Why Runners Need Upper Body Strength
When we think about running and the body parts involved in running, it is natural to first think about our legs. Our calves, hamstrings, glutes, and especially our quads are front and center to helping propel us forward. And if you have been running for some time now, you have probably noticed how the sport helps tone and define these muscles into lean and strong legs that you can be proud of (not just because of how they look, but because of what they do for you!). And when runners get in the gym to work on strength training, most tend to stick to training legs, and maybe throw in some core work to help with stabilization (and probably a little bit for the sake of those summer bathing suit pictures on the beach). But failing to strength train our upper bodies can start to wreak havoc on our running. It is important to make sure we are incorporating time outside of running to hit the weights, and within that time, make sure we are adequately training our chest, upper back, shoulders, and arm muscles.
It should come as no surprise to most runners that running requires balance and strength. Runners who do not have good balance, or tend to favor one side over the other not only face an increased risk of face planting and injuring themselves, but they tend to build up strength on one side of the body more than the other – which, in the long run, leads to issues involving overcompensation and potentially even a serious injury. Like we mentioned before, incorporating hundreds of crunches and sit ups into your workout routine might help you strengthen your abdominals and get you looking good in a bikini, but your body needs more than just core work to be proportionately balanced. Working your upper body helps to realign your running stride, and lighten the load your legs and core have to endure. For example, if you focus on strengthening only your lower body, then you will be running using mainly your lower body muscles. But if you focus on strengthening your upper body, and in turn, using your arms, upper back, and shoulders to help balance, support, and propel you forward during your stride, you take some of the load and burden off of your lower body. This means “saving” your legs, and facing less fatigue and burnout near the end of a difficult workout or race. It helps balance out where your effort is being exerted, so that you are more efficient.
Strong Bodies Support Better Form
Proper running form is crucial to having a good run and a successful race. Not only does the right form make you faster and more efficient, but it helps protect you from certain injuries that are caused by imbalanced and poor form. But maintaining proper form, especially proper upper body form, can be difficult – especially after miles and miles of grueling hills and extreme race day conditions. Hitting the gym to pump some iron and strengthen those shoulders, biceps, triceps, and lats will help you maintain proper running form for longer without getting fatigued.
So what is the best upper body form to have while running? Let’s start with the elbows, which should be bent at a 90-degree angle or less. Hands should be held loosely. I had a coach once tell me if we insist on clenching our fists, then try and focus on forming our hands so that just the pointer finger and thumb are lightly touching, as if holding a potato chip delicately between them. It is important to keep your hands as loose as possible because hand cramping is actually a thing and it is small, annoying pains like that that can really derail us on race day! Arms should swing loosely at your sides, directly backwards and forwards. Swinging arms across the body laterally will negatively impact your movement forward, and slow you down. Keep your back straight with only a slight angle forward, and head up with your neck and upper shoulders as loose as possible (like a hand cramp, a cramping neck and tense shoulders can lead to side pains that nobody has time for). Stronger shoulders and lats, especially, will help you keep proper form and hold your arms in the proper position for longer.
Best Exercises for Your Upper Body
Strengthening your upper body as a runner does not require hours upon hours of time in the gym, picking up heavy weights. While we DO advise to go as heavy as you can, (that means you too, girls! NO you are not going to bulk up, but you will get sculpted, defined arm muscles that look great and help you race faster, meaner, and better) just a few times a week (try for three to four times a week, but if two is all you can squeeze in, that is okay too) for twenty minutes total each time will give you the results you need. For each of the exercises below, aim for 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps each.
The first on our list is the good old fashioned push-up. Yeah, these suck. But that’s because they’re awesome and they work. If you’re a newbie in the gym, you can start with a modified push up on your knees, but work your way up to your toes. If push-ups hurt your wrists, then use kettlebells or dumbbell weights to push up off of.
Chest Presses are one of those exercises that work multiple parts of the upper body. While they definitely build your pecs, they also recruit ancillary muscles (triceps and shoulders). Lay down on a bench and load up a barbell with a weight that is somewhere between comfortable and strenuous, and crank them out.
Barbell Rows use a barbell to strengthen your back. Bend at the waist and bring the barbell up to just below your chest. This exercise can easily transition into upright rows, which target your shoulders. The same arm motion is used in both exercises, but upright rows are completed when standing straight up and with hands positioned closer together on the bar.
Balanced Bicep Curls are a classic two-for-one combination strength movement. Standing on one foot, perform half of your set’s reps with a dumbbell in both arms, then switch feet for the last half of your reps. This works those guns but also helps with balance and stabilization. Finally, pump out the shoulders with Lateral and Frontal Dumbbell Raises. Make sure you keep your arms as straight as possible for both exercises. Lateral raises involve lifting the dumbbells straight out to the side, and frontal dumbbells raise the weights directly out in front of you. Palms should be facing down while holding the weight for both exercises.