Pump it up - why distance runners should be strength training

PUMP IT UP: Why distance runners should be strength training

Despite a growing amount of research to support strength training for distance runners, the weights room still appears to be a no-go zone for a percentage of the running community.

In reality, there are many ways that strength training can assist runners in taking the next step in their performance.

Once inside the gym, focus on the weights, not your heart rate! Turning your gym session into a metabolic workout such as HIIT sweat session is a mistake. Runners already experience a lot of cardio, your focus inside a gym is to gain strength and power.

Maximal strength has been shown to improve performance for endurance athletes, including runners. There are a number of reasons to support this, several of which are discussed below:

Improved running economy

A sound running economy is one of the cornerstones of running performance. In a nutshell, this means using as little energy as possible with as much output as possible. Think about driving a car. If you are heavy on the accelerator you will use more fuel, but travel less distance before the tank is empty.

However, if you roll in and out of the throttle gently, you will use less fuel over a longer distance. One way to improve your economy is through strengthening.

The stronger a runner is, the more muscle and tendon (elastic energy) you have to work with, and the more work the musculoskeletal system can do with each step. This takes some pressure off the body’s energy systems, allowing you to bank this energy for later in the race. You are using less fuel for a longer period of time.

Increased power output

Just as economy is a cornerstone of performance, strength is a cornerstone of developing muscular power.

While power may not be so important in distance running at first glance, it can be helpful for race situations such as jostling for position early, closing gaps between yourself and another competitor, making a pass, and making a sprint to the finish line at the end. The stronger you are, the more capacity you have to develop your power to assist you in moments like these.

Reduced risk of injury

This is a simple yet important point. A strong, robust body has a reduced risk of injury.

The impact of running on the body can be softened if the body is supported by a strong musculoskeletal system.  Being injury-free will help you train, and compete, more effectively for longer periods of time.

Maintaining good form under fatigue

We know that late in a race or training session, fatigue can set in. For some people, this can derail technique. Two features of poor technique under fatigue are excessive rotation of the trunk, and losing coordination of your arms – both of which are crucial energy-wasters.

There are a number of effective strengthening exercises that can assist runners with their upper-body strength, which can in turn help provide some added control of technique in a state of fatigue.

Have you ever wondered what a Pro does?

Exercise Right spoke with Stewart McSweyn, a leading Australian distance running champion who has qualified for the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m to compete in the Olympic Games. We delved into his training and found out how he incorporates strength training to enhance his performance on the big stage.

How many times a week are you inside a gym improving strength?

Generally, I will do strength work in the gym twice a week. Additionally, I will try to incorporate a 3rd weekly session of either core work or Pilates. However, the days I do these can varying greatly depending on my university schedule and I often have to adapt these around university classes.

Do you believe runners wanting to improve their performance should start to build strength?

I definitely think that building and improving levels of strength can have a huge impact on improving a runner’s performance level.

A few areas that outline strength trainings importance are:

1. Strength training can be very important to help prevent and reduce the risk of injuries which can hinder a runner’s training consistency and therefore running performance.

2. Building strength can also have an important impact of improving running technique, especially when running under fatigue which can also improve runner’s performance.

3. Building strength can also help improve a runner’s running economy.

Any tips or advice for runners about starting a gym program or wanting to improve their strength?

1. Build up consistency within strength training, as you are adding in a new variable to your training make sure your you gradually build up your frequency and weight amounts to avoid overuse injuries from the strength training.

2. Allowing adequate rest period between strength and weight training to make sure you are recovering.

3. Be adaptable, it is often quite hard to find time to go to a gym for many runners so often you can find a way to get it done from home if going to the gym is not possible.


Follow Stewart’s running journey on Instagram – @stewy_mac3

What sort of strength training should I be doing?

An Accredited Exercise Professional  can assess your technique with a running assessment, and based on the findings, can provide you with a set of strengthening exercises that are specific to your needs.

Some basic recommendations include:

  • 2-3 strength sessions per week
  • Heavy resistance (rep ranges and specific exercises to be discussed with your local expert)
  • Explosive concentric (push/lift) phase
  • Slow, controlled eccentric (return) phase

To Wrap it Up:

  • Maximal strength training has an important place in a runner’s training plan
  • A stronger runner will conserve energy while their muscles take more of the load
  • Strength is a cornerstone of developing power
  • Strength training is effective at reducing your risk of injury
  • A strong upper-body will resist fatigue in the late stages of a race
  • Consult your accredited exercise expert for a running assessment and strength program

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We have partnered with Nike Australia Pty Ltd for this article series.

The views expressed in this article, unless otherwise cited, are exclusively those of the author, Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA). ESSA is the professional organisation committed to establishing, promoting and defending the career paths of tertiary trained exercise and sports science practitioners.

Nike had no role in the collection, analysis, or interpretation of data or research or the writing of this article.