Strength training tips for women runners
By Henry Howard
As an injury-prone runner, Angie Spencer began strength training as a way to keep herself strong and healthy. She was my first running coach and introduced me to the concept of adding strength training to an overall running program, which is now part of my regular routine. (She even inspired me to become a coach.)
While Spencer doesn’t have any specific strength training certifications, she is a student of the story and the human body. She has a bachelor’s of science degree from Montana State University Northern and has been a registered nurse for 22 years. Additionally, she is a certified Level 2 running coach through Road Runners Club of America and a Level 1 USATF coach.
In this installment of my four-part series on Strength Training for Runners, Spencer dishes out great advice for women runners.
The series also includes:
• Part 1: An overview with strength running coach Jason Fitzgerald, who provided a lot of great information in this Q&A.
• Part 2: A focus on masters athletes, featuring elite runner Michael Wardian, who shares some tips and exercises.
• The finale: How nutrition relates to strength training, which will be released next week.
Thanks to Gnarly Nutrition for sponsoring this series. Gnarly offers clean, healthy and tasty nutritional products for athletes to use before, during and after their workouts. For me, I regularly use either the Pre or the BCAA mix before almost all of my running and other training.
A guide to strength training for women runners
In this interview, Spencer answers some questions about the importance of strength training for women runners, counters some misperceptions and offers specific exercises to try.
Question: Explain why strength training is important for runners, focusing on women. And along similar lines, let's define what we mean by strength training, specifically for women.
Answer: One key to longevity and health as a runner is building strength and staying injury free. Strength training is an important component to accomplishing those goals. My definition of strength training is this: deliberate and regular exercises designed to build strength. It really doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that especially when you’re just getting started.
Strength training benefits runners by:
• Strengthening muscles, joints and bones: High impact activity can take a toll on joints as we age. Having strong muscles will stabilize and strengthen those joints. As an added benefit, getting stronger strengthens bones and muscles against age-related degeneration. Around age 30, women begin to lose muscle density and lean muscle mass decreases at an approximate rate of 3% per decade between the ages of 30 to 80. The decreases in hormonal levels accelerate during the peri-menopausal period causing declines in strength and muscle mass. This is particularly detrimental for women because we don’t have the advantage of higher levels of testosterone which help build and maintain muscle and bone mass (of course, men also face muscular declines with age).
• Decreasing injuries: Appropriately applied strength training can help prevent running injuries. Multiple studies show that running injuries are often correlated with strength imbalances.
• Improving running form and economy: Long training runs, marathons and ultras all take overall muscle strength. If you feel like you’re having trouble maintaining good running form or if your lower back is aching in the last few miles of your, run it’s probably because you need to build stronger muscles. As runner and strength guru Matt Fitzgerald says, “Strength and power training improve communication between the brain and muscles in ways that enable you to run more efficiently and with less chance of injury.”
• Increasing endurance: Simply put, stronger muscles will work harder and longer for you. You will need all the extra power you can get while training for the marathon and beyond.
• Helping you get faster: Improved muscle strength will help you cover the ground more rapidly. And most of us wouldn’t be opposed to a little more speed.
• Burning more calories: Having a greater muscle mass equals a higher metabolism which will burn more calories at exercise and at rest.
• Boosting confidence: Doing the hard work to build strength helps you realize that you can do other hard things. And that naturally makes you hold your head a little higher.
Question: Some runners have a fear or misperception that strength training will add too much muscle for a runner. What do they need to know about whether there is any truth to that?
Answer: Three common misconceptions about strength training have to do with the intimidation factor, slowing down and getting bulky. Let’s examine each one:
• It’s too intimidating: Many people find the world of strength training a bit daunting and don’t know where to start. I certainly felt that way in the beginning. There are so many different types of machines, free weights, exercises and routines that it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. We may also falsely associate strength training with pumped up bodybuilders and find it hard to relate to those types of body composition goals.
• I’ll get slower: Some people are afraid that “too much” muscle will prevent them from getting faster. In the running community there’s a notion that being lighter will automatically make you faster and that causes some runners to shy away from strength training. But the distance runner looking to improve endurance, increase speed and reduce the risk of injuries shouldn’t be afraid to lift heavy weights.
In my experience, strength training has helped me stay healthy and make improvements in my marathon times. If you look at the training regimes of elite distance runners, I’d guess that the majority of them focus on strength training as well.
• I’ll get too bulky: The misconception that strength training will give you a bodybuilder-like physique is far from true. It takes very deliberate training, long amounts of time and very specific nutrition to pack on muscle. The average runner who strength trains regularly will not bulk up suddenly (if at all). Building muscle mass may cause the number on the scale to rise but it will also bring with it an exponential increase in power and endurance.
Question: Let's talk about some recommendations for strength training for women runners. How frequently would you recommend strength training? Does the frequency, intensity and/or duration change as the athlete ages?
Answer: In the beginning I’d recommend starting with two strength training sessions a week. These don’t have to be long grueling sessions in the gym. Even 15 minutes twice a week can make a big difference. As you get stronger and notice the benefits most people choose to increase the frequency of their strength training to three to five times per week.
For a master’s runner (anyone over age 40) it is important to shift your strength training focus. Light weights and lots of reps are not going to give you the best results — I’d argue they aren’t most beneficial for anyone. You want to focus on lifting heavy, which is relative to your experience and strength, and incorporate plyometrics like jumping to fire up your Type 1 anaerobic muscle fibers and increase bone density. Experts recommend lifting heavy enough to stimulate hypertrophy, or muscle growth. Lift enough weight so that the maximum you can do is five to eight repetitions per set.
Question: What's the best timing for implementing strength training workouts among training? Since many runners are in a down training cycle now, is this a good time to rev up strength training; if, so how soon after a big goal race should they start?
Answer: The offseason or anytime between races is a great time to increase the amount of strength training that you do. Give yourself a week or two — or more if you need it — to recover from your key race and then focus on strength. Like a good training plan for running you want to periodize your strength training. Work on building strength for approximately three weeks and then do a lighter week focused on more recovery.
Question: How do you time strength training in a given week, with typical long runs, easy runs, tempo runs/intervals, etc.?
Answer: I like to keep lifting heavy through a marathon training cycle. If done correctly you can build strength and still nail your running workouts. If you do long runs on the weekend, then the best time to do heavy lower body strength would be early in the week so that muscular soreness doesn’t hold you back. It’s also important to keep your hard days hard and easy days easy for optimum results.
I typically run five or six days per week and lift three or four days a week. Here’s an example of how I lay out my running and strength training:
• Monday (hard): hill run plus heavy lower body strength training
• Tuesday (easy): easy run plus upper body strength training
• Wednesday (hard): speed run plus light lower body/core
• Thursday (easy): easy run plus yoga or core
• Friday (hard): long run
• Saturday (easy): easy run plus mobility work
• Sunday: rest
Question: What are four to six "must do" exercises that you would recommend?
Answer: If I could only do four to six exercises, I would focus on these because they have endless variations and hit every muscle group: Squats, lunges, push-ups, hip thrusts, planks and pull-ups.
Question: For women who don't want or don't have a gym membership, what are some exercises they can do with either very basic equipment like dumbbells or nothing at all?
Answer: If you’re just getting started it’s best to focus on body weight exercises and ease into lifting weights and a gym certainly isn’t required. Body weight squats, lunges, push-ups, bridge holds, hip thrusts, planks and pull-ups (assisted with bands) are very accessible and can be scaled as you get stronger. Other favorite exercises that don’t require much or any equipment include side planks, balance work, bird dog, stability ball hamstring curls, banded lateral walks, wall sits and squat jumps.
I’d recommend a couple of things to get a home gym started: open floor space, some type of exercise mat or carpet, large stability ball and exercise bands. If you want to add more exercise options a TRX system and pull-up bar can be beneficial. Kettlebells, medicine balls, a bench and dumbbells can be another step. If you want to go full on with your home gym a squat rack, barbell, and plates are an awesome addition. Many of us found out during COVID how valuable a home gym could be.
Dr. Stacy Sims has two books that are very helpful for the female endurance runner. They are “Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean, Body for Life” and “Next Level: Your Guide to Kicking Ass, Feeling Great, and Crushing Goals Through Menopause and Beyond.”
Question: Anything else we didn't address that you want women runners to know about ST?
Answer: For years women have been handed a “body rulebook” that tells us we should be “lean and toned,” if not skinny. Movies, fashion, media and advertising are all geared to make us self-conscious about our body. Sometimes running culture can even add to this feeling of comparison. This often leads to a constant cycle of discontentment and self-improvement.
I would argue that women should not be afraid to take up space, to be confident in their strength and to become more powerful.
One way to accomplish this is to deliberately strengthen your body and let go of pre-conceived notions of what women, specifically runners, “should” look like. Having more muscle mass helps you go through life in a different way and makes you harder to kill. The benefits of strength training for women go far beyond making you a better runner. It sets you up to live a healthier and more independent life. As Sims says, “As a woman, you have few precious natural resources as important as your muscles. They are what keep you strong, able and independent.”