we guarantee a fire inside your abs, core and shoulders. Repeat every couple of weeks, to see whether you’re improving.

Annie (for time)

  • 50 double-unders, 50 sit-ups
  • 40 double-unders, 40 sit-ups
  • 30 double-unders, 30 sit-ups
  • 20 double-unders, 20 sit-ups
  • 10 double-unders, 10 sit-ups

*double-unders are performed with a jump rope. The rope must pass under the feet twice on every revolution. If you can’t do double-unders, do twice as many regular single jump ropes.

Medicine ball workout (from Men’s Fitness)

Med ball slam

Sets: 3 Reps: 10 Rest: Do not rest between sets
Holding a medicine ball in both hands (heavy enough to slow you down slightly), raise your arms overhead until you feel a stretch in your abs. Explosively throw the ball into the floor and catch on the rebound. That’s one rep.


Sets: 3 Reps: 20 Rest: 60 seconds between sets
Lie on your back on the floor holding the ball with both hands behind your head. Extend you legs. Brace your abs and sit all the way up. Raise your legs simultaneously and reach for your toes with the ball. Your body should form a V shape at the top. If this is too difficult, bend your knees on the sit-up, and touch the ball to the top of your knees.


Increase your lactate threshold

Increase your lactate threshold

Most runners know all about aerobic lactate threshold, and about pushing through the wall when that slow burning pain starts to set in, but what if there was a way to switch on the booster engines and power your tired body those last few hundred meters? Hello, weight training.

You spend a couple of days a week running yourself to near-failure, which if you recover properly, can be great for your endurance levels, but when was the last time you did a set of five or 10 medium to heavy squats? Tempo squats at a reasonable weight are one of the best ways of building strength, explosiveness and short-term endurance throughout your entire body, not just your legs.

If you don’t know what your one-rep max squat is (it will likely be different for front and back squat), it’s good to find out. Once you know, hitting sets at 50-60% is a great way of reaping the benefits we’ve just mentioned.


Explosive leg workouts for runners

Explosive leg workouts for runnersWith tempo squats, you’ll want to try and keep a consistent rhythm, not hanging out for too long at the top of the movement.

Back squat

Sets: 3 Reps: 10 Rest: 2 minutes between sets
10 barbell back squats at 50% of your one-rep max

You can do front-loaded barbell squats, too, but be aware that because of the different demands on posture, and the position of the barbell across your chest, you will be more out of breath. This is normal.

Box jumps

Sets: 5 Reps: 10 Rest: 30 seconds between sets
A box, or anything reasonably high (20-24” for women and 24-30” for men)

Start facing the box about 1.5ft away. Jump as high as possible, landing with both feet in the centre of the box. Step (or carefully hop) back down, and repeat. It’s important to warm up your calves and ankles before box jumps, to avoid strains.

Jump lunges

Sets: 6 Reps: 15 Rest: 30 seconds between sets

Starting with feet in a jumping position (under the hips), jump and land in a lunge position, back knee kissing the floor. From the lunge position, jump straight up in the air, extending your hips fully (don’t cheat), before landing in a lunge position with the opposite leg back this time. Each time your back knee touches the floor is one rep.


Train as if you were Usain Bolt

You’re already a proficient distance runner, what you’re trying to work on is the strength to make the rest of your body more aggressive and explosive. Elite sprinters like Usain Bolt, have immensely powerful upper bodies, which they use to accelerate themselves. Their legs are just a part of the equation.

As a distance runner, you may be used to being tactical in how you expend your energy over time. In the final stretches of a race, though, it pays to be more aggressive than the competition. You might have the same amount of energy as someone approaching the line right beside you, but the difference between first and second comes from how willing you are to attack those last hundred meters.

In the final stretches of a race, there’s no room for anything other than an all-out predatory sprint. So how do we recreate that in the weight room?


Power workouts for runners

Power cleans

Power cleans are half of an Olympic weightlifting movement known simply as a clean, in which a weighted barbell moves from the floor, past the hips and is caught in a front squat position, before being stood up. You’ve probably seen weightlifters do it, right before they press the bar overhead. In a power clean, the weight moves from the floor past the hips and ends on the shoulders.

See below for a demonstration of the power clean.

Every minute for 10 minutes

Perform 3-5 power cleans at a weight heavy enough that you don’t simply bicep the curls the weight up. There should be enough feedback that you need to drop under the bar.

Speed burpees

When done correctly, burpees are one of the most effective full-body movements for building strength, coordination, endurance and explosiveness. The kind of burpees we’re interested in are the fast ones.

To perform a burpee, begin by standing straight up. Drop onto your front in the bottom of a push-up position (chest and thighs on the floor.) Push up, bringing your feet to your hands at the same time. Jump straight up about 6” off the floor and touch your hands overhead. That’s one rep.

Sets: 5 Reps: 10-15 Rest: one minute between sets. Go as hard as humanly possible.


Be better than the competition

Weight training is fun and challenging, but on top of your running, it’s also incredibly hard work. If you’re happy maintaining your performance at the level it is now, then carry on, but if you want to be better than the competition, you need to be willing to go places they’re not.

On race day, when it comes down to the runner who just runs, and the runner with a stash of tricks learnt in the gym, which one do you want to be?

Scott Reid
Scott Reid


Scott Reid is a 2 x Britain’s Strongest Man U105kg winner (2007 & 2008) and IFSA World's Strongest Man U105kg Competitor. He is an expert in strength and conditioning and also coaches functional nutrition. Scott’s passion for understanding the human body and how to optimise every aspect of it has driven him to study under legends such as Paul Chek. Scott now coaches MMA Athletes, Strongmen and Bodybuilders to name but a few, helping them to implement a well structured diet and become more powerful, explosive versions of themselves.

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