About three years ago I was doing a long trail run with friends. Among the group was our friend, Jeannette, an elite 2:32 marathoner who went on to compete in the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon. At the time, I was running 30-35 miles a week and was plagued with horrible knee pain. Jeanette was running 80-100 miles a week and was running healthy. Trying to find answers to healthier running, I asked Jeanette, “What are you doing to run healthy at 80-100 miles a week?” She replied, “Well, I don’t really stretch….and I don’t roll….and I don’t strength train…” (To be fair, she did say she was doing a core routine she’d learned from her college coach.) This post is not for the Jeannettes out there. It’s for the rest of us.
Since that run with Jeanette, I’ve learned and re-learned how critical strength training is to helping me train consistently, run pain-free, develop my speed, come back after a break.
For me, strength training is essential to healthy, pain-free running. I experienced varying levels of knee pain for my first 18 years of running until I began regularly doing side-plank leg lifts. However, throughout those 18 running years, when I completed my strength routine twice a week (see my routine below), my knees felt so much better. When I got lax about lifting, especially when I was doing speed workouts, about 2-4 weeks later some kind of injury would start creeping up, whether in my knees, hips, or hamstrings.
Strength training also made my legs feel stronger and more comfortable in speed workouts and recovery runs. My legs didn’t have to hurt when I ran! Runs felt more comfortable overall.
I believe strength training keeps runners healthy because it strengthens and activates our core and glute muscles. Strong core and glute muscles stabilize us throughout the running motion. When those key muscles are weak or inactivated, a foot, knee, Achilles, hip, etc. tries to stabilize us rather than the glutes/core, leading to overuse injuries. Even when I’m doing an upper body exercise like incline dumbbell press or push-ups, I feel my core and pelvic floor activating and stabilizing, a pattern that is so critical to proper running form and injury prevention.
Develop your speed
Honestly, I’m not a relatively fast runner. The 400 and 800 have never been my signature events. However, one winter in high school I started lifting at the gym twice a week. When I came back to track workouts and races in the spring, I was surprised to find I had a new-found kick! I find that consistent strength training makes my legs feel more explosive when I want to run fast.
Come back after a break
Fast forward to a period in my post-collegiate days. I remember coming back to track after 6-8 weeks off from speed workouts, including about three weeks of no running. Throughout my time off, I was diligent about doing body weight leg lunges and body squats most nights of the week. At my first track workout back, I was able to run a 76-second 400 at the end of workout. I was singing the praises of lifting.
My friend, Jess, has had to take five to seven months off from running two years in a row due to injuries (which stemmed from problems with her orthotics). During her months off, she did regular strength training but didn’t spend much time doing cardio cross-training. Both times, she’s come back to running in incredible shape and returned to her regular running level quite quickly, even setting a PR in the half marathon after a few months of consistent training. She largely credits strength training’s role in allowing her to return to healthy and fast running.
A few weeks ago I took my kids to see The Reptile Man at our local library. He brought in all kinds of snakes, lizards, and iguanas to show the kids, even a tortoise and an alligator. The Reptile Man draped the snakes around the kids’ necks and let them hold several of the reptiles. When one child was trying to hold an especially large and squirmy iguana, the Reptile Man taught the child to support the lizard beneath the neck and the base of the tail. When the lizard was properly supported, it relaxed and held still. I almost immediately saw the connection between this squirmy iguana and my body. When my body is properly strong and supported, I run much more relaxed.
One more analogy. Think of a person holding too much weight in the gym. Their body tenses and shakes, right? But the stronger the person, the more relaxed they look and feel lifting the weight. Same with running form. When I’m strong from strength and speed training, I look and feel much more relaxed in my training runs and speed workouts.
Improve how your body looks
As a side benefit, strength training provides nice shape and structure to people’s bodies. People who incorporate strength training often look lean and fit. Muscles just look nice.
Usually I do the same lifting routine our athletic trainers developed for my college cross country team. I know die-hard strength coaches will tell you to switch up your strength routine regularly, but this routine just works for me. It keeps me healthy and looking the way I want to look. Ideally, I do the following routine twice a week, but at least once. I do two sets of 15-20 reps of each exercise, alternating exercises so I don’t have to take much rest between sets.
- Incline dumbbell press
- Hammer curls
- Leg abduction machine
- Leg adduction machine
- Leg extensions – jus the top 30-45 degrees of motion to avoid knee pain
- Leg curls
- Tricep push-down
- Lat pull-down
- Leg press
- Speed skater
I can get through the whole routine in under 30 minutes.
If you’re not familiar with strength training, have a physical therapist, trainer, or strength coach develop a good routine for you and teach you proper form. Proper form is key to avoid getting hurt and to developing symmetrical strength. I’m pretty wary of trying a new exercise without getting instruction and assessment to make sure I’m doing it right.
In addition to lifting in the gym once or twice a week, I do side plank leg lifts most nights of the week (two sets on each side, 15 reps each). This exercise is so key for me. If I stop doing side plank leg lifts even when I’m doing other forms of strength, I tend to get hurt.) In addition to side plank leg lifts, I usually do one to three other glute/core exercises at night, like little single leg squats (I’m still trying to get this one down), bridge, body squats, lunges, or clam shells.
Find the routine that works for your life, your schedule, and your body. Find what keeps you healthy.
Please note, you do not have to join a gym to do strength training. There are so many exercises you can do with body weight and inexpensive dumbbells at home.
Let’s be honest, when I increase my training load and get tired, strength training is often the first thing to go. However, I’ve learned (and re-learned) that when I skimp on strength training, two to three weeks later something bad will happen (wonky running form, tight hamstring, knee pain). Running slightly lower miles and fitting in strength training has a higher payoff for me than running a few extra miles and skipping strength.
Strength training is so important to healthy, fast, relaxed running. Try it out! Share your experiences with strength training below.