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Lifting for Runners 101

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As runners, we tend to stick with what we know– which is obviously running. We commit ourselves to intense plans and running workouts to prepare ourselves for upcoming races and possibly landing a PR. But lifting weights should not be brushed aside either. It can be difficult to figure out how to incorporate strength training into our already packed schedules, but the exercises below will really help pack on muscle in the areas that most benefit runners.  

Many seasoned runners get a little bit intimidated at the thought of hitting the gym to lift weights. For one, there is the fear of getting too “big”.  After all, we know that the body moves faster when it has less weight on it. Read on to find out which exercises will benefit you most, and how much of each exercise you should aim to do.

Exercises to Include in Your Strength Training Routine

As a runner, the majority of our strength is found in our legs. And it makes sense, of course. Our quads, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and calf muscles all work together to help us run stronger, longer, and faster. So first up is leg day.


Leg day kind of sucks, we are not going to sugar coat it. But it sucks for a reason – these exercises are incredibly effective. Among the various leg exercises you can do with weights, squats reign supreme because they incorporate so many major and minor leg muscles at once. It is what is known as a “compound” exercise, or exercises that use heavier weights and target multiple muscles and joints.

By Em Bhoo (https://www.flickr.com/photos/embhoo/5759454850/) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Don’t be afraid of the squat bar! Load it up with plates on each side, and position the bar in the middle of your back, across the “meaty” part. It is important to keep your head looking straight out in front, so as not to strain the neck in any way. Then, keeping a straight back, slowly bend at the knees and push your butt out until your calves/shins and thighs are bent at a 90-degree angle at the knee. Pause here briefly before pushing the weight back up as you straighten your legs and squeeze your glutes. This equals one weighted squat.


You’ll find several variations of lunges, all of which are effective at building muscle. For now, we will focus on walking lunges. You can use a squat rack bar, but using an EZ bar is probably easier.

Choose your desired weight (which will likely be significantly lower than your squat weight, as lunges only use one leg at a time) and find some space out on the gym floor. As you slowly take each step, bend your front leg all the way to a 90-degree angle, pushing through the quad as you push back up and move forward. Always keep the neck straight. These should be slow and controlled.


Of all the leg exercises, deadlifts might be the most difficult and the most effective, and definitely pose the greatest risk for injury. So be careful and always focus on your form.

Using a squat bar on the floor, (or a deadlift bar on a deadlift platform, if available) load your desired weight on each side. Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, bend at the knee 90 degrees, sticking your butt out. Your hands should grip the deadlift bar just outside your knees and your head should be inline with your spine. Slowly lift the bar as you lift your butt and legs while you stand up, being careful not to strain your neck but keep your head fixed. Continue lifting until your legs are just slightly less than straight. (Don’t lock your knees!) Then slowly lower the bar back down, mirroring the movement of pushing your butt out and keeping your head straight. This completes one deadlift.

Shoulder Press

Having a strong core and strong arms is important for runners too, so that they can maintain proper running form.

Using free weights, start with your arms bent at the elbow out to the side of your head, so that you look like a field goal on a football field. Press the weights straight up over your head, then return to the starting position. This is one rep.

One-Armed Bent Over Rows

This exercise targets your back. Holding a dumbbell in one hand, place your opposite leg out in front of you, slightly bending the knee and your core over the extended front leg. Without moving your back from its almost-horizontal angle, pull the dumbbell up to your chest, then lower. Switch arms to hit both sides.

How Much Weight Should I Be Lifting?

Depending on how much muscle you want to pack on, you can try variations in the number of reps and sets to find what best suits you. Adding more weight will pack on muscle quicker, but will result in lower reps and be more difficult. If that is what you are looking for, try loading about 70-80% of your maximum weight for legs and doing four sets of 4-6 reps. For arm, shoulder, and back exercises, again aim for 70-80% of your max for five sets of 4 reps.

If you aren’t looking to lift as heavy, then focus more on low weight-high rep circuits. For each the legs and upper body exercises, choose a weight about 50-60% of your max and perform 3 sets of 10-15 reps each. And if you need to find out what your max is for each exercise, load up the weight as heavy as you think you can lift, then slowly perform one rep. If you can still load more and perform an additional rep while keeping your form, then do it. Continue loading until you can’t handle any more weight, and that is your max weight.

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