It is easy to think of strength work as a nice-to-do supplement to running training rather than a vital part of it. But that line of thinking goes against reality. When done at least two times per week, strength training can help you keep your training cycle consistent, says Olympian Juli Benson, owner of Juli Benson Training.
“Strength work, if done with proper form, can be an important tool for runners in many ways,” explains Benson. “For the athletes I work with, strength work is so beneficial in injury prevention, maintaining proper running form and improving power.”
This doesn’t mean runners need to spend hours at the gym or add plates to the barbell when lifting. But it does mean runners should integrate consistent strength work. Here’s how to get your strength work in with body weight only — and the three moves you should be doing:
ARE BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES ENOUGH?
Though bodyweight exercises aren’t what would be deemed the gold standard of strength training, they are what Jason Fitzgerald, head coach of Strength Running refers to as ‘sufficient.’ Using weights in the gym helps improve force production — which Fitzgerald says is directly related to your speed — however it isn’t the be-all-end-all of strength training. “Bodyweight exercises don’t build strength any differently than weighted exercises,” he notes. “The stimulus is just lower, meaning they’re easier and not quite as effective, so they’re a good substitute for those new to strength training.”
If you don’t have easy access to weights or a gym, bodyweight exercises can absolutely help you increase and maintain strength.
WHAT WE GET WRONG ABOUT STRENGTH TRAINING
When talking about their trips to the gym, you’ll often hear something along the lines of, “I just finished leg day,” or “Today is all about biceps and triceps.” If you’re a runner, however, focusing on specific muscle groups is often a mistake. Fitzgerald says that, instead, you should be training movements.
“I advise runners to train movements, not muscles, because we’re athletes not bodybuilders (we are decidedly not focused on individual muscles),” he continues. “Isolation exercises may have their place for athletes treating an injury or a specific imbalance, but most runners need to focus on movements like pull, press and push.”
Fitzgerald adds that when strength training as a runner, you are doing so to enhance your running versus specifically to build muscle. When heading to the gym to isolate muscle groups, you aren’t training your entire body, which is needed to increase your power and efficiency. This isn’t to say there’s not a time and place for isolating specific muscles during a workout — such as physical therapy or treating imbalances — but it shouldn’t be a regular part of your everyday training.
THREE EXERCISES TO TRY
Three moves that focus on the working movements of pull, press and push are the deadlift (pull), overhead press (press) and squat (push). These are compound, multi-joint exercises that are best for runners.
“These exercises are very specific to running in that they’re performed standing (like running), build outstanding core strength necessary for stabilization, and build a lot of explosive power beneficial for speed,” Fitzgerald adds. “Plus, since running is essentially a series of coordinated quarter-squats, the squat is the ideal exercise for runners.”
The move: Begin with a single barbell or two dumbbells on the floor. Approach them with feet hip-width apart and arms shoulder-width apart. Slightly bend your knees and reach for the weights, keeping your back flat. Grab the weights and slowly stand up straight, lifting the barbell or dumbbells and keeping your arms straight. Do the reverse to put the weights down and repeat.
No weights? No problem. This can be done as a bodyweight move as a single-leg deadlift.
The move: Begin with a single barbell or two dumbbells. Stand straight and hold the weight at chest level, with arms shoulder-width apart. From this position, push arms over your head; as you bring the weight back down to the starting position, focus on pinching your shoulder blades. Repeat.
No weights? No problem. This can be done as a bodyweight move by simply removing the weights and pressing your arms over your head, focusing on pinching your shoulder blades behind you as you pull your arms down.
The move: Begin at the squat rack with a barbell or by holding two dumbbells, with the weight resting on or being held up near your shoulders. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with your weight in the balls and heels of your feet. Bend your knees and bring your butt and hips back, keeping your back straight and leaning your chest slightly forward. Keep your knees in line with your feet and bring your hips to your knees or lower. From here, to complete the move, stand up. Repeat.
No weights? No problem. This can be done as a bodyweight move by simply eliminating the weight.
For the deadlift and squat specifically, a great alternative — and way to progress once you’ve mastered the basic bodyweight move — is to do it as a single-leg exercise. Benson says this forces you to engage your core and ultimately improve your balance. Additionally, it can help reduce the change of imbalances, which would then lead to the need for isolated strength work.
“I like single-leg movements to make sure one leg isn’t doing more of the work than the other,” she explains. “Single-leg exercises can aid in ensuring equal work and strength gains.”