We all know that strength training is an important component to running strong and staying injury free. But many of us don’t know how or when to add it into our routine. With so much information about strength training available, and often conflicting, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and just do nothing instead. In this guide, we will break down some of the confusion about which exercises to do when.
PERIODIZATION IN RUN TRAINING
When you start a new training cycle, you have an end-date in mind – the race. Typically this goal race is 12-16 weeks away, giving you enough time to build endurance and get faster. Whether you work with a coach or are following an online plan, the beginning weeks are devoted to building your base. Typically there is not much speed work, and you are focusing on increasing endurance while letting the muscles and tendons adapt to the stress of increased mileage.
Slowly you move into the next phase of your training plan where you build stamina. And after that you move into faster, more race specific workouts. Finally you taper, pulling back on the volume and intensity in the weeks leading up to your race. This segmented way of training is called periodization. The goal of periodization is to maximize your gains while also minimizing risk of injury and burnout. It’s a gradual build of fitness, laying the bricks and increasing your capabilities.
Your strength training program should be designed in the same way as your run training. Start by building the base of stability, then lay down some strength, and finally peak with plyometrics and explosive moves. You wouldn’t run 10 miles at race pace at the beginning of a training cycle, so why would you do 50 box jumps when you don’t have a stable foundation built yet? Just like faster running, the heavy lifting and plyometrics have to be earned.
THE STABILITY PHASE
If you think of your training like a pyramid, the base has to be the biggest. It is what creates a solid pyramid. The base of your strength training pyramid is the Stability phase. This is where you correct any muscle imbalances, rehab old injuries and prehab against future ones. These exercises teach your body proprioception – you become aware of the positioning of your body when moving. You should include lots of balance work, uncomplicated core exercises, and single leg moves to work the glutes. Thirty minutes, three to four days a week is all you need here. Start with bodyweight movements and slowly add weight as you improve. Aim for 12-15 repetitions of these stability exercises, but stop when you can’t hold perfect form anymore. Stay in this phase for at least 4-6 weeks, or longer if you have a history of injury.
THE STRENGTH PHASE
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you are ready to move on to the next level of the pyramid: the Strength phase. In your running program this is where you start working on your stamina with tempo runs, hill repeats, and more. In your strength program it’s time to load up your muscles now that you’ve corrected imbalances. Think deadlifts, squats, lunges – cover all the basic movement patterns, including lateral movement. The goal of this phase is to build muscle. More muscle will keep you running longer at goal pace as you will be more resistant to fatigue. And more muscle will help you run faster, as you teach your brain to recruit more muscle fibers with every contraction. More fibers = more power.
Many runners I know avoid lifting heavy because they are scared of bulking up. The good news is you would have to try very, very hard to bulk up – multiple hour-long sessions and an excess of calories. And women lack the testosterone to get bulky muscles. In addition, all the cardio we do works in a catabolic way against muscle growth. Two sessions a week of 45-60 minutes is appropriate for the strength phase. Choose weights that feel challenging for 6-8 repetitions, but never go to failure. Always end a set feeling like you could do 1-2 more perfect reps. Stay in this phase for 4 weeks and you will see some serious gains. Hills will feel easier, tempos will get faster.
THE POWER PHASE
Finally, when you are about a month out from your goal race, it’s time to add in the sexy-looking exercises of the Power phase. In your running program this is where you move into the race specific work, doing longer goal pace workouts and honing in on speed. Your strength training will mimic this as you add in plyometrics and olympic lifts – the explosive, powerful movements that prime the legs to run fast. These exercises teach your body to recruit maximum muscle fibers for quick contractions. In running this will help you pick your foot up off the ground faster during each stride. And less time on the ground means more time flying through the air.
The Power phase doesn’t require any more than one to two sessions a week of 30-45 minutes each. Your running training will be at it’s peak, so you must be sure to get enough recovery and spend less time doing strength, especially as this phase is the most intense. When performing power exercises, keep repetitions low, in the 4-6 range, so you can perform each rep with maximum speed. Limit the jumps to 20-30 total repetitions per workout. Stay in this phase for two to three weeks. The week before your race, cut out all strength work except for a few stability exercises to keep the core and glutes online.
By following this progressive load structure, you will safely build strength and injury resistance, allowing you to run further and faster. If you are looking for more guidance on which exercises to select for each phase, I recommend you learn more about my Strength in Stride program. I designed this 12-week strength program to sync perfectly with a run training program without leaving you too sore or fatigued to hit those hard runs.