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Strength Training for Trail Runners

It would appear that the majority of runners tend to avoid any form of training, which includes the use of weights. A number of them may do some abdominal exercises while others follow a stretching regime, but the idea of entering a workout gymnasium or even following a strength and conditioning programme at home, has them showing a clean pair of heels. Many fear that lifting weights will cause them to bulk up and gain weight thereby adding precious seconds to their minutes per kilometre speeds, particularly among the road-racing fraternity. Many trail runners seem to have the same fears.

This way of thinking is being challenged however, not only from within the world of running by many of the more enlightened coaches, but also by the scientific community with a number of convincing studies. These studies have shown not only that there are no negative effects, but, that the addition of strength training when applied in the correct way actually improves the physical condition of the athlete.

The three main areas where strength training has been shown to have positive effects are injury prevention, running efficiency and overall performance.

Injury Prevention

Runners tend to experience extremely high, some would say alarmingly high, injury rates. The repetitive impact of running, which is the equivalent of many hundreds of kilos at every step, has a deleterious effect on skeletal, muscular and tendon health so it is no wonder that injury is always lurking in the background.

It would seem intuitive to imagine that building a stronger, more muscular body could protect against injuryoccurrence. Strength training helps to improve structural weaknesses in your body, whether in the muscles, joints, or connective tissues.

For instance patellofemoral pain syndrome (also known as runner’s knee) can be caused by hip dysfunction - tight or weak hips cause compensations elsewhere that result in knee injuries. Strengthening the area of the hips and increasing mobility can vastly improve or reverse this situation.

This positive effect was borne out by the results of a 2014 meta-analysis (*1)

on 25 different trials, involving 26,610 participants and taking into account 3464 injuries. The conclusion was that strength training reduces sports injuries (injuries occurring during sports events) by over 60%, and overuse injuries by 50%. Pretty good odds!

Running Efficiency

Again it would seem reasonably intuitive that strength training, and in particular functional or full movement exercises can have a particularly positive outcome on overall core strength but also on the entire pattern of movement and resistance of the kinetic chain. Leading the athlete to not only look and feel better due to an improved posture but, positive effects on running economy could accrue particularly when taking into account longer races and on uneven terrain.

There are numerous studies which bear this out (*2, 3 & 4)and which point to significant improvements in running efficiency through increased muscular strength and improved neuromuscular pathways.


The absolute deal breaker in any sacrifice of run training time in the favour of other types of training is that regarding improvements in performance.

Early studies (*5 & 6)were concentrated on the investigation of explosive strength training where, rather than concentrating on weight involved in the movement, the focus was upon the velocity of the movements. These studies showed quite conclusively that the concurrent use of explosive training and normal endurance training improved race performance.

Another study (*7)from 2014 found similar results with the use of more traditional style weight training and concluded that the research “…….supports the addition of strength training in an endurance athlete's programme for improved economy, muscle power and performance.”

What and How

All this is very well but what kind of strength training should the average trail runner be doing?

There are three basic types of strength training available, Heavy Resistance Training (HRT), Muscle Endurance Training (MET) often referred to as circuit training and Explosive Resistance Training (ERT) often generically referred to as “Plyometrics” or “Dynamic Strength”

HRT involves the use of low repetitions (3 – 10) with a high weight. Adequate rest is foreseen between each series of repetitions. The exercise movements are preferably of a functional or free weight typology such as used in power or weight lifting but may also include squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups or press-ups rather than the use of weight machines. Due to the high loads utilized it is extremely important to learn the correct lifting techniques.

MET on the other hand relies on the use of moderate weight with relatively high repetitions (12 – 25) and often the exercises are executed with limited recovery time between individual series. This type of training can also be programmed in such a way as to change the type of exercise after each series thereby creating what is known as “circuit training”.

ERT predominantly involves the use of explosive jumping which may be at body weight or with extra weight, but can also include similarly explosive movements executed with the upper part of the body.

Due to the explosive nature of the movements there is a danger of tendon or ligament injuries in beginner or undertrained athletes. This type of protocol is used by athletes in a wide range of activities from field and track athletics to team sports.

Studies (*8 & 9) have shown that while all forms of weight training are effective, the HRT and ERT protocols would seem to have better results and that this is due to their positive outcomes not only on muscle strength but also on neurological pathways. On the other hand there are advantages in the realm of general fitness and positive metabolic outcomes with the use of MET particularly when weight loss is a concurrent concern.


What is extremely clear is that strength training in any form does not appear to have any negative consequences on performance or health, and that, in the majority of cases, it protects against injury, improves overall health and movement, raises performance and running efficiency and encourages metabolic activation.

Suggested Programme

From a purely training point of view and looking at a yearly coaching plan, though this would depend on the characteristics and objectives of the individual athlete, the author would propose a three-part schedule.

During the initial phase (off season - winter) the emphasis should be on HRT utilizing functional movements. A small amount of MET could also be utilized by those athletes looking to loose a little extra weight.

During the second phase (build up to competition - spring) the emphasis would be placed on ERT with care to a gradual introduction. An optimal protocol would be to gradually reduce HRT while ERT is steadily and progressively increased.

During the third phase (pre and during competition) a mix of MRT and ERT would give the best results for race conditioning and general fitness.

(*1) “The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.” (Br. J Sports Med, June 2014). Laursen et al.

(*2)“Maximal Strength Training improves Running Economy in Distance Runners” (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, June 2008). Storen et al.

(*3) “Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trails” (J Strength Cond. Res., August 2016). Balsalobre-Fernadez et al.

(*4) “Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training Effects on Running Economy in Master Endurance Runners” (J Strength Cond. Res., August 2013). Piacentini et al.

(*5) “Explosive Strength Training improves 5km running time by improving running economy and muscle power” (J Appl. Physiology. 1985). Paavolainen et al.

(*6) “Concurrent endurance and explosive type strength training improves neuromuscular and anaerobic characteristics in young distance runners” (Int. J Sports Med. July 2007). Mikkola et al.

(*7)“The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes” (Sports Medicine. June 2014). Beattie et al.

(*8) “Strength Training in Endurance Runners” (Int. J Sports Med. 2010). Taipale, Mikkola et al.

(*9) “Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners”, (J Sports Sci., October 2011). Taipale, Mikkola et al.

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