Your Finishing Kick Happens in the Gym

To lift or not to lift?  That is the question many runners are asking. The media gives a lot of conflicting examples; for instance, there’s Galen Rupp, the fastest, most dominant distance runner in the US (both on the track and the road!) Who reportedly completely cut out upper body lifting this past year in order to “improve his fluidity and extensibility in his running stride” (via Runner’s World August Issue).  Then there’s Mo Farah, who took a tumble in the men’s olympic 10,000m and still managed to outsprint everyone for the gold  – who apparently does a lot of heavy squats (per the NBC announcer of the night).  There’s Emma Coburn, olympic steeplechase bronze medalist, whose instagram is peppered with videos of her holding planks, busting out pistol squats, etc.

So….do you lift? do you not? what if it makes you bulky and slows you down?

First, let’s clear up a few things:


Especially for the ladies out there.  You just don’t have enough testosterone to get major hypertrophy like the guys do.  And regardless of your gender,  if you want to get big, you need to eat a TON of food.  So….yes, lift! Just don’t eat like an asshole and you’ll probably be just fine.


And if you DO gain some muscle mass…it’s likely okay! More muscle mass = increased basal metabolic rate (muscle takes more energy to maintain than fat does), which means you get leaner.  Better body composition. Further, that muscle isn’t just dead weight to carry around – it’s doing the work for you.  The more muscles firing, the more powerful your stride, the faster you can go with less oxygen use.  If you do feel that you’ve gained an amount of weight that’s hindering your run performance, simply cut back, and try bodyweight stabilization and plyometric work instead.  You’ll still get the neuromuscular benefits!


Actually, the vast majority of strength has nothing to do with bulk.  You gain neuromuscular strength before hypertrophy, and for most runners, that’s all you need. Neuromuscular strength, in a nutshell, basically means a better brain-brawn connection.  You recruit more motor units (a motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers it innervates) faster and with better synchrony = a stronger, more powerful contraction. No bulk needed.This is another reason why bodyweight training and plyometric training can be really beneficial for runners; it’s very difficult to get hypertrophy with these types of training, but you will still improve neuromuscular control ( provided you are not already doing this.  From bodyweight training, the next natural progression is to add weight).


Strong muscles help you run faster.  As I said above, more bulk does = more power output, but the neuromuscular  strength component is just as important, if not more so. More motor units firing at the right time allows you to use the CORRECT muscles at the correct time to propel you forward.  Form problems and pain/injury can at times result from using your “accessory” muscles to do the work of prime movers if the prime movers are kicking in too late, or without enough force generation.  Many types of strength training are geared at improving force generation, timing of force generation, and muscular endurance (muscles are still producing adequate force on cue at mile 25 of your marathon, for example), not necessarily strength – the true definition of which is “the ability to lift a given amount of weight once”.

Strength – or, if you prefer, force-generation capacity- can reduce the risk of many sports injuries.  Consider this: as many as 80% of runners get injured every year. 80  PERCENT.  Strong muscles being strong at the right time, I believe, can help bring this number down.  Doing work in the gym can improve the ability of your muscles to absorb the impact forces and eccentric load that comes with running, which leads to less stress on your bones and joints. See where I’m going with this?

Now, strength is by no means a panacea for running injuries.  Heavy squats do not actually fix everything, and in fact, you may not even need to max out in the gym to see benefit.  If you’re not currently doing any strength work, start with using just your body weight! There are MANY progressions of body weight exercise. If you feel that you have exhausted these options and haven’t changed your injury risk or performance, the next natural progression would be to add weight.  But in addition to force generation capacity, you also need a certain amount of joint mobility, tissue extensibility, and above all a training plan that appropriately balances rest and stress. A workout means nothing if you can’t recover from it! It also goes without saying (I would think) that strength training should not take the place of your running! You need the miles and the speedwork – it’s the specificity prinicple after all. Wanna be good at running? Then run 🙂 But, that said, strength is a crucial piece of this puzzle.


It’s not just about preventing injuries, though -there are many, MANY studies showing that heavy lifting and plyometrics improve distance running performance. Bodyweight strength and stability training is also a great way to improve force generation capacity, and has the bonus of being highly accessible (no gym needed!) However, the studies I found specifically used either heavy lifting or plyometrics as their intervention, which is why I talk mainly about these two types of strength work ( but stay tuned for a #FitNerdLitSearch that focuses specifically on body weight training for performance and injury risk reduction).

There is a LOT of research out there that focuses on the effects of strength training on endurance performance.  The vast majority of it is in favor of strength training, and there are a lot of different body systems and aspects of running performance through which it works to improve your running:

  1.  It improves your running economy – the amount of oxygen it takes you to run at a certain pace.  A lot of this has to do with your form and with muscular fatigue.  Strong muscles are better at holding your form – especially  late in the race, allowing you to run with the least amount of energy expenditure possible.
  2. It improves your power output.  When you run, your legs act like springs – you need explosive power to generate that forward motion.  There’s lots of research out there showing that when runners incorporate plyometric training (for as little as 30 minutes twice per week – it doesn’t even have to take up a lot of time!), their race times decrease significantly, especially over distances less than 10k (at least, there is no research that I know of showing that it is also effective in the marathon – however, the marathon is such a long race that it’s really hard to attribute performance to one single thing.  We all know that the weather and our guts play just as big a role in marathon performance as our heart, lungs, and muscles do).
  3. It CAN improve your cardiovascular fitness – IF you are a new runner.  If you’ve never exercised before and this is your first go at consistent training (power to you, that’s awesome!!) then pretty much anything will improve your cardiovascular fitness. You’ll have lower blood pressure, decreased resting heart rate, decreased heart rate at a given submaximal running pace, and a higher VO2 Max.  If you’ve been training for awhile, however, lifting is not going to do much for aerobic fitness.  BUT, most research suggests that lifting is in no way shape or form detrimental to your cardiovascular fitness
  4. Your muscle fiber-type makeup can change.  I’ll keep this as not-sciency as possible – plyometric training and power training can lead to certain “transitional” fiber types acting more like fast twitch fibers.  Muscular endurance training can lead these transitional fiber types to act more like slow twitch fibers.  With more of your muscle fibers acting like fast-twitch, you can sustain higher speeds and have a more powerful finishing kick.  With more fibers acting like sl0w-twitch fibers, you can sustain pace for longer. Having less fibers in the “transitional” state and more of them acting like fast and slow twitch will allow both areas of run performance (speed and endurance) to improve.
  5. There is one paper suggesting that running-specific strength training can increase your ability to maintain stride length (an important determinant of speed) during a race.

Now, we’re not talking about immediate effects of strength training – I guarantee that if you do a heavy squat and deadlift session and then immediately peal out the door for a run, your legs will feel like shit. While we’re here though, I’ll answer that age old question – “should I lift first or run first?”  The answer is neither, dude.  You should split them up.  Run in the morning, lift in the afternoon, or vice versa. Recovering for at least 12 hours in between training sessions allows you to reap the biggest benefits from BOTH types of training.  If you must put them together – save the one that’s easier for you for last.  If you’ve been running for a long time but have only just started lifting, lift first so you can maintain proper form and concentration while you’re fresh – then go for a run.  If you’re a trained runner, yeah the first mile might suck, but your legs will know what to do. Or, you can prioritize what you want to gain.  Want to focus on gaining strength? Lift first.  Want to focus on aerobic capacity? Run first. Play around with it, and see what feels best to you!

Ok back on topic.  These studies are actually talking about the CUMULATIVE effects of a PERIOD of strength training – most studies have runners lift for at least six weeks, and that’s generally the amount of time it takes to build significant neuromuscular control.

The number one thing all runners want, deep down, is longevity.  We all want to be able to run consistently for the rest of our lives.  The second thing we want is to be better, faster, tougher.  To have both of these things, you need to do more than just run….

… need to strength train.


Jay Dicharry, Anatomy for Runners

Ramirez-Campillo et al 2014. Effects of Plyometric Training on Endurance and Explosive Strength Performance in Competitive Middle and Long Distance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 28(1): 97-104.

Hurley et al 1984. Effects of high intensity strength training on cardiovascular function. Med Sci Sports Exerc 16(5) 483-488

Paavolaininet al 1999. Explosive strength training improves 5km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology 86 (5): 1527-1533

Kraemer et al 1995. Compatibility of high -intensity strength and endurance training on skeletal muscle and hormonal adaptations. Journal of Applied Physiology 78 (3) 976-989.

Hickson et al 1988.  The potential for strength and endurance training to amplify endurance performance.  Journal of Applied Physiology 65 (5): 2285-2290.

Beaty et al 2014: Effects of strength training on performance in endurance athletes.Sports Med 44: 845-865.

Kenji Doma and Glen Bede Deakin 2014. The Acute Effects of intensity and volume of strength training on running performance. European Journal of Sport Science 14 (2) 107-115.

Esteve-Lanau et al 2008. Running-specific, periodized strength training attenuates loss of stride length during intense endurance running. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22: 1176-1183.

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