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How should I work resistance training into a full, competitive running schedule? – Walter
Resistance training counts as a “hard” workout, just like intervals or a tempo run, and requires about 48 hours of recovery before your next hard workout. So either schedule resistance training on the same day as a hard running workout or make sure you schedule a proper recovery interval before your next resistance-training or hard-running session.
An American age-group record-holder from 5K to the marathon recently phoned me for advice on his resistance training. “I’ve been doing all those exercises from your YouTube video every day,” he said, “and combining them with some resistance band and core exercises I got from my coach. What I want to know is, should I do them before or after I run?”
“First things first,” I said, “stop doing them every day! Next, let’s talk about why we do resistance training, and then we’ll talk about how much and when.”
What is resistance training and why do we do it?
Resistance training is a catchall term for exercises designed to increase muscular strength by forcing you to work against an opposing force. Types of training include weightlifting, resistance band exercises, calisthenics (bodyweight exercises), weight sled work, hill sprints, plyometrics, and more.
Some of the reasons we runners incorporate resistance training in our schedules include:
- Improves running economy: A 2013 study on masters marathoners found that six weeks of resistance training improved running economy by six percent.
- Improves performance: A 2015 study concluded that six weeks of resistance training improved 5K time significantly.
- Improves muscle balance: It strengthens muscles that running doesn’t work.
- Increases stride length: You’ll put more force into the ground with each stride.
- Increases stride cadence: You’ll put that force into the ground more quickly.
- Improves core strength & stability: It helps you maintain an efficient running posture.
- Prevents injuries: It strengthens muscles and connective tissues to better absorb, produce, and resist the forces encountered during training and competition.
For a serious runner, this grab bag of benefits is too good to pass up.
How much resistance training do we need?
Endurance runners tend to be firm believers in the “more is better” philosophy. It’s why we’re so hung up on “mileage.” But it’s counterproductive to allot too much of our workout energy to resistance training. Your goal is to reap 100 percent of the beneficial adaptations available while performing the minimum amount of training—after all, actual running remains your prime focus.
According to a 2016 review of studies on the benefits of resistance training for competitive runners, you can thrive on 2-3 sessions per week, with sessions including 2-4 lower-body exercises, some plyometrics, and maybe a few sprints. To be on the safe side, I’d add a couple core exercises, a couple eccentric exercises for your hammies and calves (e.g., Nordic curls and heel drops), and occasional hill sprints (nothing teaches your full range of muscle fibers to operate as an efficient unit better than hill sprints).
When should we schedule resistance training?
You’ll need 24-48 hours for your muscle fibers and connective tissue to repair following resistance training, and you’ll need 48-72 hours for your nervous system to recover. If you restrict your sessions to moderate intensity—in other words, you don’t train to exhaustion—you should be okay with about 48 hours.
Okay, so how do you absorb 2-3 resistance training workouts, each needing about two days of recovery, into a schedule that already includes 2-3 hard running workouts, each needing about two days of recovery? And so we’re clear: No, you can’t run an effective hard workout—repetitions, tempo, drills, a time trial, etc.—until that 48-hour recovery period post-resistance training has passed.
“I like to do my strength training on my hard running day, after the running workout,” says Mike Parkinson, a physical therapist, high school track coach, and former track star for UCLA. “I want to have full recovery before my next hard run. The run is the main thing, so I want to be fully rested for it.”
Parkinson’s approach is to overlap the recovery periods for his hard running days and resistance training workouts. If you choose this option, always run first. Otherwise, the resistance training will negatively impact your run.
For less-competitive runners, a coaching colleague of mine, Andy Rodemich, suggests a different approach to same-day training. “I do a class at the gym called The Combo,” he says. “You alternate running with doing kettlebells, resistance bands, dumbbells, things like that. You get the upbeat atmosphere of a class, and the instructor makes sure you get all the running and strength training for a hard workout.”
If combination workouts sound fun, keep in mind that you won’t get as potent a running workout. Repetition workouts require strictly enforced recovery intervals, and tempo runs require sustained running at increased intensity.
Personally, I limit myself to two resistance-training sessions per week. I follow a hard running workout on Monday (long intervals or tempo) with easy running and resistance training on Tuesday, then wait until Thursday for my next hard session— pairing running drills and plyometrics with short repetitions, hill repeats, or tempo. While the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday’s workouts isn’t optimal, it allows me to run harder on Monday and to schedule a third demanding run—my long run—on Saturday.
- Run first, resistance-train later: A 2014 study shows that running endurance is reduced post-resistance training.
- Recover: You improve during recovery, not training, so don’t shortchange recovery.
- Less is more: You only need 2-3 moderate-intensity sessions per week.
“Resistance training is checkmark work,” I said to my age-group record-holder friend. “It’s a multivitamin. Do it post-run, but only do enough to get the benefits you need.”
Resistance training will make you a better runner. But too much resistance training—or training done with too little recovery—can leave you a broken runner.
Have a question for Pete? Shoot us a note.
Pete Magill is a running coach, world-class runner, and author. As a coach, Magill has led his masters clubs to 19 USATF National Masters Championships in cross country and road racing and has worked with athletes of all ages and abilities. He holds multiple American and world age-group records and is a 5-time USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year. Magill is author of Fast 5K, SpeedRunner, Build Your Running Body, and The Born Again Runner.