Will lifting weights help my running?
by on Thursday, August 22, 2013  (6 comments)

Note: This is something I wrote over a decade ago. My positions have evolved quite a bit since I originally wrote this. I'm going to write a follow-up that I hope to be able to post in the near future. However, as the articles section of this site will be going away eventually and I want to preserve the evolution of my thoughts, I'm going to maintain this as is.

This is a very popular question. Read running magazines and you will think the answer is obvious. Well, do a little more research and the answer becomes much more fuzzy.

The first research I suggest doing for any questions of training is to look at what the elite runners do. These are the people who have gotten the most out of their training. They have figured out what is worth their time and energy and what isn't. So, what do the elite runners do? Well, very few elite runners who focus on events of 5k and up go anywhere near weight rooms. That doesn't mean they don't do strength training, though. The most popular form of strength training for elites is running hills. Repeats, circuits, easy and long runs over hills, fartleks, you name it. The bottom line is that they spend a lot of time running up and down. That's not all they do, though. Core strengthening is something that almost all of them do. Abdominal training is done by many elites. Circuit training is also popular with some, as well as body weight exercises, like pushups, pullups, step-ups, one-leg squats or lunges, one-leg hops or toe raises. Some, although they are a distinct minority, especially as their goal distance becomes longer, also lift weights.

Another form of research that I like to look through would be scientific studies. So, what do they say? Well, not a whole lot for lifting weights for distance runners. Studies have shown that lifting weights is most likely beneficial for racing distances that take less than 10 minutes to complete. What about the longer distances? Well, things change sharply. In fact, I have seen only one study that showed lifting weights is beneficial for "well trained" athletes and I found that study to be questionable. That study also said it is beneficial for the 5k but findings were inconclusive once the race distance was over 20 minutes. I have yet to see one study that found weight training to be beneficial for anything longer than that. What about athletes who are not "well trained"? Well, studies have shown that adding weight lifting on top of their current training routine does help improve performance, which makes sense. You are increasing training load. Regardless of what that training is, increasing training load will increase fitness. But there's a catch. Using that increased training load to do more running instead of lifting weights leads to much more significant performance improvements. In the end, almost all studies have found that lifting weights has no statistically significant positive effect on racing performance in events of longer than 10 minutes and some suggest that there may be a negative effect on performance. What about other forms of strength training? Well, studies have shown that running hills is one of the most beneficial forms of training that a runner can do. Circuit training, core training, and body weight exercises haven't been studied enough to offer any quality assessments.

Of course, there is one variable that I have purposely left out so far. Many people believe lifting weights is good for injury prevention. While this sounds great, for the typical biomechanically sound runner, there is simply no evidence supporting these claims. In fact, in an unscientific study of one, my injury rates have been higher when lifting weights (under the supervision of trainers and strength and conditioning coaches) than when not lifting weights. On the other hand, if you have a biomechanical inefficiency, lifting weights may make sense to correct any imbalances.

In the end, there is not a whole lot of evidence supporting the use of weight training for performance benefit. This doesn't mean it's not worth a shot. Experiment, we are all studies of one. However, as I always say, why assume you are in the minority when chances are you are in the majority? If weight training isn't working for you, move on and find something that would make better use of your limited training time and energy. If you have to decide between a few extra miles on the roads or hitting the weight room, by all means, run a few extra miles. That is where you are going to get the best performance benefit.

In closing, I would like to offer a link to a Peak Performance Online article about strength training. I have been using the exercises mentioned in this article since my college days and find them to be much more beneficial than anything I could do in the weight room.

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IvanMurat (Guest):

Hi, what is your opinion on Alberto Salazar's claim that lifting weights is really important to long distance runners? Lika Mo Farah squating 200lbs?


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Hello Ivan, that's a very good question. As I have mentioned, I wrote this a long time ago and my views have evolved. However, I think it's important to consider the differences between Mo Farah and the other athletes Salazar coaches and the average runner.

I do believe there are likely benefits to weight training. I don't believe they are big but, for runners like Farah and Galen Rupp, every incremental benefit matters. Also, for runners like them who get to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week trying to maximize their fitness and speed, spending extra time looking for those incremental benefits makes sense.

For the average runner, though, I still question the benefits of hitting the weight room. I think there is some benefit but what amount of time and energy do we have available? Could that time and energy spent going to a weight room be better used in other ways?

I strongly believe nearly every runner could benefit from strength training but I think, for the average runner with a full time job and a family, you're better off doing exercises you can do right in your living room. Also, for all runners, it's better to be able to handle your own body weight before worrying about adding external resistance. Most runners need to build up in order to effectively and safely be able to handle their own body weight. That leads me to body weight exercises.

A good strength training program for the typical runner can be accomplished right in your living room with nothing but your own body weight for resistance and maybe a step stool and/or chair for equipment. It shouldn't need to take more than 30 minutes, 3 days a week, and could likely take even less time.

No, this may not be the best of the best strength workouts but, just as you or I would not be advised to copy a speed workout that Mo Farah completes, I don't think you or I would be advised to copy a strength workout of his. We can get ideas but we also need to keep in mind that we are different people living different lives.

Sure, you can spend time in the weight room like Farah and get some incremental benefits. However, I would argue that most runners with limited time and energy to devote to training would be better served spending more time running and doing body weight exercises such as lunges, planks and heel raises as their strength training routine.

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IvanMurat (Guest):

I asked this question since I started lifting weights a month or two ago. I am not a slow, or a fast runner, at my peak fitness, I can do about 16:30 for 5k. For this time of the year (and my current, winter weight :) ), I would be perfectly happy with 17:20-17:30 5k race, but I did one last Sunday and it turned out 16:49 with really balanced racing (4 laps of 1250m, all in 3 sec difference). I do a lot of base training, I did only few faster workouts (long fartleks) and I have nothing but weight lifting to "accredit" for this result. I do deadlifts with 90lbs, squats and lunges with 45lbs. 3x15 each. I also do plank and side plank 3x1min each. I am currently a little bit under 150 lbs, with my perferct racing weight at around 135-137 lbs.

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First, congratulations on the result! That's a very impressive early season result.

Were you doing any kind of strength training previously? If not, I wouldn't be surprised by the result. You added a new stimulus.

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IvanMurat (Guest):

Thanks! Not for a year or so. I did a lot of hills last summer (short repeats, 30min tempo, long runs) but not for a few months now. Since I am aiming for some mountain races this year, that was the biggest motivation to add weight training. I hope I'll be better at running uphill with the drill I wrote.

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Sorry, the last one was kind of short. Expanding a bit.

If you're doing 3x15 lunges and squats with 45 pounds, plus 3x15 deadlifts with 90 pounds, I would have assumed you were doing something previously. That's a lot to do just starting. Most runners I've seen, myself included to be perfectly honest, have trouble managing their body weight. To paraphrase Vern Gambetta, you need to be able to handle your own body weight before adding external resistance.

If you can handle your own body weight and it is no longer a challenge and if you have time and energy to spare that can't be directed toward more running volume or quality for some reason (such as you're an elite and you've already maxed that out - Farah for example) then it makes perfect sense to add in external resistance in the form of weights. For most runners, though, handling their own body weight is a challenge and their time and energy are limited to the point it cuts into their running itself. For these runners, taking time and energy away from their running to hit the weight room would be counterproductive. This is where I believe body weight exercises are more productive. You can do them quickly in your own home and cut into the rest of your training much less than going to the gym to use weights.

Does that make sense?

For what it's worth, I didn't address the planks because those are body weight exercises I do strongly recommend to nearly all runners.

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