Build strength to run faster and healthier
How to incorporate strength training into your routine, no matter how busy you are
With bleak winter days and polar vortices upon us, the last thing many of us want to do is emerge from hibernation. Nothing—and I mean nothing—sounds more appealing than staying under the covers with a cup of cocoa watching Netflix.
But in reality, now is the perfect time to develop good habits to set yourself up for the year. The overindulging holidays are behind us and the sunshine and summer party temptations are still off on the horizon. That leaves us with some additional time now to pay attention to the little things that will keep us healthy, happy, and fit when the weather takes a turn for the better.
As runners, we tend to be pretty self-motivated to get out the door for our runs. Especially when we are training with a goal race in mind, we are persistent about completing our runs and workouts even during hectic times. However, we aren’t typically as diligent about getting our strength work in. When we are short on time or willpower, the supplemental activities commonly fall by the wayside. But a shift toward developing a strength routine and good habits now will ensure you are set up for a fast and healthy year of running.
The importance of strength training for runners
Some runners are hesitant to strength train because they think it will make them bulky and slower, but that is far from the truth. We all have much to gain from incorporating strength into our routine. Notable benefits include:
Improving running efficiency. Have you ever had a long run or race where your form fell apart as you got fatigued towards the end? Strengthening your core will help improve and maintain your running form, which translates into greater efficiency. Small improvements in efficiency make a huge difference, especially for longer races.
Increasing endurance and reducing fatigue. Strength training helps your body better deal with the stresses of running, which will help you fight off hitting the wall or cramping up during the later stages of a race.
Running faster. Building strength and power will allow you to more easily activate key muscle groups while running, which means you will be capable of holding a faster pace.
Reducing injury risk. Any asymmetries or muscle weaknesses are exacerbated the further we run, increasing injury risk. Strengthening muscles and connective tissues allows us to maintain proper running form longer.
Boosting metabolism for weight loss. Adding more lean muscle mass increases metabolism, which means more calories are burned at rest and during workouts.
Strength routines to build power and speed
Anyone training to perform his or her best in any sport can benefit from Olympic lifting movements. The Olympic lifts are a staple for power development, and explosive runners are able to run faster times. The fundamental lifts for runners include squats, deadlifts, cleans, and snatches. These exercises focus on compound movement patterns, shoring up the areas that could lead to increased injury if they are weak, like the hips.
This doesn’t mean you have to perform all of the lifts each time you hit the gym. One method is to focus on one or two of the big, essential lifts each strength session and supplement them with other body-weight core exercises. For example, your first lifting session for the week could focus on squats and cleans, with your second session focusing on deadlifts and snatches. That way, you are switching it up and providing different stimuli throughout the week.
Where to fit strength days into your training schedule
When it comes to incorporating strength into your training schedule, there are a number of effective ways to do it. It really is up to the individual and will likely take some trial and error. The key is to make sure you are getting it in, but not let it compromise your hard running workouts.
If you don’t run every day, then just use your days off from running to hit the gym for some strength training. On the other hand, if you are a seasoned runner who runs every day there are a few different routes you can go. Either start incorporating a day off from running each week to focus on a weights session, or be diligent about adding strength after runs a couple days a week. Here are a couple options to try out:
Day off from running to lift
Day 1: hard running workout
Day 2: lifting/strength
Day 3: easy running
No days off from running with hard days hard, easy days easy
Day 1: Hard running workout + lift
Day 2: Easy running
Day 3: Easy running
No days off from running with hard workouts and lifting on separate days
Day 1: Hard running workout
Day 2: Easy running + Lift
Day 3: Easy running
If you are pressed for time, you can elect to cut an easy run a few miles short in favor of lifting weights to get a higher stimulus to build strength, power, and speed. Perpetually increasing mileage isn’t the only way to increase performance. Prioritizing strength training enhances your running ability by simply training smarter and ensuring you maximize quality.
The best exercises if you are short on time
If you find yourself neglecting strength because you are short on time—or you’re simply dreading a weights session after hitting mile repeats—then try incorporating quick strengthening circuits into your post-run routine. With a body-weight training plan that targets your core, glutes, hips, and legs, you’ll gain strength fast.
The key is to focus on the exercises and movements that give you the most bang for your buck, so to speak. If I had to pick only four exercises to prioritize over others, it would be these: planks, pushups, squats, and lunges. The reason is that these four target all the core muscle groups and develop strength that is directly applicable to running. As an added bonus, each has dozens of variations that can be done to continuously switch it up and work your muscles in slightly different ways each time.
If setting personal bests and running happy and healthy are priorities of yours, then fitting strength into your routine is a must. In as little as 15 minutes a few times a week, you will quickly notice improvements in your strength that translate directly into running. And if hitting the gym is absolutely not your thing, don’t sweat it because there are plenty of strength training exercises you can do without a gym.
The bottom line is that any strength you do is better than nothing.