Become a stronger, more efficient, and less injury-prone runner with these science-backed workouts.
Every time you do a coach-led workout on Tonal, you’re completing a specific series of exercises in a particular order that’s designed to maximize your results. In our new series, The Why Behind the Workout, we break down the science behind a particular workout or program.
In this installment, we go deep on the Strength for Runners program with Tonal coach and certified personal trainer Kendall “Woody” Wood.
Who It’s For
Runners looking to improve their performance in any event from sprints to marathons will benefit from this program. “If you’re somebody who has been running for a long time and strength training hasn’t been your bread and butter, this is a really nice introduction to it,” says Wood.
Not a runner? You can still get a lot out of the program. “Don’t let the name dissuade you,” says Wood. “It’s such a solid program to build a strong foundation whether you’re running, walking, or cycling. Even if you’re not a runner, I suggest you give it a shot.”
According to Josh Clay, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and Fitness Programming Specialist at Tonal, runners who do this program can expect “decreased knee, foot, and ankle pain, improved tendon elasticity and connective tissue strength, as well as better running performance.” As this study review found, two to three days of strength training per week, with the type of heavy resistance training and plyometrics found in this program, lead to better running economy, time trial performance, and maximum sprint speed among runners of all abilities.
Along with becoming a stronger runner, the program can also make you more resilient against common running injuries. “A lot of the movements directly correlate to preventing running injury or alleviating pain from prior injuries,” says Wood. This meta-analysis shows that strength training can reduce the risk of sports injuries by up to 50 percent.
How It Works
Each workout in Strength for Runners consists of three blocks. The first pairs a heavy, lower-body lift with a plyometric move (like the barbell Romanian deadlift and skater bound combo described below) in what Clay calls a contrast set. These sets are designed to build both strength and power.
“The focus on lower body strength and power helps to improve max force production and the rate of force production—or the maximum force your muscle fibers can produce and how quickly they can produce that force,” says Clay. Both of these neuromuscular adaptations translate to faster, more powerful running. These exercises come early on in the workout so you can perform them at high intensity before fatigue sets in.
The middle block of each workout focuses on the upper body. These muscles influence your arm swing and running mechanics. In the final block, you’ll target run-specific like calves, as well as your core. “The core work was a main focus,” says Wood. “That enhances stability through the torso, helping runners to maintain an upright posture, which is so crucial to good form, and may also alleviate back pain.”
The Key Moves
Barbell Romanian Deadlift
This move strengthens your glutes and hamstrings while the addition of Eccentric Mode makes it extra useful for runners. Adding weight when you’re lowering the barbell and lengthening the hamstrings will, as Clay says, “improve the ability of the hamstrings to tolerate the initial impact of the foot hitting the ground as you transition from the stance to swing phase of [your running] gait and improve hamstring flexibility.”
Each set of barbell RDLs is 6 to 8 reps so the weight will, and should, feel heavy. “The single biggest mistake many runners make is turning their strength training workouts into endurance workouts of 12 to 20 reps,” says Clay. “But how is that different from what you’re doing on the pavement?” Runners get plenty of endurance training on the road, so keep the focus on building strength while you’re lifting.
These plyometric, side-to-side leaps develop fast-twitch muscles that’ll power you through sprints. If you race longer distances, plyometrics and fast-twitch muscles are still useful for improving your running economy, as this study shows. “The repetitive nature of running in the sagittal plane [forward and back] may lead to degeneration and possible imbalances that may hinder performance or negatively affect longevity,” says Clay. By moving laterally in skater bounds, you’re challenging your muscles in a different direction.
You’re only doing these explosive moves for 10 seconds at a time, so the focus is really on generating power, not endurance. Instead of worrying about the number of skater bounds you complete in each set, think about pushing off from the ground with the most power you can muster each time. “We’re concerned with maximizing output from rep to rep,” says Clay.
Single-Arm Bent Over Row
To mimic the movement of your arm swing while running, each workout in this program includes an upper body pulling exercise, like the single arm bent over row. “When you’re pulling through the upper back, you’re actively contributing to an improved posture,” says Wood. “We always want to keep our shoulders stacked over our hips when we run. We never want that slouch happening, we want an upright posture.”
Resisted Calf Raise
Achilles and shin pain are common complaints among runners, so it’s crucial to strengthen the muscles that surround these tendons and bones. “Strong calves will stabilize that part of the leg and help with the overuse and high impact of running,” says Wood. She explains that this move also involves ankle flexion which helps your feet and ankles absorb the force of hitting the pavement.
When To Do It
Strength for Runners is a two-week program with three workouts per week. Because it’s a full body program that hits all the major muscle groups in each workout, it’s best done every other day to give your body time to recover. If you’re running more than five days per week or training for a long distance event like a half or full marathon, Clay suggests stretching this program out over three weeks. By lifting just two days a week he says you’ll “continue building strength while also allowing for better management of overall training volume, intensity, and frequency.”
Wood says to save this program for when you’re in a base-building or low-intensity phase of your running training without any fast workouts or races. “If you’re going to run on the same day as one of the strength training days, I would suggest running prior to the strength work, so you’re not going into a run already fatigued,” she says.
If you want to do more on your off days, consider a lower body recovery session or one that includes low-intensity stretching. “This can do wonders for helping to decrease tissue stiffness,” says Clay. Wood recommends keeping an eye on your Muscle Readiness to make sure you’re not overloading any one body part. Here are some options to try in between your workouts:
Lower Body Stretch & Release – Coach Frances Flores
You’ll release tension in the hips, hamstrings, and quads in this short, lower-body-focused stretching session.
Pre-Run Mobility – Coach Jared Rodriguez
Combining foam rolling to loosen up tight muscles and mobility exercises, this workout will get you ready for a run or help you recover from heavy lifting.
Ankle Fitness for Mobility – Coach Nicolette Amarillas
Flexible ankles are so important for runners, and this workout lets you test out your current flexibility while learning ways to improve.