Strength Training for Distance Running

At first it might appear as though training with heavy weights and distance running are worlds apart. Why would the distance runner need to get weight on the bar and bust their gut in the gym when they could be out pounding the roads and getting more miles in?

But it’s actually in this very question that the problem lies. It’s this constant pounding that the body takes that can lead to injuries and stagnate performance levels.

Clearly there needs to be a certain volume of work completed which will be different for every individual and for each event that is being trained for, however unnecessary volume can at best be wasted time and at worst lead to overtraining and/or injury.

This time could be better spent strengthening the body and recovering.

What do the best do?

At the highest level, distance runners embrace strength training and are seen to be engaging in strength and conditioning programmes that they feel are a key area to their success.

Here is a comment from Bernard Lagat after being beaten by Mo Farah in the Monaco 5000m:

“To be able to beat Mo Farah I need to put my training up a notch," Lagat said. "I am happy with my speed. The only thing I need to work on is the strength. I can see that Mo Farah is a guy that is very strong. He is like a racing horse. What I need to do are the things that will get me even with him.”

And what about our very own Paula Radcliffe? It’s well known that Paula is an extremely hard trainer and engages in many types of training to improve her performance. Here’s a quote from her physiotherapist Gerard Hartmann outlining the approach they took with Paula:

“Paula runs twice a day, and that may account for 1.5 to 2 hours of her day. On top of that she is spending between another two and five hours between her treatments, her stretching routine, her plyometrics, her core stability, and her strength training."

“It is no different to what Sebastian Coe did with his father, Peter and with George Gandy many years ago. Seb Coe was not the biggest of athletes, but they developed him into an athlete. He did not just run, he did dynamic exercises, plyometric exercises, strength exercises, squats, lunges, and heavy weight sessions. We brought this approach to Paula Radcliffe’s training program after the Olympic Games and it was less than a year later that we saw she won her first world title”.

Although it seems pretty clear that the top runners are looking to strength and conditioning to gain that extra edge, for recreational runners the message doesn’t seem to have passed down as many runners are not aware of the potential benefits of a good strength training programme.

Is it our god given right as a human to be able to run? Shouldn’t we be doing a little more to prepare our bodies for the demands placed on it by the roads and hills that we pit ourselves against?

The methods associated with building that strength can be either be specific hill running type sessions or more general, gym based sessions. In the build up to important races specific methods should be employed, however more general gym based weights such as squats, lunges and deadlifts can be used to help maintain strength and reduce occurrence of injuries. 

I like to take the line of get fit to run rather than run to get fit.

What are the benefits?

A basic strength programme can help the runner in many ways. Perhaps the most important of these is in reducing the niggles that cause runners to fill the waiting rooms of the physios in every town in the country!

Here are the main ways it can help:

Benefit # 1: Improving Running Economy

Improvements in running economy is possibly the most significant contributor of improvements in running performance in trained runners alongside improvements in maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) and lactate threshold (LT).  Resistance training, including training to develop strength and power, has been shown to improve running economy in many studies over the years.

If every step you take in your race uses a theoretical percentage of your maximum force producing capabilities, increasing these capabilities through strength training then means that you use a lower percentage of your max with every step, meaning that you can run a set velocity for a longer duration.

In addition, increasing your max force capabilities also allows you to operate at higher intensities and increase your max velocity, which then allows you to run at a higher velocity over a set duration improving those sprints and pace on the inclines.

Both goals are desirable for any runner I’m sure you’ll agree!

Benefit # 2: Reducing Injuries Incurred: 

A stronger structure is a more resilient one. Common sense really, but it’s something that is not always appreciated when it comes to strength and conditioning for distance running.

Strength training targets not only the muscles being worked but also the connective tissues surrounding the muscles and joints of the body which are often susceptible to injury over long distances and the cumulative fatigue due to the high volume programmes many runners put themselves through.

Strengthening these tissues will give you a better chance of staying injury free in both the short term and over the course of your running career. For the majority of runners out there it’s enjoyment that is the incentive rather than winning races. Introducing some basic strength work will help you to stay out there into your more senior years and keep you enjoying your training.

What about muscle mass?

Many runners shy away from weights due to the fact that they don’t want to build muscle, which is perceived to make them slower. This is a contentious issue. For starters, the amount of volume that most runners experience in their programmes makes an increase in muscle mass extremely unlikely.

Secondly, if you are using the correct programme you shouldn’t put much muscle on at all, and any that you do will be functional muscle mass.

Training for strength is very different to training for muscle mass. The reps in a strength programme are much lower, meaning that more load can be used but less damage is incurred by the muscles. This trains your body and mind to produce more force and places less emphasis on the muscle to adapt with increased mass.

It’s all about the commitment!

Yes we’ve all heard this statement or a version of it before. Unfortunately it is true for strength training as well. If you are new to training with weights you will see some rapid gains at the start as you get more weight on the bar pretty much every week. I call this ‘Free Strength’ meaning that the strength gains occur much more easily. 

To continue making gains longer term you really need to commit to a 2 or 3 times weekly programme to see some real benefits, just as you would with your running training itself.

Here’s an example of a basic 2 day programme that you can complete in around 45 minutes.

Day 1:


Light jog for 2-3 minutes followed by 30 seconds of squats, lunges, press-ups, side lunges.


Front Squats 3 x 6 Reps

Reverse Lunges with Dumbells 3 x 6 each leg

Stiff Legged Deadlifts 3 x 6

Dumbell Presses 3 x 5

Inverted Rows 3 x 8


Front Plank 3 x 30s

Leg Lowers 3 x 15 reps

Day 2:


Light jog for 2-3 minutes followed by 30 seconds of squats, lunges, press-ups, side lunges.


Goblet Squats 3 x 8 reps

Deadlift 3 x 6 reps

Pull-ups 3 x 6 reps

Step-Ups 3 x 6 each leg

Military Press 3 x 6 reps

Single Leg Squats 3 x 6 each leg


Swiss Ball Rollouts 3 x 10 reps

Side Planks 3 x 30s Left and Right side. 

Brendan Chaplin MSc CSCS ASCC is the Head of Strength and Conditioning for Leeds Met Carnegie and the S&C coach for Caged Steel MMA fight team. He has a regular blog which is available at He works with Rugby players, MMA fighters, Olympic sports and many other athletes from his base in Leeds, UK. 

You can follow Brendan on twitter at or search for him on facebook.