Strength Training for Runners

We knew we could run in the mud because of our strength training,” said the coach of the Coatesville, Pennsylvania  high school boys cross-country team after they won the 2006 Nike Team Nationals on a wet and muddy Portland Meadows 5k course (Sports Illustrated 105(23): 48, 2006).

It’s a common misconception that the best way to run faster and further in a race is to run faster and further during training.  While nothing can replace the base miles needed for good running performance, running is not the only thing we need to run well.

Here is a little evidence for you from a few studies that have been done on the topic of strength training for runners…

Paavolainen et al (1991)

18 elite distance runners reduced their 5K times and improved running economy (VO2 max at a given speed) after 9 weeks of sprint training and plyometrics.  Sprints and plyos composed 32% of the total training time.

Spurs et al (2003)

17 distance runners improved 3K times and running economy after 6 weeks of plyometric training.  Plyo schedule was 2x/week for 3 weeks, then 3x/week for 3 weeks.

Mikkola et al (2007)

25 distance runners showed improved anaerobic performance following 8 weeks of sprint work that composed 19% of total training time.

Saunders et al (2004)

15 elite distance runners improved running economy after 9 weeks of plyometrics (3x/week)

Millet et al (2002)

15 elite runners improved running economy after 14 weeks of heavy weight training for the lower limb 2x/week.

All of these studies were controlled, and control groups did not show improvements compared to their baseline.

The bottom line is this:  sprint training, plyometrics, and weight training can improve your running.  VO2 max was improved in all of these studies, and race times were reduced in 2 of the studies.  (Realistically, race times will improve as VO2 max improves.  Most studies don’t use race times because there is too much variability in that measurement.)

Have fun sprinting, jumping, and lifting!

Run With Brains,

Scott Hadley, PhD, DPT


Paavolainen et al, 1991.  Journal of Applied Physiology 62:251-255.

Spurs et al, 2003.  European Journal of Applied Physiology 89:1-7.

Mikkola et al, 2007.  International Journal of Sports Medicine 28:602-611

Saunders et al, 2004.  Sports Medicine 34:465-485.

Millet et al, 2002.  Medical Science of Sports and Exercise 34:1351-1359.

Yamamoto et al, 2008.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(6):2036-2044.

5 Responses to “Strength Training for Runners”

  1. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy said:

    May 16, 11 at 10:25 am

    I’m a big believer in Crossfit to improve race times. I’ve used it successfully for a lot of shorter distance races. I am trying using a Crossfit Endurance approach for my upcoming marathon and 50K, which has me a bit worried. I’m hoping that doing this stuff as a replacement for lots of long slow distance is enough to get me to the finish line. I see the studies you cite talk about short distance race times, but I wonder what the research looks like for longer distances?

  2. TrekoScott said:

    May 16, 11 at 8:16 pm

    Like we discussed before, there is not sufficient data for longer distances. There is one study by Ferrauti et al. (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(10):2770-2778) that tested 22 “recreational marathon runners.” 11 runners just did endurance training for 6 weeks, and 11 runners did 120 min/week of strength training for core and leg muscles. There were no differences in submaximal VO2 or lactate thresholds after 6 weeks. The design wasn’t great, though, and I don’t put a ton of stock in the study….

    …mostly because of the following things that are shown to increase with strength training:
    1. increased power output: a lower percentage of maximal voluntary contraction is needed to run if muscle power is improved with strength training
    2. many studies show improved VO2 max, thus oxygen is used more efficiently over longer distances
    3. improved neuromuscular economy due to improved motor recruitment – the result is improved running economy

    So, although there isn’t sufficient data to say for sure that strength training improves running performance in longer runs, I think we can maybe extrapolate the results a bit. But, as you know, I hate doing that!

  3. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy said:

    May 17, 11 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks Scott! From my conversations with folks who use this style training for long distance races, it seems to work well up to the 50 mile distance. I think there is still something to be said about LSD training for that purpose. It trains things that HIIT can’t do, like the mental toughness to keep your feet moving for 5+ hours.

    Good talking to you as always!

  4. TrekoScott said:

    May 17, 11 at 3:58 pm

    Yes! Base miles are still king…
    By the way – for anyone else who doesn’t know…
    HIIT is High Intensity Interval Training
    LSD is Long Slow Distance

  5. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy said:

    May 18, 11 at 1:20 pm

    Interesting though that, with what folks like you think about the studies you cited, there is a whole cult called Crossfit (of which I am a somewhat on-again-off-again member) built around it that treats it like gospel. Although I think HIIT is an amazing fitness tool, I also recognize it’s not a panacea.

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