The Expert Guide To Strength Training For Runners

Woman performs hip thrust in gym
Heavy strength training is one of two approaches physiotherapist Patrick Carroll recommends as the best form of strength training for runners (Image credit: Ziga Plahutar / Getty Images)

There are many ways you can go about improving as a runner, and one of the most important is strength training. I knew this, but was still surprised when physiotherapist Patrick Carroll told me how significant that improvement could be—studies have shown an increase in running economy of up to 8%!

Carroll is also owner of the app Running Buddy, which provides strength training programmes for runners, and he was full of great advice which will help any runner understand and get the most out of resistance work. 

To get you started, here are four big takeaways from the interview, which you’ll find in full below.

  1. Heavy weights training or plyometrics are the best strength training to do, rather than long sets of bodyweight exercises.
  2. In order of importance, you need to train your calf muscles, quads, hips, glutes and core, and it’s worth doing some upper-body work.
  3. If you’re not pressed for time, two or three longer strength sessions a week is ideal, or you can add on some exercises before and after your run for shorter, more regular sessions.
  4. It’s better to do strength training on a day you run as well, and leave your rest days completely free for recovery.
About Our Expert
About Our Expert
Patrick Carroll

Patrick Carroll is a specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist and the creator of the Running Buddy app, which provides strength training programmes for runners. Carroll has a BSc in Sports and Exercise Sciences from the University of Limerick and a MSc in Physiotherapy from the University of Essex. Carroll is the owner of Old Quarter Physiotherapy Clinic in Cork, Ireland, and has worked for the NHS and sports teams in the past, as well as in private clinics.

Why is strength training important for runners?

The most common benefit linked with strength training is that it reduces your risk of injury, which is obviously great, but Carroll suggests the most important one to drive home is that strength training will make you a better runner, with studies showing an improvement in running economy of 2-8%.

“If you’re not strength training, you’re leaving performance benefits on the table,” says Carroll. “There’s enough good quality research which shows potential improvements of up to 8% in running economy with the right type of strength training.

“The potential for injury reduction is probably agreed upon within the research community and expert coaches. But if you were to have a hard review of the literature, it’s not as clear cut as the improvements in running performance. It’s very difficult to study because there are so many confounding variables, but the theoretical underpinning is that strength training improves the quality of tendon, bone and muscle, and boosts their force capacities or their ability to tolerate stress. It does make sense that if you improve the tissue quality, you’re going to be able to handle increases in running training load or increases in intensity better, essentially.”

Along with those short term gains, strength training will also help you stay healthy in the long term, not just for running.

“If you look at the running population in general, typically they love running but don’t really want to do a whole lot else,” says Carroll. “There’s general health benefits associated with strength training that you just don’t get from running, like reducing the risk of sarcopenia—losing muscle mass as you age. Runners should also consider strength training as an addition to their training when looking at increasing bone health.”

What kind of strength training should runners do?

To gain the benefits from strength training you need to be working hard, either lifting heavy weights or doing plyometric training. Carroll says the mistake people often make is to make their strength training too similar to running.

“They basically try and replicate running movements or do things like lunges, with endurance-length sets and reps,” says Carroll. “You might have long sets with body weight, but you’re not really hitting the right types of strength qualities there.

“There was a systematic review published in 2023, which was able to clearly highlight effectiveness of programmes where runners are moving weight that’s quite difficult, so it’d be termed heavy strength training. You’re getting up above 80% of one rep max, training in a progressive manner over a six to 10 week period. That’s definitely effective. That’s been shown in the research repeatedly.

“The other type is plyometric training. Where there’s a faster muscle and tendon contraction, and it’s done with a lot lighter loads, even bodyweight. That again tends to have a good performance effect when progressed over time.

“It can depend on the experience level of the athlete as well. Maybe a bodyweight exercise is suitable for somebody who’s quite new to strength training. But if you’re experienced in it, then you need to start challenging yourself with external resistance.”

Runners performing jump squats

(Image credit: Leo Patrizi / Getty Images)

What parts of the body should you train?

Your running will benefit most from strength training the legs, glutes and core, with the calf muscles being the most essential area to include, but Carroll says not to neglect your upper body entirely.

“We know that the Achilles tendon and the calf complex are your biggest contributors to propelling you forward. So you definitely need lower leg training, focusing on the calf complex. Then as you work up the body you get a big contribution from the knee extensors from the quad muscles, and then from the hip extensors from the glute muscles. So they have to be in your training programme.

“Essentially, you want your running position to look the same at the end of a race as you do at the start, and that requires good trunk muscle endurance. So including your core, or it’s probably better described as your trunk, in a training programme is worthwhile.

“Upper-body muscle groups also play a part in keeping that posture steady from the start to the end of a run. You also get a contribution from arm swing. So if your shoulders are fatiguing or if you’re getting soreness through the front of the elbows or in the biceps attachment in a particularly long race that’s not something that you want either. So there is a role for upper-body training too.”

How often should runners strength train?

Strength training two or three times a week is a good place to start, but Carroll also suggested a different approach I found very appealing as a runner, which is to add on some strength exercises before and after runs for several mini sessions a week, rather than two or three longer ones.

“If you have a blank canvas and plenty of free time and you’re prioritizing strength training—maybe it’s earlier in your training season—doing two or three 30 to 45-minute sessions a week would be good. 

“If you’re in your peak volume weeks of your actual running load and you’ve already built some good strength qualities, if that drops to even once a week, you can do a good job maintaining strength and power levels. Ideally, that wouldn’t be for a very prolonged period, but it’s enough to keep what you’ve earned, basically, from earlier in the season.

“There’s also a pretty good consensus that you can have an effective strength and conditioning routine that fits around your running a little bit more. It could be one or two exercises before a run, then one or two exercises after your run. That’s it. You’re not looking at blocking out more time during the week. That probably leads to maybe four or five mini-strength sessions during the week, and the accumulative benefits of them can match the more traditional standalone strength sessions.”

How hard should your strength training be?

Runners know that if you want to get better at running, you need to work hard, and the same is true of strength training. You’re going to have to push yourself to gain the benefits. Carroll suggests using either your rate of perceived exertion or repetitions in reserve to judge your efforts, as opposed to using your one rep max, which is often referred to in strength training circles.

“If you’re looking to genuinely make changes to strength levels, there has to be enough stress to create an adaptation,” says Carroll. “In the strength and conditioning world, typically measuring intensity is done through the percentage of somebody’s one repetition maximum. In reality, that’s very difficult to do. It’s not realistic for the majority of runners. What can work very well instead is using a rate of perceived exertion scale. So if you pick a set of an exercise that you’re doing, you should be hitting a seven or eight out of 10 for effort in each set of the exercise. That’s a pretty good marker.

“Another useful marker of intensity is something called repetitions in reserve. So if you take a single-leg calf raise. If you’re getting to 12 repetitions and you stop, but you feel like you could have kept going for another 10 repetitions, you have 10 repetitions in reserve. The likelihood is you’re not gonna get a whole lot of adaptation from that. Typically leaving a couple of repetitions in reserve is a pretty good target. You get to the point where you feel like this is very hard, I could probably only do another couple, and then you stop your set.”

How can runners incorporate strength training into their schedule?

Your first thought when adding strength training into your plan might be to do it on your rest day, or if running every day, to do it on a day when you have an easy run planned. Carroll actually suggests protecting your rest and recovery should be the priority.

“I do think you’re better off to have some days that are very hard,” says Carroll. “So if you’re running every day, there’s probably going to be two or three of those days where there’s higher intensity runs or some sort of a session in there. If you can do your strength work on that day, ideally as your second training session that day, that’s your best bet. Then you know the following day should be an easier running day. 

“If you’re running on a Monday and a Thursday, doing your strength work on Tuesday is no problem. But if you’re running six days a week, I wouldn’t be doing the strength session on the seventh day. If you’ve a defined rest period because it’s part of your training plan and you need it, then I would try and protect that.”

Do hill reps, strides or trail runs count as strength training?

In the traditional club circles I’m a part of, runners who don’t do much if any dedicated strength training will talk about hill sessions, trail running and strides as their strength work. Carroll says there is some truth to this, but only if doing certain types of hill reps and strides.

“If they’re more hill sprints, where you’re working for 5 to 10 seconds and it’s pretty close to as fast as you can run, for me that does tick some of the strength boxes because the amount of force you need to produce to propel yourself up the hill at speed, you need to recruit higher order motor units and you go deeper into your type two muscle fiber reserves to do that,” says Carroll. “But if it’s a 60-second rep, where you’re just grinding it out, that’s not doing as much for me because it’s not different enough to what you’re doing on the flat.

“That probably goes as well for flat strides. If there are shorter bits of sprint work and it’s pretty close to top-end speed for shorter durations and there’s a decent bit of recovery, say a couple of minutes, then you definitely hit some of the more plyometric qualities. 

“Trail running is definitely seen as a way to strengthen the legs or or toughen up. Where there probably is some overload to muscles and tendons that you don’t get from your regular running is in the downhill bits. You get high eccentric forces, particularly through the quad, which can be helpful. That can be a useful stimulus, but it probably doesn’t equate to the same benefits you get from a more well-rounded strength plan.”

How can runners start strength training at home?

If you want to train at home and don’t have access to any weight then plyometric movements are a good place to start to hit a high enough intensity to benefit from your strength training. If you have light weights, then you can be creative in your moves to ensure you’re challenging yourself enough.

“You can get good benefits from bodyweight plyometric exercises,” says Carroll. “Introducing some sort of hopping exercises is a really good way to get the stimulus you need.

“If you don’t have access to heavy weights, if you only have 20kg, say, you can make single-leg exercises quite challenging with 20kg. A double leg squat with 20kg for you is probably going to be no problem, but there would be exercises you could set up where you’re just using one leg at a time where 20kg makes it very hard, and you’d definitely be able to hit that eight or nine RPE intensity.”

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.