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Ideal Strength Exercises For Gym Training Days

Many runners shun the weight room (we'd rather be outdoors!). If this is you, here's a beginner's guide to working on strength training in the gym.

Runners have a nearly endless supply of strength exercises, routines, workouts and classes to choose from. But how can they decide how best to get stronger as a runner?

Ideal strength training for runners has two main characteristics:

  • The focus is on multi-joint, compound movements (like squats). We’re not doing isolation exercises like bicep curls because we’re not body builders.
  • The goal is strength, power, and injury prevention (not endurance or hypertrophy).

For most runners, the biggest benefit they’ll experience from adding strength training to their program is injury prevention. They’ll be able to tolerate higher mileage levels, more challenging workouts, and longer long runs.

And more training almost always results in faster, stronger, more capable runners. That’s because with stronger connective tissues, muscles, and more resilience to fatigue (and the inevitable break-down in form that comes with it), runners are much more effective at mitigating the impact forces of running.

But alas, runners are not necessarily experts at strength training. In fact, most of us shun the weight room and would rather be running outside than picking up a barbell. There can be questions about how best to start strength training, which exercises are ideal, and how to plan them into your training. And we’re here to help.

Step 1: Bodyweight Strength Exercises

If you’re brand new to strength training, you shouldn’t jump into a difficult weightlifting workout in the gym with heavy plates. It’s best to get comfortable with bodyweight exercises to establish some competence and strength first.

For runners, ideal bodyweight strength exercises include:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Single-leg deadlifts
  • Push-ups
  • Planks
  • Bridges

These are all simple, basic movements that all runners should be able to do provided an existing injury isn’t limiting what the athlete is capable of doing during training. Bodyweight exercises such as these also have an added benefit: there are nearly unlimited variations of them to keep things fun and interesting. For example, a runner could implement a whole variety of squats to improve strength in different ways, improve athleticism, and prevent strength gains from stagnating.

Bodyweight exercises are not incredibly demanding, so a 10-20 minute strength routine can be completed after most runs during the week. The workout will act as a cool down in addition to helping the runner get stronger.

But while bodyweight exercises are good, weighted exercises are better. And an ideal strength training program for runners will include a healthy mix of both for best results.

Step 2: Weightlifting

After a runner has gotten comfortable performing several bodyweight strength training workouts per week, the next step is layering more formal weightlifting workouts into the program.

Bodyweight exercises can be done after every run, but more traditional lifting in a gym should be done about twice per week after running. Since you’re lifting heavier weight (rather than your own body weight), you’ll need to take more recovery in between exercises. That’s why gym workouts typically take longer than bodyweight sessions at home.

Ideal weightlifting exercises include:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Presses
  • Power Clean
  • Snatch
  • Clean and Jerk

You’ll notice that several of these exercises are the same as the bodyweight exercises. That’s because these movements are fundamental and should also be used with weight in the gym. But some of these exercises are very different. They’re Olympic lifts, also called power lifts.

Exercises like the power clean are more closely tied to speed because they’re explosive, requiring the recruitment of more muscle fibers to accomplish the lift. They build power, speed and explosivity that directly help you sprint faster.

They also make your running form more economical by programming your central nervous system to more efficiently coordinate which muscle groups to fire and which to relax. This intra-muscular coordination helps you have a smoother stride.

And much like the running portion of your training, strength work should also be progressive and periodized. Progressive training means that it changes, or progresses, over time. It starts at a level that’s appropriate for you and moves closer to where you’d like to be (faster, stronger, smoother, etc.).

Periodized training means that its focus changes over time as well. At the beginning of a lifting program, the goal is general strength and injury prevention. But at the end of a lifting program, when the goal race is approaching, the focus shifts to power, speed and coordination.

How to Plan Strength Training

For most runners, two days in the gym with a 45 to 60-minute structured weightlifting workout is ideal. Since these workouts are more challenging than bodyweight routines, they should be scheduled on your harder running days like a faster workout and long run.

This helps make your easy days easier, but your hard days harder. On the other running days throughout the week, a bodyweight routine that focuses on runner-specific movements (targeting the hips, glutes, quads and hamstrings) is sufficient. These workouts can be substantially shorter at 10-30 minutes.

If you’re particularly prone to injuries, are just starting to run (and therefore, need to establish good training habits), or have hit a performance plateau and want to reach that next level of racing, strength training is a great option to help you reach your goals.