To boost your running performance, you consider strength training, but now you’ve got two major questions: Is that effort really necessary? And should I do high reps at a lower weight or low reps at a heavier weight?
The short answers: Yes, and it depends. Let’s tackle the easy one first.
'Absolutely, if you want to be a better runner, resistance training will help you,' Carol Mack, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., tells Runner’s World. 'Research has shown that you can improve endurance, running economy, and sprinting speed through strength training two to three times weekly, with results starting at about six weeks.'
With that said, where you start in terms of reps and weights is the trickier issue, because it depends on your current fitness level and goals, Mack says. But, good news: You don’t actually have to choose one or the other, because you can mix them together, even in the same workout.
'You can start with low reps and higher weight, and then when you begin to reach muscle fatigue, switch to lower weight and higher reps,' she says. 'The larger aim here is to fatigue the muscles you’re working so they rebuild stronger. And people might take different routes to get there, but it’s same destination.'
Here’s a deeper look at the benefits of each option.
Low weight, high reps
When you’re lifting with a lower amount of weight and can do up to 20 reps until fatigue, that’s a focus on endurance, says Mack.
'Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to work for an extended period of time,' she says. This usually involves fewer sets and less rest to get muscles 'tired' within just 2 or 3 sets with low weight.
One potentially major consideration to take into account when deciding what’s right for you is your mileage, according to running coach Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S. If you’re logging serious distance, then in many ways, you’re already working on muscular endurance, she tells Runner’s World.
'Most runners need more muscle mass, or strength and control in the muscle mass they have,' she says. 'Hypertrophy training [a higher amount of weight and a lower amount of reps] most often accomplishes that goal with the least amount of cumulative fatigue.'
High weight, low reps
Aiming for strength with a heavier weight and only about 5 reps until muscle fatigue is the preferred strategy for many coaches and runners, Mack says, because it tends to be more effective for running performance.
The weight should be about 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep max, for 3 to 6 sets of between 5 to 10 reps. This can include exercises such as weighted lunges, squats, deadlifts, step ups, and many others. Mack says that for runners, there should be a particular focus on exercises that target the hip, thigh, and calf muscles because that creates more muscular power for a run.
Although this approach is considered 'old school,' keep in mind that as Mack suggests, you can blend hypertrophy and endurance together to see what works best for you and your goals.
'One strategy is to consider phases, like sports seasons,' adds Thomas. 'For example, in your ‘off-season,’ you may lift differently than you do during racing seasons. Maybe you go more for volume or you focus on more weight. It really depends on what fits best for you.'
One non-negotiable everyone should have in their training plan, though, is recovery. Thomas suggests that just as you build recovery days into your running schedule, you need to allow a couple days after a hypertrophy strength training day for better muscle building.
Special considerations to take into account
With those basics covered, now you get into the more nitty-gritty questions: Are you injured? Do you have low bone density and/or low muscle mass and need to build those up? Have you ever strength trained before?
In all of those circumstances, the answer tends to be the same, according to Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles.
'Low weight, high reps, no question,' he tells Runner’s World. 'In situations like these where you have injury, potential sarcopenia [loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength], or you’re just a beginner, you have to start this way and progress very slowly when you’re increasing weight.'
This is because with injury, age, or unfamiliarity, you aren’t just training to build stronger muscles—you’re training your neuromuscular system for activity and your form, Anand says. While muscle fatigue is part of the equation, you’re also firing up that system in a new way, and that takes time.
'This might feel frustrating because people think this is a gentle movement and they want to do more, faster,” says Anand. “But pick up a 10-pound weight and do 100 biceps curls. I can guarantee that around the 20-rep mark, you’ll lose the idea that it’s easy.'
The bottom line
Whatever mix of weights and reps you choose, the main idea is not just to get your muscles to fatigue, but to develop better strength overall, according to Anand. Adding strength training to your routine is important, but your form and safety is even more important so take the time to perfect each move to avoid injury.
And while strength training can improve your running, it can also improve your physical functioning in general, such as building a more efficient nervous system function, encouraging blood flow, balancing hormone regulation, better protecting your joints, and a boosting your immune system.
'As you progress and get stronger, you’ll see the results not just in your running performance, although that does tend to improve, but in ways you might not have expected,' Mack says.
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