Coaching

Give Your Runs Some Muscle

Want to make every outing feel easier? (Rhetorical question, we know.) Make room for strength-training in your routine...

Last updated: June 1, 2021
A Strength Routine For Runners

Most diehard runners prefer to spend their time on the road, not at the bottom of a squat or with a dumbbell pressed overhead. We get it. If you love your sport, you want to do your sport. Plus, to get better at running, you’ve obviously gotta run. 

But running experts say strength training can actually improve your running, helping you get speedier, go longer and better your form.

The stronger you are, the easier it is to carry your body weight over any distance, and the more resistant you’ll be to fatigue along the way.

Janet Hamilton
Owner of Running Strong

Strength Training Can Help Fight Fatigue

It’s pretty simple: The stronger you are, the easier it is to carry your body weight over any distance, and the more resistant you’ll be to fatigue along the way, says strength and conditioning coach Janet Hamilton, the owner of coaching company Running Strong in Atlanta.

Dig into the physiology of running and strength training (slightly more complex stuff), and you’ll understand why. Any low-intensity, endurance-based activity — ahem, running — helps build type I, or “slow-twitch,” muscle fibers. These fibers can fire repeatedly before burning out, helping you churn through a long run at a steady speed.

Your other group of muscle fibers, type II, or “fast-twitch,” fuel quick, explosive, all-out bouts — say, treadmill sprints or racing to the finish line. You can build those with speed and hill work, and on long runs by continuing past the point when you start to get tired, says Hamilton.

The beauty of strength training is that it’s crazy efficient. It can develop type I and type II muscle fibers at once, so you can tap into each whenever you need to.

Strength Training Can Save You Energy

ICYDK, strong muscles can actually help you speed up and dial in your running form. Proof: In a review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, runners who performed a strength-training program two to three times a week for eight to 12 weeks showed significant improvements in running economy, or how efficiently they ran. And endurance performance and VO2 max, a marker of aerobic fitness, also improved after strength training in a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. 

What’s more, says Coach Bennett, if you have stronger muscles, hard runs simply won’t feel as hard. And who doesn’t want that?

Strength Training Can Help Ward Off Injury

Building total-body strength helps prepare you for the balancing act that running demands. It is, after all, technically a unilateral movement (you’re on one leg at a time), says Hamilton. Having more durable muscles and dependable stability can help lower your risk of injury, as your joints won’t take on as much stress from all the impact of running, says Coach Bennett.

A Strength Workout to Try Today

Sold on the perks of resistance training? Thought so. Now here’s your plan for reaping them.

These 10 exercises collectively cover nearly every major muscle group, just like running does. Many of them also work just one arm or leg at a time (again, just like running does!). They also require you to move in multiple planes, improve your core endurance, and focus on your hips, glutes and legs, including the muscles that help increase your force production. All of this adds up to you becoming a better runner — and more physically resilient overall.

Do all 10 of these twice a week on nonconsecutive days, doing two or three sets of each. Short on time? No sweat, just squeeze in five or six moves, or do one set of all 10. As far as reps go, do each exercise until the muscles you’re targeting are fatigued (you’ll know you’re there when you can no longer hold good form), whether that means you hit 5 reps or 20. Take a 30- to 60-second break between exercises, and a couple of minutes of rest between rounds. This way, you’re recovered enough to use heavier weights, and the workout doesn’t turn into another cardio routine (wink).

1. Plank

Muscles worked: Shoulders, upper back, chest, rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, glutes, quads, calves

Hold the top of a push-up, shoulders stacked over wrists; back flat (no sagging or hiking up your hips); and abs, thighs and butt engaged. Gaze a few inches in front of your hands. Hold for as long as you can. That’s 1 rep. Repeat.

Make it easier: Drop to your forearms, stacking your shoulders over your elbows.

Make it harder: Lift one leg, or try balancing on one hand (you may need to walk your feet wider to stay stable). 

2. Squat

Muscles worked: Glutes, quads, hamstrings

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes slightly turned out, arms by your sides, to start. Push your hips back and bend your knees wide to lower into a squat until your hip crease is below your knees. Push through your feet to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat.

Make it easier: Widen your stance and/or lower your hips only a quarter of the way.

Make it harder: Hold a dumbbell in each hand racked at the top of your shoulders (this will also work your rectus abdominis).

3. Lateral Box Push-Ups

Muscles worked: Shoulders, chest, triceps, biceps, rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis

Kneel to the left side of a box that’s 6 to 12 inches tall. Get into plank position with your right hand on the box and left hand on the floor, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, to start. Keeping your abs tight, lower your chest until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, then push up and shuffle your hands across the box to the other side, moving your feet in sync and maintaining plank position. Repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep. Continue alternating sides.

Make it easier: Nix the box and do the move on the floor: Shuffle your hands and feet in plank a couple of steps to the left, do a push-up, then shuffle to the right and do another. Drop to your knees and just move your hands to make the exercise even easier.

Make it harder: Slow down your reps, taking 2 to 3 seconds to lower and then again to push up. 

4. Elevated Split Squat

Muscles worked: Rectus abdominis, glutes, quads, hamstrings

Stand about 2 feet in front of a box or step, facing away with feet hip-width apart and hands on your hips. Extend your left leg behind you, placing your left toes on top of the box, to start. Squat until your left knee is almost touching the floor, your right knee in line with your right toes. Stand to return to start; that’s 1 rep. Repeat. Then switch sides and repeat.

Make it easier: Use a shorter box or decrease your range of motion, lowering only as far as you can hold good form.

Make it harder: Slow down your reps, taking 2 to 3 seconds to lower and then again to stand, and/or do the move while holding a weight (like a dumbbell, kettlebell or medicine ball) at your chest. You could also hold a weight in each hand at your sides.

5. Bicycle Crunch

Muscles worked: Rectus abdominis, obliques

Lie face up with your arms bent, elbows out to the sides, and fingertips resting lightly behind your ears. Raise bent legs until your knees are over your hips, feet flexed, then curl your shoulders off the floor, to start. Rotate your torso to the left, bringing your right elbow to your left knee as you straighten your right leg so it’s hovering a few inches off the floor. Return to start, then repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep. Continue alternating sides.

Make it easier: Instead of continuous reps, lower your shoulders and legs to the floor to pause between each rep.

Make it harder: Slow down your reps, taking 2 to 3 seconds to touch your elbow to your knee.

6. Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Muscles worked: Rectus abdominis, obliques, glutes, hamstrings

Lie face up with your legs bent, feet hip-width apart and flat, and arms extended by your sides so fingertips graze your heels. Extend your left leg so your heel is lifted a couple of inches off the floor, foot flexed, to start. Press through your right foot and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips until your knees, hips and shoulders form a straight line. Pause, then slowly lower to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat. Then switch sides and repeat. 

Make it easier: Gently drop your hips to the floor between each rep.

Make it harder: Slow down your reps, taking 2 to 3 seconds to lift and then again to lower, and/or hold a dumbbell, kettlebell or weight plate on your hips.

7. Lateral Step-Up

Muscles worked: Glutes, quads, hamstrings

Stand to the left of a box or step, keeping your hands on your hips. Step your right foot onto the box, to start. Push through your right foot to stand on your right leg (your left foot will hang off the side of the box). Slowly lower your left foot to the floor to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat. Then switch sides and repeat.

Make it easier: Use a shorter box.

Make it harder: Slow down your reps, taking 2 to 3 seconds to stand and then again to lower, and/or do the move while holding a weight (a dumbbell, kettlebell or medicine ball) at your chest. You could also hold a weight in each hand at your sides.

8. One-Arm Bent-Over Row

Muscles worked: Shoulders, traps, biceps, lats, rectus abdominis, obliques

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a weight in your left hand with an overhand grip. Hinge forward with your knees slightly bent until your back is near parallel to the floor, to start. Drive your left elbow up, squeezing your shoulder blades together, until the weight is at your left ribs. Lower the weight to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat. Then switch sides and repeat.

Make it easier: Use a lighter weight or a resistance band (you can anchor it under one or both feet and adjust as needed to get tension that feels challenging but doable).

Make it harder: Slow down your reps, taking 2 to 3 seconds to lift and then again to lower the weight, and/or hold another weight in your extended opposite hand.

9. Kneeling Curl to Press

Muscles worked: Shoulders, biceps, rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques

Kneel and hold a weight in your left hand with a neutral grip, arms at sides, to start. Keeping your abs and glutes engaged, curl the weight toward your chest, rotating your palm toward you, then press it overhead, rotating your palm away from you. Reverse the movement to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat. Then switch sides and repeat.

Make it easier: Use a lighter weight or a resistance band (you can anchor it under your knees and adjust as needed to get tension that feels challenging but doable).

Make it harder: Slow down your reps, taking 2 to 3 seconds to curl and then again to press the weight, and/or hold another weight in your extended opposite hand.

10. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Muscles worked: Rectus abdominis, glutes, hamstrings, calves

From standing, with hands on your hips, shift your weight onto your left leg, placing your right foot slightly behind it, balancing on your right toes, to start. Keeping your core tight, back flat, and both legs straight (a soft bend in the knees is OK), hinge forward at your hips, reaching your right fingertips toward your left toes, extending your right leg back and up until it’s parallel to the floor (your body should form a T shape). Reverse the movement to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat. Then repeat on the other side.

Make it easier: Lower only as far as you can hold good form.

Make it harder: Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in your right hand as you raise your right leg, then repeat on the other side.

Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Martin Tongola

A Strength Routine For Runners

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on recovery, as well as mindset, movement, nutrition and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club app.

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on recovery, as well as mindset, movement, nutrition and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club app.

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