How to Get Started With Strength Training if You Want to Run Faster

Runners shouldn't skimp on upper-body or core work.
Image Credit: LightFieldStudios/iStock/GettyImages

Runners like to run. We get it. But sometimes, runners get so focused on putting in the miles that they forget that there's more to being a stronger and faster runner than pounding the pavement. (Hint: That means you need to strength train!)

"Strength training is essential to reduce the risk of injury, improve running economy and maximize performance," Natalie Niemczyk, CSCS, physical therapist and certified run coach, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

"In the past, the belief was that strength training would add too much muscle bulk, which would inevitably have a negative impact," she says. "[But] recent evidence has refuted this claim and demonstrates how adding in proper strength programming can help the overall development of an endurance athlete."

All that science translates to real-life athletes, too. "As a professional runner, strength work has helped increase my volume and intensity in my training while staying injury-free," Karissa Schweizer, American 3,000-meter record holder, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

In fact, it was a persistently tight hamstring in college that originally led Schweizer to pumping iron. "I was given a set of strength exercises that focused on areas that I thought were strong enough, but were actually pretty weak."

If you're a runner who isn't lifting weights, that's likely the case for you, even if you've been running forever and feel strong. With the help of strength and running pros, we put together a comprehensive guide for experienced runners who aren't so experienced at strength training to give them a leg up (literally and figuratively).

The 4 Exercises Every Runner Needs

Most running injuries involve soft tissue structures. "Strengthening will help to improve the resiliency within your muscles, bones and tendons," Niemczyk says.

To start, she says every runner needs to master four key movement patterns: the squat, lunge, hip hinge and calf raise. These are the building blocks for a strong foundation for many strengthening exercises as well as the basic movement patterns of running.

1. Body-Weight Squat

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes turned out slightly.
  2. Hinge at your hips, bend your knees and sink down until your thighs are just below parallel (or as far as your mobility and strength will allow). Keep your chest up.
  3. Push into your feet to rise back up to standing.

Tip

Squats are considered the “king of all exercises,” Niemczyk says. You're strengthening your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, core and hips. Plus, they're incredibly functional (think: sitting down in a chair).

2. Romanian Deadlift With Barbell

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Activity Barbell Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs with arms straight and knees slightly bent.
  2. Hinge at your hips and lower the weights down while keeping back flat. Keep the weights close to your legs.
  3. Squeeze your glutes to rise back up to standing.

Tip

The hip-hinge movement Niemczyk advocates for translates into Romanian deadlifts (RDLs). Your hips should bend while your back remains in a neutral position so the emphasis is on your hamstring and not your spine, which increases your risk for injury, Niemczyk says.

3. Lunge

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Stand tall, then step a few feet forward with one foot.
  2. Bend both knees to 90 degrees, with your back knee hovering just above the ground.
  3. Hold for a count, then push off your front foot to return back to standing.
  4. Make sure you do the same number of reps on each side.

Tip

Lunges are an incredibly functional exercises for runners, as they closely mimic the single-leg action of the sport.

“Your legs have to tolerate the load while in a separated position and your trunk and pelvis must stay engaged, as it does when you are running,” Niemczyk says.

4. Standing Calf Raise

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Stand tall on a flat surface with your shoulders down and back, toes pointed straight ahead. (For seated version, sit with hands on thighs.)
  2. Lift your heels off the floor to flex your calf muscle.
  3. Pause for a count, then slowly lower your heels back down.

Tip

According to Niemczyk, when you're running, the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus, which come together at the Achilles tendon), provide a lot of power and force production required for running.

Both standing and seated versions of this exercise are important, as the seated version targets your soleus and the standing version targets your gastrocnemius.

Customize Your Strength-Training Program

After you've nailed your basic movement patterns and have the beginnings of a strong foundation (about four weeks of body-weight strength training), you can begin to add load. Tony Ambler-Wright, CSCS, NASM-certified personal trainer and master instructor, advises clients to build up gradually.

"It is critical to progress to increased intensities over a period of time in order for adequate adaptation to occur and to decrease the potential for overuse injuries," he tells LIVESTRONG.com. To help, he offers these guidelines:

Start with lighter loads and higher reps. Typically, that means doing 1 to 3 sets of 12 to 25 reps of an exercise using 50 to 70 percent of your one-rep max (the maximum amount of weight you can lift once). This gives you the opportunity to develop muscular endurance, as well as learn and reinforce proper alignment, technique and movement patterns.

After 4 to 6 weeks, the intensity and volume of your training can be increased. Shoot for 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 12 reps per exercise, using approximately 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep max. To allow for full recovery, take a little more rest between sets — anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes.

After another 4 to 6 weeks, increase your intensity and volume yet again — this time with the aim of developing maximal strength. Shoot for 4 to 6 sets of 3 to 6 reps per exercise, using approximately 80 to 85 percent of your one-rep max. Take as much rest between sets as you need — anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes.

Been developing your maximal strength for roughly 4 to 6 weeks? Ambler-Wright says it's time to integrate all three intensities and training styles into your weekly routine.

Add More Functional Exercises

The goal isn't to perform a bunch of exercises just to fatigue your muscles and leave you too sore to run, but rather, to engage in compound movements that are extremely efficient and ultimately, improve your running economy and boost your speed.

What does that look like? A mix of 1 to 2 lower-body movements (squats, RDLs, lunges) and 1 to 2 upper-body movements (overhead press, chest press) followed by 2 to 5 assisted exercises (upper body: biceps curls, triceps extensions, rows; lower body: calf raises, glute bridges) performed 2 to 3 times a week in the off-season and 1 to 2 times per week while in season, Niemczyk says.

Ready to get stronger? Mix and match the moves below to build your very own beginner strength-training plan. Trust us: Your running will thank you.

Lower-Body Exercises for Runners

1. Body-Weight Squat

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes turned out slightly. (Make it harder: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms face in.)
  2. Hinge at your hips, bend your knees and sink down until thighs are just below parallel. Keep your chest up.
  3. Push into your feet to rise back up to standing.

2. Dumbbell Deadlift

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs with arms straight and knees slightly bent.
  2. Hinge at your hips and lower the weights down while keeping your back flat. Keep the weights close to your legs.
  3. Squeeze your glutes to rise back up to standing.

3. Dumbbell Lunge

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Stand tall, then step a few feet forward with one foot.
  2. Bend both knees to 90 degrees, with your back knee hovering just above the ground.
  3. Hold for a count, then push off your front foot to return to standing.
  4. Make sure to complete the same number of reps on both sides.

Upper-Body Exercises for Runners

1. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Upper Body
  1. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, palms facing in.
  2. Press the dumbbells overhead in a controlled manner, straightening your elbow completely.
  3. Bend your elbows and slowly lower the dumbbell back down to shoulders.

2. Dumbbell Bench Press

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Upper Body
  1. Start sitting on a workout bench with a dumbbell in each hand, resting on your thighs. Lie back on to the bench.
  2. Hold the dumbbells above your chest, shoulder-width apart, making a 90-degree angle. Palms face forward.
  3. Push the dumbbells up until arms are fully extended.
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the sides of your chest.

Assisted Exercises for Runners

1. Dumbbell Curl

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Upper Body
  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs with palms facing forward.
  2. Bend your elbows to lift both dumbbells up toward your shoulders.
  3. Slowly lower dumbbells until your arms are fully extended back.

2. Standing Overhead Barbell Triceps Extension

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Upper Body
  1. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height.
  2. Keeping your core and glutes tight, press the weights overhead until your arms are straight and your biceps are next to your ears with palms facing in. This is the starting position.
  3. Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows and lower the weights behind your head until your forearms are parallel to the floor.
  4. Hold for a count, then straighten your arms to return to extended position.

3. Dumbbell Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Upper Body
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, a slight bend in knees and a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing in.
  2. Hinge at waist and lower your torso slightly, allowing arms to hang down. This is the starting position.
  3. Keeping your back flat, squeeze your shoulder blades and bend your elbows, pulling dumbbells to your sides.
  4. Slowly lower arms back to the start.

4. Dumbbell Calf Raise

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Stand tall on a flat surface with shoulders down and back, toes pointed straight ahead and a weight in each hand. (For seated version, sit with weights on thighs.)
  2. Lift your heels off the floor to flex your calf muscle.
  3. Pause for count, then slowly lower heels back to the floor.

5. Barbell Hip Thrust

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Activity Barbell Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie face-up with your back against a weight bench, knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. (Make it harder: Place a dumbbell or barbell on top of your hips, held in place with your hands.)
  2. Squeeze your glutes and lift your hips, forming a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
  3. Slowly lower back to start.
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