3 Reasons Runners Need Upper-Body Training

Tony Bonvechio
by Tony Bonvechio
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3 Reasons Runners Need Upper-Body Training

“Legs feed the wolf.”

This famous quote comes from Herb Brooks, the head coach on the U.S. Olympic hockey team that made history by beating the Soviet Union en route to a gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics. While coach Brooks was talking about hockey, many runners take this adage to heart when it comes to strength training.

Sure, strong legs are crucial for running performance, but lower-body strength training helps with endurance for heavy mileage, power to kick at the end of a race and durability to cushion the hips, knees and ankles.

But what about the upper body? If you’ve been neglecting your chest, back, shoulders and arms in the gym, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to improve your running performance.

Here are three reasons runners should train their upper body in the gym:


Your running form ultimately dictates your performance potential. If you can’t keep proper form and posture throughout your training or event, you’ll never perform at your best. Increasing upper-body strength can improve posture and help you keep consistent form.

No two runners have the same exact posture, but most can agree an upright posture is best for endurance events. The muscles of your upper back and shoulders help maintain good posture, which means they need special attention in the gym.

Think of a soldier standing at attention; the muscles that pull the chest up and shoulders back are the ones you should target to help improve running posture. Exercises like rows and pullups should make up the bulk of your upper-body training. These movements counteract the slouched posture so many of us adopt in our daily routines, whether it’s working at a desk or staring at our cellphones.


Your arm swing dictates your rhythm. And while you don’t want to actively pump your arms while running a distance event, a strong set of shoulders and arms helps keep a consistent tempo. Flimsy arms get tired quickly which leads to sloppy form, so sprinkle some direct arm training into your workouts.

The shoulders respond best to “pressing” exercises like pushups and overhead presses.

The arms, made up of your biceps and triceps, are smaller muscles that respond best to lighter weights to ensure perfect form. Our 30-Day Plan to Toned Arms would be an ideal routine for a runner looking to strengthen their arm swing.


Almost every experienced runner has felt the dreaded “bonk.” One minute, you’re cruising along at a brisk pace, and then suddenly, your legs start to wobble like a baby giraffe’s. A wave of fatigue washes over you and you feel like you’d rather take a nap than finish the race.

The “bonk” comes from a depletion of muscle glycogen, your body’s stored carbohydrates that serve as fuel for intense exercise. Once the glycogen stored in your muscles and liver is used up, your body slows down like a car that’s running on fumes.

You can prevent the “bonk” by eating or drinking carbs during your workout or race. If you’re looking for a more proactive approach, building muscle in the gym increases your body’s capacity to store muscle glycogen. Quite simply, more muscle means a bigger “tank” to hold your glycogen stores.

What do you need to build more upper-body muscle?

  • A well-rounded upper-body routine that includes exercises for the chest, upper back, shoulders and arms
  • A slight caloric surplus (meaning you’re eating slightly more calories than you’re burning)
  • Enough protein and carbohydrates to rebuild muscle


Here’s a sample workout for any runner who wants to add muscle to their upper body. Remember, they’re more than just beach muscles; a little extra upper-body strength goes a long way to increase running performance.

Pushups: 4 sets of 8–10 reps (elevate your hands on a bench or box if needed)

Inverted rows: 4 sets of 10–12 reps

Dumbbell bench press: 3 sets of 8–10 reps

1-Arm dumbbell rows: 3 sets of 10–12 reps per side

Standing triceps pushdowns (with cable machine or resistance band): 3 sets of 15–20 reps

Dumbbell hammer curls: 3 sets of 12–15 reps

About the Author

Tony Bonvechio
Tony Bonvechio

Tony Bonvechio (@bonvecstrength) is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA, and a personal trainer in Providence, RI. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. You can read more from Tony at bonvecstrength.com.