No matter what the bros say, bulging biceps do not make you a better runner. The same thing goes for luscious lats, tantalizing tris and pumped-up pecs.
Running is all about functional strength and mobility. Lean, lithe muscles might be a byproduct of that focus. But if you strength train—whether through weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, lunges or other resistance-based work—to build raw strength or create a CrossFit-bro-approved appearance, you are selling yourself short as a runner.
So if you are looking to maximize your running potential, should you strength train? And if so, how? First, let’s look at some of the pros and cons.
1. Increased Durability and Resilience
Well-designed programs focused specifically on the demands of trail running could reduce your injury risk, especially if the focus is on core and hip strength.
A 2014 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed strength training decreased injury risk. While that study did not analyze runners specifically, it doesn’t take a medal-winning long jump of logic to apply the same principles to runners.
In addition, for longer ultras, strength training may be more important to stave off physical breakdown.
2. Hormone Release and Recovery
Strength programs can facilitate the natural release of hormones that improve running performance. Generally, your body pumps out more of the good stuff with intense exercises that involve multiple muscle groups.
3. Curtail Strength Losses With Age
People over 50 can lose 15 percent of their strength per decade, according to a 2014 study in the Muscle, Ligaments, and Tendons Journal.
Weight training can help mitigate that loss over the long term. Think of it this way: Hormone release from strength training is like a bucket placed under a leaky roof to address part of the problem. Actual strength gains are like fixing the roof to prevent the problem in the first place (at least for a while, since all roofs leak eventually).
4. Burn Calories and Increase Basal Metabolic Rate
Feeling the burn from strength training increases the rate of calorie burn, whether you’re eating physical-health foods like nuts and avocados or mental-health foods like nachos and blooming onions. Lean body mass from strength training also increases basal metabolic rate. So for some people, strength training can improve body composition.
1. Diminishes Specialization
Running involves pretty much the same motion, over and over and over. To optimize how you perform, there’s no need to get really, really good at some other sort of motion.
Strength training is only valuable if it supports those repetitive motions, allowing you to do them efficiently without getting an overuse injury. So on the spectrum of specialization, bench press is bad, Jane Fonda-esque hip exercises are good. Fatigue from strength training could also detract from your running recovery.
2. Can Cause Injuries
You know what happens when a runner plays pick-up basketball after not spending much time on the court? They are sore for what seems like six to eight weeks. The same thing can happen from unwise strength training. I am lucky to avoid injuries when I bag groceries each week.
3. Takes Time Away From Running
The best runners run. A lot. A ranger at our local park once saw me in the grocery store and said, “Cool to see you here! I thought you just ran around in short shorts all day.”
For most of us, our main limiter is time. If you can do either a 30-minute strength program or 25 additional minutes of running plus five minutes of light strength work (focused on mobility and injury prevention), choose the latter.
Megan Roche uses a quick, 10-minute strength routine to help her power up mountains. Photo by David Roche
Putting It All Together
Let’s combine the pros and cons to ask two questions. First, should you be lifting actual weights, like dumbells?
My answer is no, unless you are guided by a plan designed specifically for runners to enhance mobility and functional strength—and have enough time to spare that you can get to the gym without it diminishing your weekly mileage. (Note: This only applies if you are looking to maximize your running potential. If you are a generalist athlete or adventurer, weightlifting might fit into your other goals.)
Second, should you strength train in some form? Yes, but don’t spend limited time on it beyond short, simple routines you can do almost every day. Most of the gains around mobility and functional strength can be achieved by bodyweight exercises, without actually lifting weights (which usually requires more time and longer recovery, and introduces more injury risk from increased loads on joints and tendons).
A quick, functional program could include push-ups (on knees if needed), pull-ups (optional), core work focused on trunk strength (a mix of front, side, and rear planks works well) and climbing-focused leg strength.
Like many things, though, remember there are no secrets. Some strength training is good if it fits within your life, improves your biomechanics for running and fuels your running passion. Lots of strength training can also be very good if you have the time and an expert to guide you. Even no strength training can work as long as you do the bare minimum to stay healthy, like leg swings and foam rolling.
If someone is trying to sell you on a certain weightlifting or strength program by saying it is the only way to be successful, consider whether they are selling something or have been sold something themselves. Instead, think about your goals (whether that is to be the best runner you can be, or to be a good runner with a great body) and find a program that works for you.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.