Strength Training Program for Endurance Runners

women holding weight plate

Evan Stevens

Endurance athletes have a tendency to ditch the weights for added miles. Sure, added miles means more endurance; the longer your race, the more time on your feet you will want to log. Yet strength training is an integral part of any distance program. It is something that I’ve seen a lot of programs put aside for more traditional volume training. Even as a middle distance athlete, I rarely went into the weight room while running varsity. Thinking back on it now, this was an odd move, but it was just something our coach didn’t really discuss with us. It wasn’t until I explored a bit on my own and started doing some real work in the weight room that I saw my performances improve, and more importantly, my injury rate drop drastically.

As we increase the mileage, we typically increase the risk or number of injuries we experience. More time on our feet means more strain for us to deal with. Strength training’s biggest benefit for distance athletes is not only to improve power, but to help prevent injuries. Repeated pounding can lead to stress syndromes, runner’s knee, shin splints, and various foot problems. Maintaining a strength program readily helps prevent a lot of these injuries by making us efficient, improving body position and awareness under load, and keeps us strong through a bout of exercise.

Related Article: How To Treat 7 Common Running Injuries

Benefits of Weight Sessions

  • Allow you to switch gears and sprint faster for a finishing kick.
  • Maintain proper running form and posture for the greatest efficiency; prevent side to side motion of trunk.
  • Improved range of motion.
  • Correct muscle imbalances created from running with poor form over the miles and years.
  • Increased ability to resisted eccentric forces from ground at during each stride.

Weight and strength session have an abundance of benefits to distance runners, but is still something looked at with skepticism by many because of certain myths that are floating around out there. Here are a few common ones:

Myth 1: I will get too bulky.

The most common concern with most distance athletes (especially female distance athletes) is that they will get too bulky. Part of this may be superficial looks, but for the most part a lot of distance athletes don’t want to carry the excess weight of large muscles through some of their longer races nor should they. In a sport where the competitive edge can be given to people who can easily attain their ideal “race weight,” being slim and fast is important. However, bulk and power are different. Bulk is big, power is strong. You can be strong but not be bulky. To get really bulky, you need to eat. And eat. And eat some more. Bulk is determined by amount you put in your body (protein specifically for muscle synthesis), where strength is dictated more by what you put in your body and how you recover.

Most elite runners have an ectomorphic physique (slim and thin), determined by genetics and are naturally resistant to “bulk” and significant weight gains. Think of weight training in runners as adding more horsepower to a car; the car remains the same on the outside, but the engine is just that much more powerful.

One final comment on adding bulk is that you actually want broader shoulders. Rounded, slanted  shoulders cause your chest and rib cage to fall together, squeezing off your lungs. Stronger, broader shoulders open the chest up more to allow better air flow.

Related Article: Strength Training Can Improve Chronic Plantar Fasciitis 

Myth 2: Short Rest

Some distance athletes think that they need to do short rests between bouts, similar to their running workouts. Your weight session is not an additional aerobic session. If you are training and running regularly, you are getting enough aerobic work. By doing lower weights for longer, with less time to recover between each bout, you are going into an aerobic zone, which you usually already trained that day or the day before. The goal of resting between bouts of exercise is to allow ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to recover. ATP is the major source of energy within the body and is very important to proper lifting and strength gains, specifically neural recovery, which promotes proper muscle recruitment and movement during powerful lifts. Take more time, allow your ATP to recover, and lift higher weight for fewer reps.

Brief periods of rest between 30 and 60 seconds are into that aerobic zone, which we want to stay out of during our strength sessions. The goal shouldn’t be achieving continuous, high heart rate, it should be about recovering and getting strong. Don’t waste your time doing exercise and training systems which would be better done on your run outside.

Related Article: Active Vs Passive Rest For HIIT Recovery

Myth 3: High Reps, Low Weights

This myth has been told to me by every distance coach I ever had. It is something that seems so ingrained in the minds of all aerobic athletes everywhere but as we discussed in the previous myths, it makes no sense. You will not bulk up due to the nutritional needs required to do so as well as your genetic body type and you don’t want to do lots of reps continuously as you get into an aerobic training zone that you don’t need to be in because your running component covers that perfectly.

General guidelines may have you believe that doing high reps (15-20) with 30-60 seconds rest is what an endurance athlete should do, but if we want to get strong we want to aim for 6-10 with about 2-3 minutes rest between sets to build the most amount of strength.

Build a Base

Myths out of the way, how do we get started? First thing is to not overdo it. Start with lower reps and focus of form. Form is imperative, especially when you are lifting weights because it is all about neural feedback. You want to be in the correct position for your movements so you create the correct neural muscular connection.

Second, your frequency should be dictated by how often you run. If you run four or five days a week, weight sessions only need to be done twice a week on off days. If you are an elite go-getter, you may need to fit your weights in before or after an off-day run. If you run less, let’s say three times a week, you can add some more strength sessions in.

If your runs are divided into different energy system work and stimuli, you will need to adjust. For instance, you don’t want to do weights on the same day as your hill workout as they are strength and power type workouts. Same should be said for interval work, where it is more power and more anaerobic in nature, developing speed and power. Weight sessions should be held either between a long run and easy/recovery session or after your interval sessions on your recovery days.

Third, free weights are always going to provide a better stimulus than machines. Free weights require balance and finer movements where machines are rigid and direct force through a single guided direction. They are simply unable to provide the same kind of neuromuscular and skeletomuscular feedback that free weights can.

Lastly, distance runners, just like sprinters, should be focusing on explosive power in the gym when lifting. This relates back to the myths about low weight and high reps but ideally we want to focus on explosive contractions and slow releases. For example, if we were to do a squat we want to explode up as fast as we can, but go down on a four-second count, not just drop immediately back down. This helps to create more power, exactly the reason we are in the weight room in the first place. Explosive movements fire the muscles and recruit more neural muscular connections all at once, reinforcing the desired movement (kicking at the end of a race, making a move along the back stretch, surging up a hill, etc).

Related Article: HIIT Hill Workouts For Runners

The Program

We work on training the core muscles. Most will tell you that “core” refers to the abdominal muscles (the classic six-pack) but we need to start shifting our mind set to think of core as all inclusive to the major muscles involved in running economy, including the upper body. Fatigue will always set in if you are pushing yourself hard enough. Once that happens, our form starts to go and our overall performance suffers as we lose more and more energy to poor running economy. By having a strong core muscle group, we can maintain our form longer and with improved economy leading to stronger performances. The key is that these muscles work in tandem; one strong muscle cannot support a whole system regardless of just how strong it is.

Related Video: Core Workout For Runners

We break the training into phases. We start slow, with maybe one set of 20 reps of each exercise in our beginners section. We drop the weight and focus on form and building. While this seems like playing right into myth number 3 with high reps, low weight, we still need to build a base. We start here, and then over the course of 12 to 20 weeks we add more weight, drop the reps, and increase our rest. Then once we’ve mastered our beginner’s program, we start to go into an intermediate and advanced program. It will all end up looking like this:

The Ever Changing Science of Strength – An Update

While developing this article, a lot of the data used has been around for a while. The knowledge that to build strength and power, we had to work at higher weights was a forgone conclusion. The myths discussed still kick around in athletic circles but had been thoroughly debunked for the better part of a decade or more.

However, as with all science-related topics, new research becomes available, more precise and better meta-analyses are done and become available, sometimes our perceptions shift and our core knowledge base gets a little rattle (or thrown out entirely). A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of strength and muscle hypertrophy in the Journal of Strength and Hypertrophy conducted a broad meta-analysis looking at adaptations in the muscle in response to high and low load resistance training. The paper ended up including 21 studies which looked at both low and high load training (low being under 60% one-rep max (1RM) and high being above 60% 1RM), all sets performed to failure, were able to estimate muscle mass differences between dynamic, isometric, and isokinetic movement, the training protocols lasted at least 6 weeks, and the participants had no known medical conditions or injuries which would alter their training outcomes.

What the researchers found was that muscles grew at the same rate regardless of what load you were training at. That is to say, muscle hypertrophy wasn’t significantly different whether you were training at high weight and low reps or low weight and high reps. What the analysis did show was that if you want to get stronger you need to lift more weight. Strength gains are directly proportional to the amount of weight you lift.


So what does this mean and what does this change? Well, what this changes isn’t much. It goes along with all our myths we’ve covered in this paper and validates the training paradigm, that distance runners who want to get stronger, faster, should be doing less reps at a higher weight. This also confirms that you will not get ‘”too big” if you lift heavy weights. However, if you do want to get big you don’t have to lift heavy weight; hypertrophy happens regardless of much or how little you lift. If you want superficial muscle, you can just eat a lot and do lighter weights at higher reps, because the key to putting on muscle mass is the amount you eat – protein (specifically leucine). If you want to get stronger however, you need to start putting in some time in the weight room and lifting a little heavier weight.

Related Article: Ultimate Recovery Tool: Recoup Fitness Cold Roller

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Bazyler, C., Abbott, H., Bellon, C., Taber, C. and Stone, M. (2015). Strength Training for Endurance Athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 37(2), pp.1-12.

Beattie, K., Kenny, I., Lyons, M. and Carson, B. (2014). The Effect of Strength Training on Performance in Endurance Athletes. Sports Medicine, 44(6), pp.845-865.

Schoenfeld, B., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D. and Krieger, J. (2017). Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(12), pp.3508-3523.

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