You might be surprised to learn that as part of her training for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Shalane Flanagan included copious amounts of circuit training in her weekly routine in addition to her running workouts. In fact, on hard workout days, circuit training comprised almost a third of her total training time. The result? An Olympic bronze medal at 10,000 meters and an American record to boot.

While circuit training gets a bad rap in running circles, mostly due to misinformation and oversimplification by the personal training industry, when done correctly, these workouts can provide significant running-specific benefits for injury-prone, beginner, and even elite runners.

In short, circuit training is a high-intensity workout that combines aerobic exercise with strength training. The exact combination of strength exercises and the type of aerobic work can span the depths of a coach’s or athlete’s imagination. However, with the right planning and knowledge, runners can mold a circuit-training routine specifically designed to improve their running, much like Flanagan did on her way to earning her bronze medal.

Who benefits from circuit training?

Circuit training is especially helpful for beginner runners or injury-prone athletes who aren’t yet ready to handle an increase in mileage, but do have the time to do more aerobic exercise. For example, if you find yourself getting injured every time you try to run more than 4 miles at once, instead of spending hours on cross-training equipment, you can use circuit training to develop running-specific strength while still getting in an aerobic workout. Not only will this make you a better runner, but it will also begin to address some of the structural imbalances causing your injury in the first place.

Circuit training can also be effective if you have a busy schedule or travel frequently and you don’t have hours to spend at the gym, yet you want to do both strength work and cardio. A sample circuit routine, such as the one found at the end of this article, lasts about 30 minutes and can easily be lengthened or shortened by changing the running distance between each set.

Finally, circuit training is effective for runners who are looking to lose weight or increase their percentage of lean muscle mass. While running burns more calories than almost any other pure aerobic activity, strength training, and specifically circuit training, has been found to burn more fat per minute than any other type of exercise. A running-specific circuit training routine gives you the best of both worlds–the aerobic development and calorie burn of a run with the fat burning benefits of a strength workout.

Benefits Of Circuit Training

Studies have shown that circuit training can significantly boost running performance. For example, a 2003 review article by Alan Jung at the University of Alabama found that circuit training can maintain heart rates at near 80 percent of maximum (aerobic development occurs between 78 and 85 percent of maximum heart rate). Furthermore, studies conducted on untrained individuals found improvements in time-to-exhaustion on a treadmill test, V02max and the lactate threshold.

The National Athletic Health Institute conducted a study on the effectiveness of circuit training in the late 1970’s. While the specific circuit routine performed by participants did not include any running, just strength exercises performed on a 30-second circuit with no rest, the researchers saw amazing results: after 10 weeks, participants gained about three pounds of muscle and lost about two pounds of fat. Both men and women achieved reductions in skin-fold thickness and increased overall muscular strength. More importantly, participants improved running time to exhaustion on a treadmill by 5 to 6 percent and saw an 11 percent increase in VO2max—without doing any running.

Finally, circuit training helps you become a better overall athlete. Rather than being a runner who can only move in one plane of motion, circuit training develops balance, strength, athleticism, and flexibility. While this might not seem like a running-specific benefit, having poor athleticism increases the risk of running-related injuries. For example, not being proficient in the frontal plan will result in weak hips and adductors, which is often the cause of IT band problems.

Sample Circuit Training Routine

So, what does a real implementation of circuit training look like? Below, I’ve reproduced a circuit workout found in my Strength Training for Runners Guide that only uses body weight (there is also a medicine ball version with videos and .pdfs). This circuit workout is adapted from John Cook, former coach of Flanagan, and Jay Johnson, coach of three U.S. National Champions.

I prefer this routine because it can be completed with no outside equipment and can be easily adapted for more advanced runners and made more difficult by adding resistance with a medicine ball. Finally, it works the entire posterior and anterior chain to ensure proper muscular balance.

Note: Perform each of these exercises for 30-60 seconds before moving on to the next one. No rest between exercises. 

1. Mountain climbers doubles
2. Mountain climbers singles
3. Mountain climbers singles out
4. Mountain Climbers Doubles out

Jog 800 meters

5. Push ups
6. Burpees
7. Hip thrusts
8. Pike Press

Jog 800 meters

9. Prone with twist
10. Running motion v-ups
11. Back extensions
12. Mason Twists

Jog 800 meters

13. Lunges w/turn
14. Push-up walk
15. V-ups
16. Squat jumps

By keeping each exercise dynamic, specific, and constantly moving, this routine is able to keep your heart rate high, balance general strength with running-specific exercises, and addresses the entire core and hip girdle.

If you’re a beginner or injury-prone athlete, my recommendation is to add this circuit training routine to your “off” days. The purpose of the day would be similar to a cross-training routine. If you’re a more experienced runner and have time, perform this routine after a threshold workout.