How to Optimally Combine Strength Training and Running

How to Optimally Combine Strength Training and Running

To improve as a runner, going out regularly and often to pound the pavement is the best place to start. But because running is considered to be a high impact sport, strength training is seen as beneficial to help the muscles and joints respond well to the increased stresses that occur from running. However, for many of us, the question remains, how does one fit it all in? We have researched the answer to this question and have found the most optimal ways to combine both strength training and running. 

What is strength training? 

Strength training is a form of exercise using body weight or resistance weights like bands or dumbbells in a repeated motion to usually target specific tissues. By moving a joint through its range of motion with added weight, the contractions of the tissues will result in an increase of muscle fiber recruitment along with improved neuromuscular input to produce more power, force, and speed. Done either in the home, outside, or at the gym, strength training can come in many forms from high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or Tabata, CrossFit, Bootcamp classes, yoga, Pilates, isometric training, dumbbell or powerlifting, to name a few.

There is a lot of research out there that concludes that resistance training has a positive effect on endurance running performance. 

Take, for example, this systematic review out of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research which examined several articles on strength training and endurance running to determine that strength training does improve running performance. They chose five studies that met their inclusion criteria. They each had highly trained runners (> or = 30 miles per week), participating in resistance and strength intervention for a period > or = 6 weeks, who ran distances between 3 kilometers (K) to 42.2K. Most of the studies employed sport-specific, explosive resistance training, whereas one study used traditional heavyweight resistance training. They concluded from most of the studies that there is almost a 3% improvement in running performance (for the 3K and 5K), and in all of the five studies that there was almost a 5% improvement in running economy.

Additionally, this study from The Journal of Human Sport and Exercise observed a group of adolescent middle-distance runners who received an 8-week strength training program. They observed and recorded the following physical qualities: aerobic capacity, lactate threshold, economy, time trial performance, lower body power, and vertical stiffness before and after the study, comparatively. Results included: skinfold measurements decreased by almost 5 millimeters (mm), a range of 3 to 5 seconds improvement in distances from 600 meters (m) to 1800m, decreased overall exerted maximal heart rate, and improvement in their lactate threshold. The authors determined that the strength and endurance training interventions were effective in improving the economy, running performance, and strength phenotypes in adolescent middle-distance athletes.

So now that we know strength training is good for running. How can one optimally combine both?

An Australian review article from 2019 was published in Sports Medicine stating that certain types and modes of resistance exercises can impair neuromuscular function and endurance performance due to muscle damage that occurs following resistance training. Muscle damage or reconstruction that occurs from minuscule tears from strength and resistance exercises is a normal process of developing muscle mass and power, however muscle recovery following strength sessions requires longer follow-up periods than that of just running. This does not go to say that both strength training and long-distance running should be avoided. However, this does mean an appropriate and optimally combined training program should exist in order to reduce fatigue and improve better performance for both modes of training. 

The review strongly dictates that the intensity and effort of the run intended will and should dictate which order is appropriate: to perform the strength training before or after a long or hard effort run. The article discusses and provides ideal ways to concurrently do both depending on your goals. 

A very brief summarization is if your run is scheduled to be taxing or needing moderate to maximal effort based on speed or endurance, the strength training should not occur before the run. If the run requires less effort and your goal is to build muscle mass or lose weight, strength training can be performed on the same day. While maximal effort strength training requires at least 24 hours but up to 48 hours recovery, the maximal running effort requires less recovery time. 

The following are overall suggestions for optimal recovery and performance when deciding to follow a strength and running program: 

The author notes that low to moderate level runs are minimally affected by strength training sessions. So he suggests a morning sub-maximal effort run followed 6 hours later by a higher intensity strength workout, or vice versa, but a high-intensity strength workout should never be followed by a hard run. 

The article reports that maximal effort runs following a resistance training program are impacted for up to 24 hours following the strength training. This means that if you have a hard run on your schedule, you should not be doing strength training, more specifically lower body strength training for at least 24 hours before that run. 

Therefore, if your weekly schedule, for example, includes 5 runs per week:

Monday - Rest Day

Tuesday - Interval/Sprint Workout

Wednesday - Easy Run followed 6 hours later by a strength workout

Thursday - Easy Run 

Friday - Strength training workout

Saturday - Easy Run

Sunday - Long Run

In conclusion, evidence suggests both running and strength training are healthy and beneficial for improving muscular strength, bone density, cardiovascular conditioning, and peak performance. However, resistance training requires more recovery time than that of running alone. If goals are about running performance, high-intensity strength training should only be combined with easy running days or stand-alone. The hard effort runs should never follow a strength training session unless there has been an adequate recovery of more than 24 hours. With this knowledge, how would you have to adapt your training programs?