Strength training for distance runners can be an overwhelming task to decipher as a distance coach especially at the high school level. When done correctly, strength work can accentuate what you are doing with running and even increase running performance. But, most distance coaches don’t have a background in strength training and aren’t sure how to implement it with large groups. I’m a huge proponent of strength training for distance runners and have the advantage of seeing it from a coaches perspective and as a medical professional. I picked an expert panel of coaches and professionals to pick their brains on how to effectively implement strength training into distance training. Let’s meet the coaches/experts!
How do you use strength training within your program? How often do you lift per week? Before or after running? Split sessions? What types of lifts? What type of weight?
Mackey-I implement strength training into the Brooks Beasts program to help improve running economy, power and reduce injuries. The Beasts lift 2 days a week and typically this takes place after harder workouts. We oftentimes do varied forms of “core,” “functional/runner specific movements,” and Olympic lifts. Generally we’ll use heavy weights with low sets/reps. This is different from their running sets.
Derks-We try to do something “strength/supplemental” everyday. Some days it might be hurdle mobility, or a multi-jumps circuit, hurdle jumps, etc. We have been going to the weight room with our older guys 2x/week and have seen big gains in strength. The guys really like it, which I think is important. We have 2 different routines, and try to keep it under 30 minutes each time. A typical routine might be: hex bar deadlift, bench press, single leg squats, pull ups, box jumps, dumbbell overhead press. Their weight has really increased in the main lifts. When we started many guys were just using the bar or very light weight. But as they have gotten stronger and their form is better, they’ve really started adding weight. We keep reps pretty low, usually 3×8, or more recently 8-6-4. Again, we are in there to get stronger, more athletic, and hopefully see an improvement in injury resistance, running economy, and overall self-confidence. Plus, as mentioned, they really like it. It is nice being in there with a smaller group that has “earned” the right to be in the weight room. We have the younger/newer guys just do body weight circuits on these days outside on bleachers or in another location. That group is doing things like push ups, pull ups, step ups, lunges, calf raises, cat jumps, etc. Sometimes I will have the young guys come in if it is a day where we don’t have as many at practice, and strictly work on form/technique with little to no weight. We always lift or do GS (general strength) after we run. Many guys have their own stuff they will do either earlier or later in the day, such as band work (isometric clamshells, monster walks, Nordic hamstring curls, core exercises, etc). I would also add that we try to always do our harder GS days (aka weight room days) on our harder running workout days whenever possible. Our GS on recovery-oriented days is typically easier and more restorative, such as hurdle mobility, planks, bear crawls, etc.
Muth-We use strength training in our program as injury prevention and strengthening our runners to become better athletes. We believe that a better overall athlete will make a more confident runner. We try and lift two or three times a week depending on our schedule. We always lift after runs, specifically after workouts or long runs. We try and base our lifts on deficiencies that we see in our athletes or have seen in our athletes in the past. Hip strength has been our biggest area of concentration over the past few years. With our younger athletes we start as low as body weight and allow them to see the progression into our more advanced athletes with lifts usually consisting of three or four sets and reps of eight to ten.
Goom-I think strength training should target weaker areas, at least initially, so it should begin by assessing the athlete to determine their needs. We should then consider what exercise and time resources they have available and what stage of their competitive season they are at. In the closed season when training less and not competing I usually suggest strength training 3 or 4 times per week. During the season this can drop to twice a week and a once a week session can be used for maintenance when running is at its peak volume/intensity.
Where possible I keep running and strength work on separate days to minimise fatigue. If it does need to be done on the same day I usually suggest an easy run in the morning and strength work in the afternoon. I often use a mix of isolated strength work (to target weak areas) and compound movements like squats etc. It always depends on the athlete but typically we want fairly heavy loads of at least 12 rep max and above and we would progress these loads over time. Plyometrics can also be a valuable addition to develop power but need to be carefully planned into the schedule especially if including strength within a fairly full programme.
Smith-I use it to promote mechanical efficiency, reduce injuries, increase strength & power and also reap benefits of increased HGH and Testosterone. We lift twice per week within 24 hours of our two main workouts (either later in the day, right after, or the following morning). The sessions are normally completed all at once vs being split. I periodize the lifting starting with lower intensity and technique, but higher volume at the beginning of the season. As the season progresses we augment to higher intensity and technique specific to running mechanics and lower volume with larger recoveries. Working from roughly 50% 1RM “effort” to 90-93%. I have 3 primary exercises which are multijoint, hip hinge focused activities and have 6 assistant exercises which support the primary movement as well as running mechanics.
What benefit do you see for runners using strength training?
Mackey-When athletes incorporate strength training into their routine, they are able to be a more “complete athlete”. The training has the chance to benefit them hormonally from a shift in training stimulus to do more powerful, explosive shifts.
Derks-Definitely stronger, more confident and increased durability but it is tough to quantify that, as we still have guys that get little aches and pains. We tend to not see things like stress fractures, knock on wood. For the most part, though, I think our overall health as a team is way better than it would be if we did not make supplemental training such a big focus.
Muth-As our athletes consistently get into the weight room, they usually become more explosive and less of an injury risk. We are able to place them in more advanced running workouts because of our time in the weight room and able to add more miles to their week because they have that strength to absorb those miles. Obviously the weight room is one component of this along with eating correctly, sleep amounts and stress management that also factor into those advancements in training.
Goom-Runners can improve running economy and performance from as little as 6 to 8 weeks of strength training. It may help to reduce injury risk although there’s minimal quality evidence specific to runners to demonstrate this. We have ample evidence from other sports just not running!
Smith-This is obviously far more complex, but in general, increased health and efficiency, increased strength & power and increased positive hormone release.
How do you balance strength training with all the other things that you can do within distance training?
Mackey-I work backwards from specificity, the specificity being them running fast. With that mindset, lifting should not negatively impact their training, only enhance and support. I work from the mindset of minimal effective dose, meaning we try to not do unnecessary lifts in the gym, and aim to be efficient with our time because the athletes already do so much training.
Derks-It’s in our programs DNA to value it. When Coach Brian Damhoff started with us in 2014, daily GS through a variety of movements, became the norm. Guys really believe in it and have developed an incredible discipline for it over the years. Now, guys are much more comfortable doing GS on their own when needed, and doing the right sorts of things to stay healthy and supplement their running. We always keep practices to 2 hours, and GS is usually the last 15-30 min (30 min if we are in weight room). Also, with newer guys, we mix in more GS stuff during practice since they don’t run as much, like jump rope, band exercises, mini hurdles, etc.
Muth-We couple our strength training with workout days. It allows us to truly recover on recovery days with just running miles, form work and core. Those recovery days, practices are much shorter than workout/strength training days. It helps us not have 2+ hour practices each day. Our kids know work days, are roughly 2.5 hours long all said and done and recovery days are more like 1.5 hours long or less.
Goom-Planning is key! We have to consider that strength training will create fatigue and DOMS, especially in inexperienced lifters. So it’s important to adapt training and allow more time for recovery and to periodise it based on the stage of the season as discussed above.
Smith-Strength and conditioning is meant to compliment what we are doing in the running, so we will back off in the weight room when needed if the body is overly stressed. Primarily we will back off of the weight we are lifting, as the load vs the lift typically plays a bigger role in risk of injury.
What prompted you to add strength training to your program?
Mackey-When beginning to add strength training into the routines of the Beasts, I took observations for consistent high level performing athletes, personal experience as an elite athlete both lifting and not lifting as well as objective peer reviewed data that all supports strength training for endurance athletes.
Derks-I’ve always believed distance runners should strive to be distance ATHLETES, and doing more than just running is crucial for a young runner to fully develop and get the most out of their talent and stay healthy. I think it is even more important this day in age, because kids grow up without playing outside as much, so they aren’t ready to handle as much running training right away and aren’t as athletically developed. Having a chiropractor as an assistant coach for years helped us really hone our craft and made sure we are doing things with correct form, doing the best exercises, and making sure what we were doing was research informed.
Muth-We started strength training with our distance runners about twelve years ago to help progress our athletes quicker, while keeping them as injury free as possible. We are a very small team, numbers wise, so we couldn’t rely on the next man up approach because some of the time there wasn’t another athlete there to pull from. We had to come up with a solution to progressing the athletes we had at a responsible rate, but also a rate that kept us competitively progressing with the other schools our size, with bigger teams. Strength training for us was also another way to have data points and see progress in an athlete that otherwise may have had a bad race or practice, to spin something positive.
Goom-There is a growing body of evidence showing its benefits for runners, especially for economy and performance but also to treat existing injuries.
Smith-I dealt with a lot of injuries in college and high school and the more I connected and learned from others on the importance of strength and conditioning, the more it made sense to incorporate. I studied this while at Chico State earning my master’s degree and had my first opportunity to work with high level athletes in a strength & conditioning capacity. The results were very positive, injuries were reduced, and we saw performance improve noticeably.
What advice can you offer for coaches who are looking to add strength training into their distance programs but haven’t yet made the jump?
Mackey-It is very normal to be intimidated and feel insecure in the weight room. I have been coaching professional athletes for over 10 years, have a Masters degree in performance sciences, have published biomechanical research and I still feel like a fish out of water in a gym. My biggest piece of advice would be to ask questions! Find a few people who have experience and understand the sport of distance running and work with them to help build a program that’d best fit your athletes individually. The other piece of advice I have is, a little goes a long way in the gym. Do not over complicate the weight room. I worked with a female Scottish athlete and she did 6 lifts total in the gym. She did them very well, but it was not a “lot”. Quality over quantity and the basics are as “cool” maybe even “cooler” than anything you’ll see on social media :).
Derks-Start simple, but make it a part of everyday. Use pre-made routines, such as Dr. Damhoff’s YouTube series videos, or Jay Johnson’s strength routines. Use bodyweight, jump ropes, bands, bleachers, hills, etc. But do it everyday and make sure to do it with FOCUS. Don’t leave them on their own and expect it to get done with quality. When our guys do GS it is treated with respect and guys aren’t playing grab ass, talking, and giggling. They are focused. We are intentional and our experienced guys are good at setting the right tone. We always try to explain why we are doing what we do, and help the guys to see the benefit. We aren’t just killing time. We are building fast, durable distance ATHLETES!
Muth-Progress slowly. Add just a few strength elements at a time and get really good at those elements. Then the following year, add a few more important elements to your program while always taking the time to focus on form and the reason behind each new and old component. Build a system in which you have confident and dependable kids that are teaching and leading each other. I would also leave recovery days as is and add the strength to your workout days.
Goom-Consider an accredited course or strength and conditioning qualification. Team up with an S&C coach to work together for the best results and don’t be afraid to start simple by familiarising athletes with common lifts like squats, lunges, hip thrusts, step ups etc. It doesn’t have to be complex. A 15 to 20 minute circuit of 3 or 4 exercises is often enough.
Smith-Focus on form and functional movement prior to focusing on intensity and weight of lifts. Also, take education courses on biomechanics and basic anatomy as this is the foundation of movement. Similar to being educated on algebra before trying to teach a calculus class. This might not be relevant to everyone’s incorporation of strength, but we are looking for stimulus of the CNS and there are a lot of different ways to do that. Sometimes more is less in the weight room provided the athlete is still being stimulated!
Wrapping It Up
Strength training for distance runners can be intimidating. But, I think our panel offered some worthy advice of keeping it simple, progressing slowly, asking for help, proper planning and making sure that the athletes are focused when performing the lifts. As Tom Goom stated, runners can improve running economy and performance from as little as 6 to 8 weeks of strength training! That’s huge! There has never been a better time to implement strength training into the training of distance runners. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me and I’d be happy to help! If you’re interested in seeing some example workouts of strength training that I would recommend for distance runners, I’ve created workouts on YouTube that you can follow along.
Brian Damhoff DC MSOwner, Elite Performance Institute, Naperville, IL | Assistant Track and Field Coach Naperville Central High School | Team Chiropractor Northern Illinois University Track and Field/Cross Country | Doctorate of Chiropractic | Masters in Sports Rehabilitation