As a physical therapist, I’ve noticed that elite runners look very different today than in the 80’s when I ran competitively. They have more muscles and more efficient strides. Strength training is now recognized as essential for injury prevention, muscle recruitment, and running economy.

Strength Training’s Role

Injury Prevention: A strong core and improved muscle recruitment strategies in one-leg standing reduce injuries. A 2005 study showed that recreational runners with knee pain had weak hip abductors and flexors on the painful side and weak hip adductors on the noninjured side. A more recent study showed that control of shear forces on foot strike was the primary determinant of leg injuries.

Muscle Recruitment: Studies show improved muscle recruitment allowing different parts of the muscle to assist and better running mechanics even in experienced runners. This effect is believed to come from both improved muscle activation and improved nervous system “alertness” to activity. As physical therapists, we know that this effect is even more pronounced in individuals who are new to the sport or haven’t run previously.

Running Economy: This is defined as the energy demand for a given speed of sub-maximal running. Runners with good running economy use less energy and hence less oxygen than runners with poor running economy at the same speed. Basically, it’s your miles per gallon, so to speak.

When is the Best Time for Runners to Strength Train?

Strength and Conditioning Specialists determined that runners can strength train year-round, although the type of training and sets/reps may differ by season to maximize performance when training for a specific event. Even if you’re not training for a specific event or race, “mixing it up” challenges your system to be more responsive and is, in general, more interesting.

In the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA’s) Performance Training Journal, Travis Erickson, MS, CSCS recommends a 2 Tiered Strength Program, “out of season” and “in season.” The out of season program is 3 days per week, emphasizing more sets and reps to build efficiency, and the in-season program involves fewer sets and reps with higher intensities to emphasize power.

Following a 2018 systematic review of articles about strength training and running, authors concluded that 2-3 days per week of strength training can make notable changes in running economy and short-duration speed bursts.

What Exercises Are Best – and How Many?
Runners benefit from a comprehensive program involving multiple muscle groups, and with particular emphasis on core, including hips. Here are two days per week sample workouts, based on Mr. Erickson’s plan:

Day Order of Exs Exercise Reps Per Set Sets Rest Tips
1 1 Back Squats 12-15 3 60 sec Work on deeper range
1 2 Walking Lunge 10-15 each leg 3 60 sec
1 3 Romanian Deadlift 20 3 45 secs Keep wt in heels, mild bend @ knee
1 4 Physioball Bridge with HS Curl 10-15 3 45 secs
1 5 Calf Raises 10-15 3 45 secs Feel your calf work on both phases
1 6 Leg Raises and Lower 10-15 3 45 secs Keep back flat
2 1 Bench Press 10-15 3 60 secs
2 2 Bent Over Rows 10-15 3 60 secs
2 3 Flat DB Flies 10-15 3 60 secs
2 4 Lat Pulldown 10-15 3 60 secs Can do assisted pull-ups
2 5 DB Shoulder Press 10-15 3 60 secs
2 6 Bicep Curls 10-15 3 45 secs Keep shoulders stable
2 7 Tricep Cable Push Downs 10-15 3 45 secs Bar or Rope
2 8 Side Planks 3 ea 3 45 sec Hold 30-60
2 9 Planks 3 ea 3 45 sec Hold 30-60

A good starting point is to aim for 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Concentrate on the form; make sure you know what muscle should be working – ask a trainer or PT to help you. Use a heavy enough weight that the last couple repetitions feel difficult. You can use machines at the gym for many of the above exercises. And…

If all those sets and reps seem overwhelming, start just with one set and try to complete the full routine for two days per week for 3 weeks. It takes a while to establish a habit!

If you need some guidance to start, many personal trainers will help you with just a session or 2 until you get more comfortable. Some gyms provide staff for free to introduce you to the proper use of their equipment. And, if you need to mix it up or jumpstart a routine, you can take a group class at the gym. Again, don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. It’s better to understand what muscles should be working and to do your exercises with intention than to just get through the reps!