Strength and Conditioning for Distance Runners: A Template to Improve Performance

Distance runners: don't neglect strength training. STACK Expert Justin Groce prescribes a program to improve your performance.


Many distance runners believe that pounding the pavement until their soles fall out of their shoes is the best way to improve their performance. To the extent that it improves your capacity, this "more is better" mentality is necessary. But no matter how many miles you rack up each week, it's important not to neglect strength training.

Leaving out strength training will limit your performance. Even worse, weak muscles and joints can set you up for injuries and overuse problems.

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To get you started, I've set up some guidelines and a sample strength-training program.

Where to Start

Determine how much running volume you are accumulating. Is it based on miles? Time? Distance? Days per week? Most programs for distance runners start out at ground zero, then gradually increase every week in terms of distance, time and intensity.

Knowing your volume helps you to determine when to incorporate strength training, and how much. Multi-joint lifts maximize total-body muscle recruitment and elicit intensity that can be transferred to the pavement. Ideally you will be able to complete two strength training sessions per week. Running volume typically has an inverse relationship to strength training volume. As you increase miles, you decrease lifting time to prevent overuse and injury.

RELATED: How to Run Faster: Develop Speed and Endurance

Where You Are?

Consider where you are in your training cycle. Ask yourself, "how far out am I from my event?" As you get closer to an event, reduce both your running and strength-training volume, allowing time for your body to rest so it will be primed for the event.

You also need to be realistic about how much time you have.

Let's Get Started

Depending on the type of program you are on and the time you have before your event, start building a foundation somewhere around three to six months out. This implies you will start from ground zero and incrementally increase your distance, time or intensity (or any combination of the three) every week. Starting out too aggressively can overwhelm you, leading to premature peaking or even injury.

Strength training increases will come in the form of sets, reps, resistance used or shortened rest periods between sets.

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The program below puts you six months out from your event and features three running sessions per week—either intervals, slow-and-steady, running for time, Fartlek or prescribed number of miles.

RELATED: Fartlek Training: Benefits, Methods and Sample Programs

Month 1: Two strength training sessions per week, total body; two sets of each exercise; 4-6 reps on foundation lifts; 8-10 reps on auxiliary lifts; 90 seconds rest between sets.

Month 2: Two strength training sessions per week, total-body; three sets of each exercise; 4-6 reps on foundation lifts; 8-10 reps on auxiliary lifts; 75 seconds rest between sets.

Months 3 to 5-1/2: Two strength training sessions per week, total-body; four sets of 4-6 reps on foundation lifts; three sets of 8-10 reps on auxiliary lifts; 60 seconds rest between sets.

Month 5-1/2 to Race Day: Two strength training sessions per week, total-body; two sets of each exercise, 4-6 reps on foundation lifts; 8-10 reps on auxiliary lifts;  90 seconds rest between sets.

As you can see, the volume of resistance training incrementally increases until you peak at around 5-1/2 months. Then your volume and loads taper down. This taper should parallel your running taper. Don't worry about losing progress when you taper. Your body will appreciate the rest, translating to better on-road performance.

Which exercises should I use?

Multi-joint, compound lifts should serve as the backbone of your program. Since you will likely be time-crunched, there's no need to waste time doing single-joint exercises such as Bicep Curls. They won't translate to the road. The goal is to maximize muscle recruitment in as few movements as possible.

I've simplified the program. Select one exercise from each of the four foundation lift categories, then pick any three or four exercises from the auxiliary lift category. This will equate to total-body training that translates to good muscular balance and better performance. If you are severely pressed for time, perform only the four foundation lifts.

Foundation Lifts

Category 1

  1. Barbell Deadlift
  2. Barbell Good Mornings
  3. Barbell Stiff-Leg Deadlift
  4. Single-Leg Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Category 2

  1. Barbell Back Squat
  2. Barbell Front Squat
  3. DB Step-Ups
  4. Bulgarian Split Squats

Category 3

  1. Pull-Ups (assisted or bodyweight)
  2. Lat Pull-Downs (any grip option)
  3. DB Single-Arm Rows
  4. Seated Cable Rows
  5. Standing Cable Rows (double arm or single arm)

Category 4

  1. Bench Press
  2. Incline Bench Press
  3. DB Chest Press
  4. DB Incline Chest Press
  5. Single-Arm DB Chest Press
  6. Standing Cable Chest Press

Auxiliary Lifts

  1. Plank (or Side Plank)
  2. Hanging Knee Raises
  3. Barbell or DB Overhead Press
  4. Farmer's Walk
  5. DB Walking Lunge
  6. Prone Hamstring Curls
  7. Seated Calf Raises
  8. Standing Cable Chops
  9. DB Pull-Overs
  10. KB Heavy Swings


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: CHEST | RUNNING | EXERCISE | PRESS | BARBELL | LIFTS | INTENSITY