Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Contributed by Dr. Steven T. Devor – Director of Performance Physiology for MIT and OhioHealth, and Associate Professor of Exercise Physiology, Department of Human Sciences, and Department of Physiology and Cell Biology, The Ohio State University


In order to become a well-balanced and functionally fit runner, your training schedule should incorporate strength training two to three times per week. The addition of appropriate strength training exercises to your weekly run training will make you a stronger and faster runner with a more efficient stride, and also aid in injury prevention.


Many runners believe that strength training is necessary to just increase the strength of your skeletal muscles. While this is certainly true, what is not so readily recognized is that strength training also increases the strength of both your tendons and ligaments. Tendons connect the ends of a muscle to a bone and ligaments connect bones to other bones, and both of these tissues are known as connective tissue. Since nearly all overuse injuries that runners suffer from are injuries to tendons and ligaments (e.g., plantar fasciitis, IT band problems, and Achilles tendonitis), it behooves runners to strengthen the connective tissues elements to decrease the likelihood of such injuries. For many runners though, the question of exactly what strength training exercises should be incorporated into their weekly routine is a mystery.


I believe it is best to think of strength training as a method to make athletic movements, including the running stride, more powerful and efficient. When we consider what strengthening exercises to perform it is very important to realize that no athletic movement is accomplished with a single joint being isolated and operating on its own. For this reason I can not recommend the use of typical gym weight machines, as they almost always isolate a joint and allow it move through only one plane of motion. Athletic movements involve complex multi-jointed activities that occur in more than one plane of motion. Accordingly, strength training exercises need to mimic these types of athletic movements. That is, all strength training exercises need to be functional, and mimic human movement. And strength training exercises need to involve more than one joint in any one exercise.


In our approach to developing effective strength training programs, we must have a baseline understanding that when the human body moves it does so as one intact functional unit where every joint is interrelated to all of the others. This basic understanding of human movement creates the foundation that then permits us to create strength training exercises that have high applicability to our chosen athletic pursuits. Essentially, all human movement can be distilled down to four basic functional movement categories: 1.) Pushing; 2.) Pulling; 3.) Hip flexion (taking a high marching step, bringing your knee up toward your chest); and, 4.) Hip extension (moving your leg backwards). Every human athletic movement involves at least one, and many times two or three, of the four basic functional movements.


However, I want to be clear, there is simply no reason to make strength training that is designed to make you a stronger competitor in your chosen sport complicated. To make you a stronger athlete and decrease the likelihood of an overuse injury, it is only necessary to incorporate functional strength training exercises that emphasize the four basic human movements.


In order to be successful, functional resistance training must begin with the acquisition of proper form and the ability to execute the four basic movement categories through a full range of motion. Once you can execute a body weight only movement through a full range of motion with proper form then, and only then, should additional weight be added to further increase strength. If you perform a pushing, pulling, hip flexion, or hip extension movement with improper form, or through a limited range of motion, adding additional weight to that movement will only serve to increase the strength of a movement that is dysfunctional. Properly designed strength training programs should function to remedy muscle imbalances and movement dysfunction, not compound them.


My advice is to perform the eight strength training exercises I describe below and you will emphasize all four of the basic movement categories. Once the exercises below can be efficiently completed with a full range of motion and proper form, they can be made more advanced with the addition of weight or by implementing ways to challenge stability while performing the exercises. There are other effective functional movement exercises that can be done where the emphasis is on the four basic movement categories. However, I consider these eight exercises to be foundational, and a way to establish a baseline for correct functional movement.


I have divided the eight exercises into three major categories. Functional strength training movements that emphasize: A.) Primarily lower body (hip flexion and hip extension); B.) Primarily upper body (pushing and pulling); and C.) Whole body. For each exercise below I will identify the basic movement category it emphasizes, why it is important for runners to incorporate the exercise, and finally provide a brief written guide for how to do the exercise:


A. Primarily Lower Body Exercises:

 1.      Exercise:  The squat. Being able to correctly perform a full range of motion proper form squat allows you to efficiently do one of the most basic of human movements; sitting down and getting back up, or picking something heavy up off of the floor. Form and a full range of motion for this movement is essential, so only using your body weight at first is very important.

Basic movement category:  Hip flexion and hip extension.

Why this movement is important for runners: The entire lower body running stride is both hip flexion and hip extension. A full range of motion squat emphasizes both hip strength and flexibility.

How to:  Stand upright with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders, and your toes slightly pointed out. Keep the majority of your weight back on your heels not forward on your toes. Sqaut down while pushing your butt backward as if someone had a rope around your waist and was pulling you back. Do not bend forward at the waist. Keeping the majority of your weight on your heels, bring your butt as close to the floor as possible; a full range of motion squat.

 2.   Exercise:  Walking lunge. As any sports medicine physician, physical therapist, or athletic trainer will tell you, nearly all knee pain is the result of weak hip muscles. Knee pain is particularly common when the muscles that function to stabilize the hip are not strong. This group of skeletal muscles is located from the hip down to the knee. 

Basic movement category:  Hip flexion and hip extension.

Why this movement is important for runners: The entire lower body running stride is both hip flexion and hip extension. Walking lunges emphasize both hip strength and flexibility.

How to:  Take one long stride forward and plant your foot. The lower part of your lead leg should be nearly straight down (perpendicular) in relation to the floor, and your lead knee should not extend out over your foot. Lower your trailing leg such that the knee gently touches the floor. Keep your upper body upright, do not lean forward or bend at the waist.

 3.      Exercise:  Dead lift. In order to have powerful hip extension (half of the running stride), it is important to have a strong posterior chain. The posterior chain is the large group of skeletal muscles that runs from your upper calf into your hamstrings, through your gluteal muscles and into your lowermost back area. Once can argue that there is simply no better exercise for your posterior chain then the dead lift. And strengthening this area also serves to fight off what is all too common amongst Americans, lower back pain.

Basic movement category:  Hip extension.

Why this movement is important for runners: Half of the lower body running stride is hip extension, and this exercise will assist with the development of a powerful sprinting stride.

How to:  For this exercise we will start with a light kettlebell or a light dumbbell. Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward, weight on your heels not your toes; basically the same stance as for a squat. Put the kettlebell or dumbbell on the floor between and slightly in front of your two feet. Pushing your butt back squat down to grab the kettlebell or dumbbell with both of your hands. To lift the weight drive yourself upright by forcing your hips forward, not by pulling up with your arms.   


B. Primarily Upper Body Exercises:

    4.      Exercise:  Standard push up. The classic physical education class movement, the push up is one of the best upper body strengthening exercises you can do. It emphasizes a large group of muscles in your arms, chest, shoulders, and back that are critical for a strong arm carriage and arm drive that will help power your lower body stride.

Basic movement category:  Pushing.

Why this movement is important for runners: A strong lower body running stride is assisted to a great extent by a strong functionally balanced upper body. When your lower body is becoming fatigued a strong upper body can help to drive your legs, especially late in a long race.

How to: Begin this exercise in the up position of a push up, with hands and feet on the floor, holding your back rigid in a straight line by tightening your core. Do not let your back sag, or let your butt elevate. Your hands should be in a position such that when you lower yourself, your nipples line up with the base of your palm. Lower yourself slowly until your chest touches the ground, and then push back up until your elbows lock. Keep your back rigid and straight through the entire down and up motion.

 5.   Exercise:  Pull up and chin up. This is another classic upper body exercise that most often requires no additional weight other than your body weight. An example of a vertical pulling exercise, the pull/chin up is the opposite functional movement of the push up. If you are going to be strong with basic pushing exercises, you also need to be strong with basic pulling exercises in order to be functionally balanced. Both of these exercises work the entire upper body. However, pull ups emphasize the biceps more and chin ups place an increased emphasis on the muscles of the upper back and triceps.

Basic movement category:  Pulling.

Why this movement is important for runners: A strong lower body running stride is assisted to a great extent by a strong functionally balanced upper body. When your lower body is becoming fatigued a strong upper body can help to drive your legs, especially late in a long race.

How to: Find a straight fixed bar that is high enough that when you hang from it your legs can be completely straight without your feet touching the ground. For pull ups, start with your palms facing you and approximately shoulder width apart. Let your body hang completely still, and then pull yourself up so your chin is above the bar. For chin ups the motion is the exact same, but your hands should be slightly wider than your shoulders, and your palms are facing away from you.


6.   Exercise:  Horizontal row. Most of us tend to sit for a good portion of our day. And when we are seated at a desk we often develop a forward lean, almost a tendency to have a hunched back. This exercise is an excellent choice for helping to correct the forward lean in your shoulders. In my opinion, the horizontal row is best done with some sort of fitness straps, for example TRX straps. The straps can be hung from almost anything, a pull up bar or a door jamb make excellent choices.

Basic movement category:  Pulling.

Why this movement is important for runners:  This is another example of a classic pulling exercise to help functionally balance all of the pushing we tend to naturally do. As with the push up and pull/chin ups, this movement contributes to overall upper body strength.

How to:  Start by hanging and holding onto the straps, one in each hand, arms fully extended. Keep your entire body rigid as with the push up. Pull upwards until your chest is approximately even with your hands. This exercise should look like the exact opposite of the push up; your body rigid body and being pulled up (horizontal row) instead of being pushed up (push up).

 7.   Exercise:  Standing overhead press. One of the keys with this exercise is in the name. It is important to complete this exercise while standing, not while seated. In most real life situations when you press something over your head, you are standing. And in order to mimic functional natural movements, we want our strength training exercises to be similar. I prefer this exercise to be completed with dumbbells or kettlebells, one in each hand, as opposed to a single bar. Using an individual weight for each hand allows each shoulder to move through a more natural range of motion.

Basic movement category:  Pushing.

Why this movement is important for runners: Much of your arm carriage and arm swing when you are running comes from the strength in your shoulders. The standing overhead press primarily emphasizes and strengthens the shoulders in a functional manner.

      How to: While standing your feet should be approximately shoulder width apart and your knees should not be locked, but slightly bent. With one weight in each hand, raise one at a time. Allow your wrist and hand to naturally rotate as you raise the weight. Do not arch your back.


C. Primarily Whole Body Exercise:

   8.   Exercise:  Kettlebell swing. There are very few athletic events where the performance of a competitor does not benefit from increased power. Endurance athletes are no exception. Power is not simply force, it is the application of force with high speed. The kettlebell swing is a simple, highly explosive, and basic functional exercise that engages nearly every major muscle group in the body.

Basic movement category:  Pushing, pulling, hip flexion, and hip extension.

Why this movement is important for runners: To have the power available to be able to sprint at the end of a race, or hold a high speed during an interval workout is a skill every endurance athlete will benefit from.

How to:  Begin by standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and your toes pointed slightly out. With both hands on the kettlebell, let it hang between your two legs. Bend at your hips by pushing your butt back. Now you snap your hips forward and up. Do not lift the kettlebell with your arms, rather let it swing upward in your hands with the momentum from your hips moving it higher. Although this exercise is very explosive, you must maintain control with the kettlebell reaching slightly higher than eye level when it is at its peak on the upswing. On the downswing let your two arms come down almost flat against your torso and the kettlebell will swing back between your legs. Then snap your hips up once again for the next upswing. Keep your back neutral; do not arch it during the upswing or downswing

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