You Be the Coach: Is Strength Training a Waste of Time?

2015 is the Year of Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone.

Over the past three months, I’ve challenged you to:

Now I want to keep pushing you to get outside of your comfort zone. After all, how else will you continue improving if you’re not pushing the envelope?

Today, it’s your turn to be the coach. In this ongoing series, I want to encourage your continued learning about this great sport so you can make more educated decisions about your training, spot questionable pieces of running advice, and understand the shades of grey in every running issue.

Because as we’ve seen before, there’s some downright terrible running advice out there…

Let’s critique an article about strength training that makes bold claims about what actually helps runners get faster and stay healthy.

Before we dive in, two simple ground rules:

  1. Focus on the content, not the author.
  2. Be positive and constructive – unless you’re being witty, in which case I’ll allow a funny jab 🙂

Ready? Let’s do this.

Should You Strength Train?

Strength Training

This picture makes me laugh

In an article published on Active, writer Jason Karp makes several bold claims:

  • Strength training does not improve running performance (and may actually hinder performance)
  • Strength training does not prevent injuries
  • Strength training should be reserved for highly trained runners

You can read the entire article here.

There’s a LOT going on in this article. And while I would have preferred better organization, we have to use what’s available to influence our responses.

Here are several “study questions” to help guide your thinking:

Should distance runners even worry about muscle hypertrophy (growth)?

What research exists that disproves the author’s core presumption that strength training doesn’t improve performance?

If strength work doesn’t prevent injuries, why does the author recommend it for those who are prone to injuries?

What are the pros and cons of strength work for beginners?

If strength work doesn’t improve performance, why is a strength program even recommended later in the article?

You can “cheat” by learning exactly how runners should lift weights here! 🙂

What do you think?

I’m fascinated to hear what members of the Strength Running community have to say about this article.

After all, a key component to my coaching philosophy is strength work! Am I wrong? Have I been deluding myself and hundreds of thousands of other runners for the past 5 years?

Leave your comment below and let’s get the conversation going. I’ll try to respond to as many as possible with my own thoughts.

And if you want to learn how runners should strength train, what mistakes to avoid, and more, don’t miss our strength course!

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  1. Honestly? This is completely unscientific, but I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t matter what you do — some people will get injured, some people won’t.

    (No, I’m not at all bitter about the fact that regardless of whether I do everything right or everything wrong — which means I’m doing everything right according to SOMEONE — I still get hurt again and again and again. Not bitter at all.)

    Anyway, there HAVE been studies showing that strength training is good for bone health. For someone who’s had multiple fractures, that’s reason enough for me; level of performance doesn’t really matter if I can’t run because I’m broken.

  2. Strength training is vital for any athlete. Now thoughts can vary on what each considers strength training, but suffice it to say it is essential. In my opinion, specialization is for insects.mi want to be a well rounded athlete. There are very few who will ever be elites, and guess what most of them incorporate some form of strength training in their regimen. I feel the benefits are enormous for anyone.

  3. Nicole W says:

    My personal experience is that strength work is essential for preventing overuse injuries.

    I did find it interesting that he said that a workout would take an hour and a half in the gym. I can think of countless strength workouts that are killer and take under 30 minutes. Perhaps he’s not considering exercises that are runner specific?

    Also, I think initially running performance may drop if you add in a lot of strength work, but once your body adapts to it being part of your routine it will result in being much stronger and faster long term.
    I find that a new strength routine will slow me down at first, but after a few weeks I start making gains.

    • Nicole, you have a really good point here. Those who go to the gym and throw a bunch of random weights will not see as much benefit as those who have a specific routine or purpose. Runners should focus on exercises specific to running. The same concept is discussed in the book Faster, Higher, Stronger by Mark McClusky. Elite athletes only work on exercises that enhance their specific tasks in their sport. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. I’ve been a runner (marathons) for years and honestly I have let my strength go by the wayside.. I’m sorry I have done that now.. I am trying to break into the Tri scene.. I feel that I am needing more strength for the swim and bike portions and I just don’t have it anymore. One can get away without strength training to run.. but I bet they would be better runners if they were strong(er).

  5. Jason. I’ve learned strength work is critical. Like a basketball player needs strong legs to shoot well. If you are building a car what is the point of a strong engine without a strong transmission. In particular, hip and glute strength is absolutely essential to injury resistance, endurance and speed. We need a strong heart and lungs as the author states but strength in the hips is essential to long term strong running. I have read this in your work over and over, but through experience I have finally realized this in my own experience as well.

  6. I think it depends on your clients as well as timing. Whenever one of my runners asks if they should add weights to my training plans, I almost always say ‘no’. Weights aren’t the only way to build strength, and my plans include a plyo circuit that builds strength in new athletes quite effectively. Many of my clients are either new runners (who are prone to over-doing it) or people who run a lot but haven’t actually trained in a disciplined manner. I openly discourage all of my clients from doing anything outside of my prescribed training plan without discussing it with me first. Is a static weights class bad? Not in and of itself. But if you ran 35 miles this week, performed my plyo circuit twice like I asked, and went on a 30 mike bike ride with your kids, would adding a weights class improve your running in the last 5 weeks of a training cycle before a race? Probably not, in that case I’d say you’re upping your risk for injury. More isn’t always better, disciplined and thoughtful is the way to go.

    • Great point! It definitely depends on the circumstances – always does. You have to look at the big picture and evaluate as you go along. Well said, MK.

  7. Andy Farina says:

    I am a fan of strength training for both enhanced performance and injury prevention. I am from Florida (Flat) and have taken up mountain ultra’s. (Yes, I know! My intelligence is questionable?! lol). I just did the GA Death Race 68 miles with 40,000′ of elevation change and I found that dead lift (posterior chain) training for strength helped me on the many steep climbs and helped protect my previously badly injured back from harm. Maybe other factors came into play? I believe the dead lifts helped… a lot! 🙂

  8. One thing that is often overlooked between these two activities is their effect on hormones. One builds them up (increased testosterone, IGF, growth hormone) while the other – distance running – tears them down (through cortisol). For the average person, strength training will improve their performance simply because of this reason: they are able to balance their hormones (which then has a significant impact on joint health, ability to recover, and motivation to train).

  9. When I moved from doing half marathons to full marathons I decided it incorporate strength training because I was finding when I was doing the longer runs my hips/low back would begin to hurt toward the end of that run. Once I incorporated strength training (and I only do this once a week for about 45 minutes) it made a huge difference – no more sore hips or low back issues. I say it is worth it! At the very least it will fix weak areas you may not even know you have.

    Have a great day!

  10. Erik Esquivel says:

    Hey Jason,
    I have to say I really believe in strength training for runners. As I returned to running about 5 years ago, I was constantly getting these reoccurring stress fractures all through my lower legs. After taking about 4 months off, I started adding body weight exercises in addition to plyometric workouts to my routine. The injuries stopped occurring and I was able to train with no worries. Now, I’m running sub 19 minute 5k’s injury free. So, during my winter months I continue to do these two types of workouts 3-4 times a week. When the Spring hits, I begin my 5k training and cut down these workouts to once a week. After about 4-6 weeks of increased running I eventually cut them out until the end of my 5k season. Overall, I believe strength training is key, but I try to stick to only weightless exercises focusing on strength rather than muscle growth.

  11. Jason,
    There is zero factual data that supports the writers hypothesis. I utilize light strength training and exercises into my running regimen.
    I’m not trying to be a muscle head or gym rat just reduce injuries and be a better all around athlete.

  12. I wholeheartedly believe in strength training for runners. This is one of the reasons I follow you Jason. I didn’t used to strength-train and now I do and my running has improved because of it. My endurance is better, my mind is even stronger, and because my core, quads, hamstrings, and arms are stronger, I can run harder, faster, and longer. Hills have nothing on me now. There is a way to strength train without bulking up. I’m getting closer to my ideal race weight because of it as well! Thank you for all you do Jason!

  13. Although I do not do it as much as I should, I whole heartedly believe in the benefits of strength training as a runner. I think it is especially important when trying to complete longer distance races. The body requires core and back strength to keep upright during the long miles. The hips, glutes and quads need to be strong to prevent injury. The body needs balance to stay injury free.
    I think an argument could be made lifting extremely heavy weights could reduce running performance. If this is what the author was implying, he should have made that more clear in his article.

  14. Trent Gill says:

    Can any runner say for certain that they don’t have a muscle imbalance?

    Before I started strength routines, I was constantly worried about minor soreness turning into injuries, especially ITBS. I’m much more confident that I’m doing what I need to do to avoid this injury. Any other injury treatment is just a bandaid on a functional problem. I recently saw someone recommending massage oils to help with ITBS. Um, what?! I could only shake my head at the fundamental misunderstanding of how your legs and hips respond to repetitious, high volume running, which is required of even the most casual runner wanting to complete a 5k or a half marathon.

  15. I think strength training is a corner stone for injury prevention and increasing power. I find that as long as you leave adequate rest between heavy weight leg sessions.(squats, lunge variations, deadlifts etc.) and the next hard run session, that I actually feel more power generation in my legs. I think it definitely ads to your overall fitness and durability. Anyone not doing strength training should add it in and see the power increase

  16. Hey Jason, I can only say I was a little shocked at the article, the author definitely was drinking the cool aid. This person doesn’t understand the sport of running. I believe that strength training is an absolute for running. I wish someone had told me about strength training years ago. Your not looking to be a body builder, your muscles would be so tight. Holy cow you’d rip!! (LOL) We are looking to strength parts that take abuse. I know I have added strength training to my workouts, and I’m seeing an improvement. Thanks for sharing the good, bad and ugly!

  17. My first thought after reading that article: was this published on April Fools’ day?

    But seriously, strength training for runners – or anyone, for that matter – is not a black and white issue. It can help or it can hinder your health, fitness, and performance in many ways, and to varying degrees – depending on who you are and how you do it, among other things. It depends on a ton of factors like your goals, your current state of health and fitness, your training history, any pre-existing conditions you have, the program you follow, the recovery methods you adhere to, and a lot more. It’s not an either/or debate.

    So, making a blanket statement or even insinuating that runners don’t need and/or don’t benefit from strength training is inaccurate and misleading, at best.

    IMO, this article only adds to the confusion and is not helping runners figure out what’s best for them. Not to mention that the idea that runners don’t benefit from strength training is VERY outdated, which is why I’m surprised to see this published on a major health site (well, I guess I’m not THAT surprised). I’d also like to see some references, but that might be asking too much.

    Aye yie yie. I’m gonna go lift some weights now.

  18. Glad you posted this, Jason. Awesome topic.

    It’s surprising to me that the research on the benefits of strength training for runners isn’t more widely known. I don’t know of a single study that has shown no improvement in injury rates when strength training was added. But, there are countless studies where strength training had a direct impact on reducing injury rates. A small sampling (very small since I don’t want to barrage the comments with reference links)

    Fredericson M. et al.: Hip Abductor Weakness in Distance Runners with Ilotibial Band Syndrome. (2000); Clin J Sport Med Jul;10(3):169-75

    Analysis of Hip Strength in Females Seeking Physical Therapy Treatment for Unilateral Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (2007) 10.2519/jospt.2007.2439

    Cichanowski HR. et al.: Hip Strength in Collegiate Female Athletes with Patellofemoral Pain. (2007); Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Aug;39(8):1227-32.

    Even if you’re not injured, strength training has shown some serious performance improvements in the literature.

    Jung, A. P., The Impact of Resistance Training on Distance Running Performance. Sports Medicine 2003, 33 (7), 539-552.

    Johnston, R. E.; Quinn, T. J.; Kertzer, R.; Vroman, N. B., Strength Training in Female Distance Runners: Impact on Running Economy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 1997, 11 (4), 224-229.

    Paavolainen, L.; Häkkinen, K.; Hämäläinen, I.; Nummela, A.; Rusko, H., Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology 1999, 86, 1527-1533.

    I’d be interested to hear the authors take regarding the scientific support of strength training or how he refutes the literature’s results/data.

    As another commenter pointed out, the article also has some flaws in how it seems to prescribe strength training.

    With anything in running, it’s important to get the details right and I see a lot of runners make the common mistakes such as strength training hard on easy/off days, doing useless exercises, using machines, etc. The article also mentions 90 min gym sessions. Even body builders don’t spend this much time in the gym.

    Hopefully, more runners look at the research and spend the time looking at the right way to strength train.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment Jeff. The literature is certainly there to support strength training for runners, as well as our collective experience coaching runners of all levels and abilities.

  19. Lis miller says:

    I would just like to add it is even more important for women as they age because without strength training we lose muscle mass so much faster than men due to lack of testosterone. Running helps as it is high impact but all the body weight and band exercises included here on your site plus some upper body work (no point in being able to run if you can’t carry your shopping or grandchildren ) is critical
    I have seen the difference strength training makes to 80year old women having owned a gym so I will keep strength training and running forever

  20. It seems obvious to me that stronger muscles equates to better stability and form while running. I started Jason’s strength exercises about 6 months ago. I do about 40minutes three times a week. And that’s in front of the telly! It’s really not that hard. I am running faster and a lot of muscle pain has diminished. That doesn’t happen by magic.

  21. I think Jeff did a great job of summarizing the research. It’s hard to believe that Jason Karp could form an opinion which is so strongly refuted by the research. Interestingly, the National Strength & Conditioning Association recently tweeted another article on the topic:

  22. barbara says:

    Hi Jason, strength training for me has been one of the key elements that has progressed me from a 12:00 pace to a 9:00 pace in 3 years. I started reading your website in 2012. Before that I never did any type of warm up, cool down or strength training. And, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting any better. Go figure! Today, I do upper and lower body strength workouts 3 -4 times a week. I follow your routines for dynamic stretching, warm ups, cool downs too. No one can tell me that strength training is not necessary. Once I started I could feel the difference in how my legs propelled me forward.It was and is great! I no longer have leg, hip/butt pain. I feel stronger too. So, I’m staying with you! Keep on coaching! Barbara

  23. WOW! This is a crazy article. I feel like he goes back and forth and really dosen’t have a clear focus or take a stand one way or another. As a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist who focuses on endurance athletes, I firmly believe in the power of strength training. I have seen its improvements with many clients over the years. Yes, the philosophy of specificity is important for running, however, many athletes do a multitude of other activities in order to improve their sports performance.

    Consider a football player, they don’t only spend time on the field in order to improve performance, it is through a dedicated program of strength, stability, mobility, mental conditioning, AND sport specific training that they become top level athletes. I don’t understand why endurance atheltes feel they are the ‘exception’ to this rule. Why is it okay for a volleyball player to do more than play volleyball, but a runner only needs to run?

    While he makes a valid point in terms of the energy systems and building the stroke volume and cardiac output through endurance training, that doesn’t mean that it is the ONLY thing one should do. Furthermore, he states that only those with ‘diagnosed imbalances’ need to participate in strength training — well sorry to tell you, EVERYONE has imbalances! Especially since most endurance athletes are full time working adults who sit for most of the day, it is known that they WILL have imbalances — probably weak glutes/hamstrings, tight hips/hipflexors, and a weak core. These are issues that WILL affect an individuals running performance. Thus, since most people are prone to this based on our culture, then why not just get them into the weight room and do things that specifically target these areas?!?

    There are more benefits of DOING a regular weight training program and the implications it can have on ones performance (as he even goes on to state towards the end), that it is important for runners to get off the road and into the weight room a few days during the week!!!

    Okay, Thanks for letting me ramble! This is one of those topics that is very near and dear to my heart!

    Summer Sides, MS, CSCS

  24. I was once silly thinking “want to be good, just need to run more”. I went on 3-4 years with just running & no strength training.
    Result: my timing was suck! Injure all the time.

    2 years ago, I started simple strength training & tweak my running form.
    Result: recovered from all injury, have plenty of PBs (10, 21k, 42km). I feel that I still can improve more if I keep this training regime.

    Another note: strength training not only help the running but good for recovery from a hard run too.

  25. I do not strength train at all and I successfully run 70-100 miles a week for years. So I would not say strength training is essential.

    I do yoga and pilates and I think flexibility and mobility of muscles is way more important than strength training.

    • Most coaches would disagree with you. Strength training is not just for injury prevention and is a cornerstone component to any elite athlete’s program for performance enhancement, injury prevention, economy improvements, etc.

      • If a muscle has limited range of motion and is inhibited from being tight, no amount of strength training is going to help!

        I know quite a few elite runners that do very little strength work. There are 2 sides this coin. Yes, core and hip strength are important but you can get that from yoga and pilates. A strong core + hips will keep the form intact longer.

        Most runners do not run easy enough to make the muscular skeletal adaptions to the strengthen the muscle skeletal system from the impact stress. No amount of strength work can mimic these adaptions to making muscles, bones and tendon strong enough to adapt to impact stress. Only low intensity weight bearing exercise can do this..

        If strength training works for someone great but not all runners benefit. They may actually benefit more from flexibility & mobility work and running really easy.