The why and how of strength training for runners
By Henry Howard
Jason Fitzgerald fell in love with running when he started as a freshman in high school. After he competed year-round for four years at Connecticut College, he continued his involvement with running and turned it into a full-time job with his Strength Running brand.
For runners, strength training is a vital part of the sport. It helps prevent injuries, build an overall better fitness and improves running form. January is an ideal time to increase or start a new strength training program. But many runners don’t know exactly where to begin or are concerned about how building strength might be detrimental to their running.
That’s why I’ve put together a four-part special series on Strength Training for Runners. For part one, I could not think of anyone better to interview than Fitzgerald. In future installments each of the next three weeks, I’ll share interviews and perspectives from other experts who offer guidance to female runners, masters athletes and how nutrition relates to strength training.
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.
Introduction to strength training
As Fitzgerald says on his podcast, “Let’s get into it.” Here’s our Q&A where we discuss the best timing for strength training, how it fits into the overall running plan, why CrossFit exercises are not recommended for runners and more.
Question: When did running first click with you?
Answer: “In eighth grade, I was the 5-2, 100-pound kid avoiding all of the running events and just doing the high jump and the shot put. I thought cross country was track. When I got to the cross country team and I learned that I couldn’t high jump. ‘All they do is running,’ I thought. I almost quit immediately, but I was thankful that some family members encouraged me to stick with it. I really enjoyed the team itself. The guys on the team were just really supportive, and I really liked the coach. So, I stuck with the sport, and very quickly fell in love with it once I started experiencing some progress. As soon as I started seeing improvement, I just thought it was amazing, and I learned that if put in the work, you start getting results.”
Question: When and where did strength training become a part of your running journey? Did it start right back in the high school days, or was it something that came around later?
Answer: “It did come by later. I actually didn't think strength training was necessary for runners, even though I was very wrong on that front, just because I had a pretty injury-free running career. Once I started experiencing more injuries in college, then I realized something had to change. And post-collegiately, I ran the 2008 New York City Marathon. I got hurt afterwards when I started coming back to the sport of running and training again, and I just knew something had to change. I was getting injured all the time. I had spent six months with this IT band injury after the 2008 New York City Marathon, and that's when I started incorporating a lot more strength training into my own training. I certainly had to learn the hard way. But once I did, I started seeing a lot of improvements in how I felt on a day-to-day basis. I was able to train harder. I ended up running a new personal best by over five minutes, and accomplishing my goal of getting under 2:40.”
Question: Strength training can be a really wide range of things. How do you define "strength training?" What does it look like?
Answer: “That's a good question. There are a lot of different ways to structure strength training. Maybe I can describe what ideal strength training will look like and then, from there, you can scale it down if you just simply don't have the drive to strength train in what I consider the ideal fashion. Ideally, every runner would get in the weight room twice a week, and spend 45 to 60 minutes trying to get stronger and develop power. We do not have to lift for endurance. We don't have to lift for hypertrophy (increase in muscle mass) like a bodybuilder might. Those are a lot of different ways that people go about strength training that just aren't really going to be helpful for the demands of the sport of running. The other thing that we should also be doing is strength training for injury prevention.
“The gym work is going to be really helpful at helping you prevent injuries, but we can also do a little bit more, and follow up each run with maybe about 10 to 20 minutes of body weight strength training exercises that are a little bit more taken from the world of physical therapy. If you've ever been hurt, you go to a physical therapist. They're going to have you do a lot of corrective exercises, and we can do that when we're healthy for prevention. And so, the ideal kind of schedule is two days a week in the gym and then, the other days that you're running, you're following that up with 10 to 20 minutes of body weight, strength exercises, primarily for injury prevention.”
Question: What about for those who are starting out? Where should they begin?
Answer: “Now, if you're totally new to strength training, you probably shouldn't jump into the kind of schedule I just mentioned. We should probably take a more gradual approach, and start with the body weight exercises and then we can add in band work. We can add in a medicine ball or a kettle bell, and really just start adding in a little bit of resistance before we then can transition to twice a week at the gym.”
Question: Runners come in all shapes and sizes. Are there strength exercises that would be more beneficial to, say, maybe a 40something female who does 5Ks, maybe a marathon a year, versus say a male in his late 50s, maybe 60s, who is at a different stage of life, isn't competitive anymore but still likes to go out with the community and do local races? Should they be looking at various different kinds of these exercises, or are they general enough where both will get the same benefit?
Answer: “That's another good question. It's true that strength training becomes more important as you get older. So, for the two examples you said, both of these athletes are either masters or grand masters athletes. So, strength training, particularly weightlifting in the gym, is really important. It's going to help with preserving your bone density, and particularly for men, who lose about 1 percent of their muscle mass every year without strength training, after the age of 40, it's really important to maintaining a healthy body composition. So, from a longevity in the sport perspective, I would say strength training, and even weightlifting, is just as important for these two runners. It's more of a spectrum. From one end, it's not important. On the other end, it's critical. The older you get, the more critical strength training becomes. You can probably get away with no strength training if you are a high school or college athlete.
“I still think you're not ideally training, but you can probably get away with more, especially boys, who maybe in high school or college, they're just awash in testosterone. They can do things that normal people can't because of that, and I think it's equally as important for men and women. The other issue is how competitive you want to be. You, of course, don't have to strength train in an ideal fashion if you're only running a couple times a week. You never run any races. It's more of a lifestyle thing for you. You do it because you enjoy it, but you don't really have any competitive or performance goals. I tend to work with a runner who has some type of goal like running a first marathon or qualifying for the Boston Marathon. When you have a performance goal, then we have to train, and that's very different from just general exercise. If you're just a general exerciser, or you're doing it for general health, and that includes some running, you're not what I would call a ‘performance oriented runner.’ So, this conversation is almost moot.”
Question: Let's talk about the timing of strength training. You mentioned doing something after you get back from your run. For the gym workouts, those are going to be longer sessions. So, when during the week do you recommend those? For my athletes, I emphasize the, "Hard days, hard, easy days, easy," especially for the masters athletes. How do you approach strength training with general running during the week?
Answer: “I agree with you. That's the ideal schedule, because it really prioritizes gaining as much fitness as possible on those hard days and then you're able to get more recovery on your easy days, because you're not spreading out the effort as much throughout the week. Instead of having a lot of moderate effort days, you're having easier days and then much harder days. Polarizing your training that way, by effort, I think is really smart. Now, it can be a little difficult to lift after a very hard workout. I struggle with lifting weights after a long run. I'm just very fatigued, low energy, and a lot of runners will feel similar to that. And sometimes runners just don't have the bandwidth, or the time in their schedule, to go for a long run or do a workout and then spend an hour in the gym lifting weights.
“We're not all pro runners, and can't modify our schedules around our training. So, in those situations, the next best option is to put the lifting days on your ‘moderate effort days.’ Maybe it's the second-hardest workout that you do during the week. It's harder than an easy day, but it's also not nearly as hard as a real, more challenging workout. And then it may be not your long run. Maybe it's your medium long run. Maybe it's the next longest run that isn't a workout. So, trying to find some scheduling options that work for the individual athlete, I think, is really important. As long as you're still having two really easy days, which might include a complete day off, I think we're still getting that recovery during the week.”
Question: How about the timing during the season? Where do you see strength training beyond just being consistent throughout the year? Do you see the downtime between seasons or goal races as an opportunity to get a little bit stronger, or is it better to just let the body completely rest and recover after a lengthy training cycle and race?
Answer: “I think we can do both. It’s always good to take a little bit of time off. Maybe that's five to 10 days, depending on how much you think you need, but then once your time off is over, maybe you have a week of just really easy running. We should start incorporating some of the easier body weight strength training during that first week back. I think any offseason is a good opportunity to do things a little differently, and to work on some things you wouldn't normally work on if you were in a typical training season.
“So, for example, if you're like me, you have the very cliche runner's body. Strength is your weakness. I would work on trying to get stronger, so literally trying to increase my one rep max. Just like if we're trying to get faster, I want to increase my PRs in certain distances, I want to increase my PRs in certain exercises, and try to lift heavier weight so that I just have a higher strength ceiling, and that's going to carry over really well into my training.”
Question: How do you advise athletes to approach strength training during their tapers?
Answer: “In an ideal scenario, the weightlifting program should be periodized to roughly match the effort of your run training. So, just like during your taper, you've cut the volume of your running, you've either maintained or even slightly increased the intensity of your running, we basically want to do a very similar thing with our weightlifting, so ensuring that the weight lifting is periodized, and this is where you're really focusing on power. You're not doing three sets of 10 focused on general strength and injury prevention. What you're doing instead is doing some more power-based movements. You're doing lower repetitions. You're really focusing on neuromuscular adaptations and things like that. That'll take care of the weightlifting and then the body weight stuff can roughly stay the same, because that's mostly for injury prevention. It's also just not challenging enough to really make the athlete too tired, especially if they're lifting and just building a lot of top end strength.”
Question: Tell me about a strength training exercise or two that you would recommend that runners not do.
Answer: “I would say runners don't really have to do too many isolation exercises like bicep curls, hamstring curls, things like that. Those are isolation exercises that a bodybuilder would do. We need to be training movements instead of muscles. It's not that they're dangerous, but they're just not really going to benefit as much from those types of exercises. And then a little bit more generally, I mentioned we don't have to lift for endurance.
“Another type of strength workout that I don't recommend is something similar to a CrossFit workout. That includes a lot of metabolic work. We train our cardiovascular system, our aerobic system, all the time when we're running. We get a lot of stimulus with our run training. We don't have to do it in the weight room. We don't need to combine our lifting with rowing, or cycling, or running, or do circuits with little rests so that our heart rate stays high. We really need to be focusing on the strength and the power side of things, and that includes full rest. That includes making sure that we're ready for the next lift instead of ‘as many reps as possible’ type workouts that are very common in CrossFit.
“I would steer runners away from those workouts, not necessarily because they're risky. Although, I do think some CrossFit workouts can be risky when they prioritize speed over form and safety, but more likely, they're just not going to be as beneficial as other types of workouts.”
Name: Jason Fitzgerald
Hometown: Lexington, Mass.
Number of years running: 24+
How many miles a week do you typically run: I used to run 85-plus but I now run 30-plus!
Point of pride: “In 2011, I fully recovered from a serious injury and improved my marathon to 2:39:32. It remains one of my most meaningful running accomplishments.”
Favorite race distance: Mile or 5K
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Banana, oatmeal and lots of coffee!!
Favorite piece of gear: 1" split-leg short shorts
Who inspires you: I'm inspired by almost everybody. “Any runner who commits to the process and loves the sport is an inspiration to me.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I don't run to music.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “You can give more.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: strengthrunning.com
• Twitter: @JasonFitz1
• Instagram: @JasonFitz1
• YouTube: youtube.com/strengthrunning