runner lifting weights

There are two places where runners tend to display poor form: at the end of a marathon and in the weight room.

Most runners simply aren’t sure what to do around weights. And for good reason! Not many of us are lifters, and who likes flinging dumbbells around? Most runners would much rather crush single-track trails or enjoy some easy miles with our buddies.

Nevertheless, lifting weights is a critical piece of training for runners. In fact, I don’t even consider it cross-training—it’s simply part of the training that runners need to do.

The real key is knowing how to lift weights effectively. Runners are not bodybuilders and they are not lifting just for general health. Instead, they’re lifting for three main reasons:

  1. To get stronger
  2. To prevent injuries
  3. To race faster

When accomplishing these goals, runners need a different approach in the weight room than your typical boot camp class.

The Mistakes Runners Make in the Weight Room

Runners usually make a combination of three major mistakes when they start lifting weights.

The first is that they lift for endurance with a high number of repetitions (12+) and for more than three sets. The problem with this approach is that no new physical skill is being developed. Instead, runners are building their endurance, but they already do this with nearly every run!

The second mistake is lifting weights that are too light. Since our goals are to get strong, runners need to lift weight that feels heavy. If you can lift a weight for 3 sets of 12 repetitions, it’s too light.

Tony Gentilcore, a strength training coach who has worked with every type of athlete from elite baseball players to casual gym-goers, sees this mistake all the time.

“Many endurance athletes assume that training ‘heavy’ will slow them down; this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many other benefits to strength training than JUST muscle growth,” says Gentilcore.

“Improvements in inter- and intra-muscular coordination rank highly. What this means is that, with strength training, the muscles and nervous system learn to ‘communicate’ more efficiently, which then results in increased force production and output. In other words: you get faster.”

Finally, runners do not rest enough in between sets. Too often we try to make the workout “feel hard” by making it highly aerobic or metabolic. Since we’re runners, we want to breathe hard. But lifting for strength and speed requires adequate rest. Without it, runners won’t get as strong and will waste precious time lifting ineffectively.

How to Lift for Speed, Strength, and Injury Prevention

Now that we’ve covered the wrong way to lift, what’s the right way for runners?

Instead of lifting for endurance, we need to lift for strength. To do that, repetitions should be kept in the 6-10 range in three sets. This is a moderate volume—not too little, but not too much. It’s the right amount for adaptation without over-stressing the body.

With less volume than a program designed for endurance, runners can now lift heavier weights. The amount you lift will vary considerably based on your ability but the final few reps of the last set should be quite challenging.

And to properly recover from this heavier weight with lower volume, you’ll need more rest in between sets. Typically it takes about one to two minutes to replenish ATP (the energy source in the cells of your muscles) so you should wait at least a minute. Preferably rest should be 90-seconds to two entire minutes.

Gentilcore agrees, saying, “Whenever I work with endurance athletes, I almost always have to slow her down and force them to take breaks or rest intervals between sets. Appropriate rest times between sets assures optimal performance with each set and, more importantly, assures fatigue won’t affect technique and increase risk of injury.”

Lifting doesn’t have to be excessively complex or intimidating. But it does require an intelligent approach that prioritizes strength, heavy weight and adequate rest. Get those fundamental principles right, and that shiny new personal best will soon be within reach!