The 7 Best Strength Training Exercises for Runners

Add these moves to your cross-training routine for faster paces and fewer injuries.

Strength Training for Runners
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Runners know this routine all too well, especially when training for a race: run almost every day (with a rest day or two for good measure). Do some cardio cross-training to give the joints a break from the impact. Eat the right combination of carbs, proteins, and fats to fuel those miles. Repeat.

While this level of dedication is certainly impressive, there's one key element some marathoners and 5K finishers may be missing out on — and that's strength training for runners. If you're only hitting the gym to use the treadmill or track, consider heading to the weight room to add in some strengthening exercises, too. Because as it turns out, strength training exercises can make every runner even better. To start weaving some weights into your regimen, read on for expert-guided tips.

Benefits of Strength Training for Runners

Runners can sometimes be so devoted to running that adding in strength moves barely crosses their minds. But "all runners benefit from strength training," says Morit Summers, C.P.T., founder of FORM Fitness Brooklyn.

One of the biggest benefits is that strength training prevents injuries by leading to increased bone mineral density and strengthening your connective tissue, joints, and tendons, as Shape previously reported. And that perk is important for runners since a sprained ankle or pulled hamstring can quickly put the damper on runs. Those pesky injuries can also hinder one's daily life to boot (crutches are no fun!).

Strength training can also bring about an increase in power. ICYDK, "power" here refers to creating as much force as possible by using the stretch-shortening cycle (that's when your muscles are lengthened to build up potential energy, then rapidly shortened to release that energy). That power can then increase your running speed by helping you activate key muscle groups when running and increase the force you use to push off the ground.

Lastly, hitting those weights can help improve stability throughout the body, which is crucial for runners. "Running is, essentially, jumping from one leg to the other,"  Polly de Mille, C.S.C.S., a certified exercise physiologist and the clinical supervisor of the Tisch Sports Performance Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, previously told Shape. "So, if you aren't stable and have trouble just balancing on one leg, that is going to impact both how well you run and your risk of getting injured when you run." But with regular strength training, a runner's balance and stability can improve for smoother, injury-free runs.

And while all runners can benefit from strength training in general, it can also be a helpful form of cross-training to address injuries, aches, and pains that are specific to each individual runner, notes Summers. Research has suggested that strength training can improve flexibility just as much as (and maybe even more than) passive stretching; plus, that feeling of "tightness" can come from weakened muscles that lead to overcompensation and muscular imbalances. So if you have tight calves, then strength (and mobility work, of course) can help prevent injury and improve runs.

Best Tips for Strength Training for Runners

No matter what kind of runner someone is — slow, fast, short distances, long distances — strength training is for everyone, and it can be modified for all people if need be, says Summers.

Runners should aim to strength train with a full-body routine two to three times per week, recommends Summers. Form is especially important to ensure the moves are being done properly (read: without risking injury). "Form matters for everyone," says Summers. "For runners, I'd be very focused on single-leg stabilization and strength, as well as core stabilization and strength."

Again, every runner can benefit from strength work. But at times, one may have physical limitations due to injury or a health condition, and luckily, strength training can be tweaked to your needs. Focus on different strength training priorities depending on your goals, whether that's building power, boosting endurance, or improving your form, says Summers.

Compound movements, or those moves that utilize multiple muscle groups, always come first, says Summers. "We want to work as much of the body as possible," she explains. This multitasking is key since runners use so many different muscles to propel themselves forward, from the legs to the core to the arms. Focusing on one muscle group while neglecting another can lead to a muscular imbalance, putting runners at a greater risk for injury.

The 7 Best Strength Training Exercises for Runners

Ahead, Summers breaks down her top seven strength training exercises for runners, all of which heavily focus on building overall strength and stability. To do these moves correctly and safely, "Always start slow and controlled," advises Summers. "Speed, strength, and power will come with control."

How to add these strength training exercises for runners to your workouts: While you can certainly consider your personal goals and preferences, Summers recommends that if you're running two to three days per week, you should also be strength training two to three days that same week. "You can do full-body days and pick two upper, two lower, and one to two core movements," suggests Summers. Aim for eight to 12 reps of each move; the last two to three reps should feel difficult to complete.

If you're in your running off-season, you can have a greater focus on strength. For this, you can consider what Summers calls an "upper-body/lower-body split," which "just means you have a leg day and an upper-body day," she explains.

Ready to head off injuries, run faster, and feel better as a runner? Summers shares the steps of each of these powerful exercises while demonstrating them along the way. As always, before your workout, be sure to warm up.

1. Reverse Lunge

Why it works: "A reverse lunge is a great way to build lower body strength while also working on your single-leg stability," shares Summers. "I believe squats are for everyone, but if you aren't going to squat or you want a more specific exercise to strengthen your legs for running, a back lunge would be it. You can load a back lunge in many ways — dumbbells are the most common."

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and hands clasped in front of chest. Take a large step back with right foot while keeping most of weight on left leg.

B. While stepping right foot back, hinge at hips and lean forward slightly as needed, keeping chest tall.

C. Lower right knee toward the ground, aiming to lightly graze the floor with knee. Left heel stays on the ground.

D. Drive through left leg to return to standing.

Do 8 to 12 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

2. Walking Lunge

Why it works: Think of walking lunges as a much slower, strengthening version of the movements you make while running. "Walking lunges allow you to work on strength while moving in a forward motion," says Summers.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms at sides. Take a large step forward with left leg while hinging hips and lowering right knee down toward the floor until knee is bent at a 90-degree angle.

B. Push through both feet to return to a standing position.

C. Pause, lightly tap right foot next to left foot or continue to move into next lunge.

D. Repeat on opposite leg, stepping forward with right leg while hinging hips and lowering left knee down toward floor.

Continue, alternating sides, for 12 total reps.

3. Single-Arm Standing Cable Row

Why it works: This is a move that covers so many must-haves when it comes to running. "Efficient running requires upper-body strength, core strength, and good posture," says Summers. This exercise covers all those requirements. This exercise can also be completed with a resistance band that's anchored to a sturdy base, such as a door or a squat rack.

A. Stand in front of the cable machine with feet hip-width apart, holding a cable in left hand between belly button and chest height. Step backward to lift weight plates off the stack.

B. Slightly stagger legs so left foot is a few inches behind right foot.

C. Starting with left arm straight, pull the weight back toward hips, leading with left elbow. Keep lower body still, preventing hips from rotating toward the left when pulling weight back. Upper body can rotate slightly during this move.

D. Release the cable slowly and fully extend left arm to return to the starting position.

Do 8 to 12 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

4. Single-Leg Deadlift

Why it works: The single-leg deadlift "one of the best glute exercises there is," says Summers. "You get strength, stability, and you can always progress to elements of power," she adds.

A. Stand with feet hip-width distance apart. Lift right leg off the floor, bending knee to 90 degrees with foot flexed. To modify, keep right toes lightly touching the ground.

B. Bend left knee slightly, then hinge at hips to lower torso toward the floor. Keep chest up and core engaged.

C. Continue to hinge until torso is almost parallel to floor, then drive through left foot to return to the starting position.

Do 8 to 12 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

5. Single-Arm Standing Cable Chest Press

Why it works: This unilateral cable press is one of Summers' favorite upper-body exercises. "It has the added benefit of core control," she explains. "This movement can simulate the motion of running, but in a controlled pattern." Similar to the single-arm standing cable row, this strength training exercise for runners can also be done using resistance bands.

A. Stand facing away from the cable machine. Hold the cable with right hand in front of right shoulder, right elbow out to side in line with right shoulder and the cable set near shoulder height. Feet can be staggered or in line with each other for a greater challenge.

B. With right hand, press the weight straight out in front of body as if punching, with palms facing the floor and knuckles facing forward.

C. Keep hips still and slowly bring the weight back toward chest, leaning forward slightly. Avoid letting the weight pull body backward.

Do 8 to 12 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

6. Pallof Press

Why it works: Never heard of the Pallof press? It's named after physical therapist John Pallof, and it's "great for core stability and endurance," says Summers. Once again, you can sub in a resistance band and a steady anchor point if you don't have access to a cable machine.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart perpendicular to the cable machine with right side closest to the machine, arms at sides. Stand closer to the anchor point for lower resistance and further from the anchor point for more resistance.

B. Keeping knees slightly bent and core engaged, rotate torso toward the machine or anchor point and grasp the machine's handle with both hands. Use core to rotate torso away from the machine or anchor point to face forward, hands directly in front of chest. This is the starting position.

C. Extend arms long and press hands away from body. The motion should be smooth and controlled with no momentum. Resist the urge to twist torso toward the machine or anchor point.

D. Slowly return to the starting position, ending with elbows tucked alongside ribs. Hands should remain at chest height throughout the movement.

Do 8 to 12 reps.

7. Step-Up

Why it works: With step-ups, the theme is single-leg strength and stability, says Summers. "Step-ups expose a lot of imbalances for people, and they are also a great way to keep your legs strong, especially for running," she explains. Pick a box height that's appropriate for you — the height is how you progress your step-up. A low step can be just as challenging when done with control and strength.

A. Stand on top of a box with feet hip-width distance apart and arms at sides of body. Keep left foot planted on the box and move right foot to hover slightly behind the box.

B. Bend left knee and sit hips back to slowly lower right leg to the ground until right foot hits the floor. Pause.

C. Drive left foot through the box to step right leg up to the top of the box while leaning slightly forward. Try not to push off the floor with right leg.

Do 8 to 12 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

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