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How Strength Training Can Prevent Running Injuries

Runners love to run, but not much else. Strength training, however, can be a game changer.
Man Doing Cross Training Workout
Runners should plan to hit the gym about two times each week to protect tissues from potential injury.RyanJLane / Getty Images

Derek Bronston has been a runner all his life. The 49-year old Brooklyn-based software engineer began running 5ks and 10ks as a kid and then as an adult, began training for longer distances. Along the way, he never gave any thought to doing much more than putting one foot in front of the other. That all ended in 2015 though, when after training for and running the Brooklyn Marathon, Bronston found himself dealing with several injuries.

“One injury led to the next and I hurt my knee, hamstring and hip,” he says. “I started looking into ways to prevent that from happening in the future.”

Runners want to run — but if you don’t find the time for strength training, sooner or later, you’ll have to make time for injuries.

His research kept bringing him back to one major change he could make in his approach: strength training.

Today, he says that by pumping iron as a regular part of his routine, he’s not only avoided injury, but improved his performance as well.

Why You Should Run to the Weight Rack

Ryan Smith, DPT, co-owner of integrated fitness and physical therapy hub Recharge, in Columbia, Md., says that runners have historically eschewed strength work. “The belief that strength training will bulk you up and slow you down goes back decades,” he says. “Doing strength work is also a foreign movement for many runners and they often have no confidence in this type of training, so they just avoid it.”

But the evidence — both anecdotal and research-based — suggests this is a mistake. “All tissues have the capacity to handle a certain level of work before fatigue,” explains Smith. “Load is the amount of stress you put on your body through training, balanced out by recovery through rest and nutrition.”

'Even though I was ‘strong’ in that I could run 90 miles per week, I was weak in terms of muscular strength.'

Combined, capacity and load limits determine how resilient a runner’s tissues are. When those limits are low, the odds for injury go up and performance can go down. This is where strength training comes in.

A 2016 meta-analysis of five studies on the impact of strength training on running found a “large beneficial effect” on running economy — the ability to use less oxygen at the same pace — three to four percent less, in fact. Most of the five studies included two to three strength sessions per week at low- to moderate-load in the range of 40 to 70 percent of one-rep max. In general, the studies involved two to four different exercises plus plyometric jumps and sprints.

Like Bronston, running coach Jason Fitzgerald is a big fan of pumping some iron, and learned the hard way as well. “My decision to roughly triple the amount of strength training in my own program came as a result of figuring out the causes of injuries and speaking with a lot of physical therapists,” he says. “Even though I was ‘strong’ in that I could run 90 miles per week, run a sub-five-minute mile, or qualify for Boston with a big cushion, I was weak in terms of muscular strength.”

Fitzgerald says that his weaknesses fell to areas that typically plague runners, the hip and glute muscles. He admits he had to change his mindset around strength work. “Just as importantly as needing to get stronger, I needed to realize that strength training is not cross-training for runners,” he says. “It’s just part of the normal training workload for runners who are interested in chasing their potential.”

“Runners want to run, I get it,” says Fitzgerald. “But if you don’t find the time for strength training, sooner or later you’ll have to make time for injuries.”

For this reason, Fitzgerald recommends strength training to all of his clients. “Ideally, every run is followed by 10 to 20 minutes of runner-specific strength or core work,” he says. “It’s specific to the muscles and movements that are important to runners. For those who want an extra challenge or to really optimize strength and mechanics, a gym workout twice per week with more substantial weight lifting is a great idea.”

When Bronston first began his strength training regimen, he took a full month off running to dial in to exactly what he would need. “I started with body weight exercises and progressed from there,” he says. “All of my pain went away after adding in the strength work.”

A Strength-Training Guide for Runners

Smith says that runners should be aiming for a progression in strength, eventually reaching the point where they are managing 1.5 times their body weight. “This is the load that running puts on your body with each step,” he explains. “If you can match that load with weight training, it will serve as a buffer against injury.”

His pointers for getting it right:

  • Frequency: Runners should plan to hit the gym about two times each week to protect tissues from potential injury. “After that,” says Smith, “and you’re getting into more adaptations of strength training than simply helping your running.”
  • Approach: Aim for a slow adaptation with weights, says Smith. “You’re not looking to crush weights, but to work consistently with very good technique,” he explains. “Start slowly, go gradually and progress. Sessions from 35 to 50 minutes are enough.”
  • Oversight: All new-to-weight training runners should begin with a session directed by a pro. “You need a personal trainer or cross fit facility that can help you find the right weights and technique,” Smith says.
  • Progress: Smith recommends beginning with simple, basic movements such as squats and deadlifts, and then moving on to more systemic movements, eventually including some plyometric (jumping) work.

Bronston says that weight training has become so important to him that he never skips a day at the gym. “If I need to shorten a run in order to not skimp on strength work, I will” he says. “My overall fitness has improved as well as my ability to endure harder speed workouts, leading to overall performance improvements.”

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