Long distance female runner

Strength Training For Distance Runners

In the late 1980s the coach of a high school women’s cross-country and track team agreed to bring his runners to our Nautilus facility during the off-seasons for supervised strength exercise. They trained three days per week, performing one set of 12 different exercises that addressed all of their major muscle groups. This well-disciplined group of about 25 women moved quickly between the machines and completed the strength training circuit in about 25 minutes.

I would like to say that the strength exercise was responsible for the four consecutive New England cross-country championships won by George Rose’s harriers. I cannot draw that conclusion, but I can certainly state that the strength training did not hurt. In fact, I believe that the strength training was effective for preventing a lot of hurts normally experienced by distance runners. During the four years they did the strength exercises, the cross-country runners had only one injury. There were no shin splints, stress fractures, knee problems or hip injuries, so common among women distance runners. The one injury was a broken ankle that occurred when a runner stepped in a hole on a poorly groomed course.

The point of this true story is that strength exercise may not directly improve running ability, but it may greatly reduce injury potential thereby enabling athletes to run more consistently. In fact, we observed similar results with two other cross-country and track teams in the years following.

Unfortunately as the coaches moved on, these successful strength training programs were largely discontinued. Sad to say, many distance coaches and runners have the mistaken impression that strength exercise is counter-productive for better running. When questioned further, many indicate that strength training will increase bodyweight, decrease flexibility and interfere with running form.

Fortunately, most successful distance runners have ectomorphic physiques that resist gains in bodyweight. The two to four pounds of muscle that may be added through strength training is like putting more cylinders in your automobile engine. That is, the overall weight gain is minor, but the greater power output is highly desirable.

With respect to joint flexibility, no studies have shown sensible strength training to decrease range of motion, and several have demonstrated significant improvements in movement parameters. This is especially true when you combine strength training with stretching exercises. For example, in one of our research studies with adult athletes, a combined strengthening and stretching program resulted in a four-pound muscle gain, a three-pound fat loss, a 56 percent increase in muscle strength, and a 24 percent increase in joint flexibility 1. By the way, the subjects’ movement speed in the selected performance skill increased by six percent.

But what about running form? Just look at sprinters and shorter distance runners. Most of these athletes strength train regularly and their times keep getting faster and faster. Running speed is the interaction of stride length and stride rate, and strength training appears to be advantageous for both of these abilities.

During the latter stages of a race when your leg muscles are fatigued and your arm action keeps you moving, the benefits of more upper body strength may be better appreciated. Another aspect of cross-country and road running where greater strength makes a difference is hills, both up and down. Obviously, stronger muscles provide more power for running up inclines. Just as important, they also offer better shock absorption, and therefore more injury protection, when running down declines.

With all the benefits that strength exercise can offer, why do so few distance runners include this activity in their conditioning program? Primarily because the typical strength training workout is just as aversive to distance runners as the typical distance running workout is to weight lifters. Distance runners do not need a two-hour strength workout to improve their muscular fitness anymore than bodybuilders need a two-hour run to improve their cardiovascular fitness. However, in our experience, competitive distance runners and triathletes obtain excellent results from relatively brief strength training sessions.

Referring once again to the physiological and morphological changes during pregnancy, there are reasons that limit the ability as well as the desire to exercise at an intense level during pregnancy. Non-weight-bearing activities have proven to be successful alternatives for maintaining a high – intensity , moderate – duration regimen of exercise training throughout the third trimester 5. However, pregnancy itself is a weight-bearing activity that increases in intensity for 9 months.

Recommended Strength Training Program

First, our research with over 1100 adults shows that two strength training sessions per week is about 85 percent as productive as three strength training sessions per week 2. I therefore suggest that you begin with just two strength workouts per week, on days when you do easy to moderate effort training runs.

Second, since single set strength training seems to be as effective as multiple set workouts, I recommend just one good set of each exercise3. This greatly reduces the exercise time as well as the risk of overtraining problems.

Third, because successful distance runners typically have higher muscle endurance (due to a greater percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers), they generally attain better results by strength training in higher repetition ranges. Whereas power athletes thrive on four to eight repetitions per set, endurance athletes are better served with 12 to 16 repetitions per set 4. In my opinion, using the proper repetition range may be the single most important training factor for successful strength exercise experiences.

My fourth recommendation for distance runners is movement control, which is best exemplified by moderate to slow speed repetitions. Fast weight training movements involve momentum which reduces strength development and increases injury potential. A safe, effective, and time-tested training speed is six seconds for each repetition, or about one minute for a set of 10 repetitions 5. Each lifting movement should be performed in about two seconds, and each lowering movement should be performed in about four seconds. By slowing down the otherwise easier lowering movement, both phases of each repetition become productive for building strength. Keep in mind that one set of exercise performed at six-seconds per repetition requires as much muscle tension as three sets of exercise performed at a more typical two seconds per repetition.

Finally, the key to building musculoskeletal strength is progressively increasing the training resistance. This is what makes free weights and machines superior to bodyweight exercises. Whenever you can complete 16 properly performed repetitions of an exercise, increase the resistance by about five percent for continued progress.

Generally speaking, you should see about a 40 to 50 percent increase in your exercise weightloads after eight to 10 weeks of regular strength training. Although some of the initial strength gain is due to motor learning factors, you should notice a significant improvement in muscle function during your training runs. You should also be much more resistant to typical running injuries.

The following chart presents 12 major muscle groups of the body, and my recommended Nautilus or free-weight strength building exercises. This is a fairly comprehensive program of basic exercises designed for overall muscle conditioning. Try to make every repetition as productive as possible by using slow movement speed and full movement range.

Recommended Strength Exercises For Runners

Quadraceps Leg Extentsions Squat
Hamstrings Leg Curl Squat
Gluteals Hip Extension Squat
Pectoralis Major Double Chest Bench Press
Latissimus Dorsi Super Pullover Bent Rowing
Deltoids Lateral Raise Lateral Raise
Biceps Biceps Curl Biceps Curl
(EZ Bar/Dumbell)
Triceps Triceps Extension Triceps Extension
(EZ Bar/Dumbell)
Spinal Erectors Low Back Back Extersion
Body Weight
Abdominals Abdominal Tunk Curl
Body Weight
Upper Trapezius Neck and Shoulder Shrug
Neck Flexors/Extensors Four-Way Neck ————-


1. Westcott, W., Dolan, F., and Cavicchi, T. 1996. Golf and strength training are compatible activities. Strength and Conditioning, 18:4, 54-56.

2. Westcott, W. and Guy, J. 1996. A physical evolution. IDEA Today, 14:9, 58-65.

3. Starkey, D., Pollock, M., Ishida, Y., et al. 1996. Effect of resistance training
volume on strength and muscle thickness. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 28:10, 1311-1320.

4. Westcott, W. 1993. How many repetitions? Nautilus. 2:3, 6-7.

5. Westcott, W. 1995. Strength Fitness:Physiological Principles and Training Techniques. Dubuque, Iowa: Brown and Benchmark Publishers.

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021