A Beginner’s Guide To Weightlifting For Trail Runners

Strength training can be intimidating if you don't know where to start, but once you get into it you'll find it's so empowering.

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Most of us trail runners would rather hit the trails on a gloriously sunny day than head to the gym and lift weights, or would rather tack an extra mile onto the end of the cooldown of a tempo run than head home and use those ten minutes doing squats, push-ups, and planks.

However, as much as our hearts tend to place all other activities in a distant second- or third-place priority to our runs, strength training or weight lifting is actually a critical component of all well-balanced, healthy running training programs. If you’re a runner who’s not currently engaging in some form of strength training at least once or twice a week, or if you’re not sure how to even start weight lifting, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything trail runners need to know to start weight lifting, and why it’s an important part of your training as a trail runner.

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What is Weight Training?

Though there are a variety of interchangeable terms for essentially the same thing (strength training, resistance training, weight lifting), weight training involves performing specific exercises with some form of resistance to increase muscular strength. The resistance may be dumbbells, barbells, or other types of weights, bands, or even just body weight. The form of resistance you use when weight training doesn’t really matter as long as the muscles you are targeting are under a load while they work.

Why You Should Start Weight Training

Let’s get one thing straight: you definitely need to run to become a better runner, so we aren’t suggesting otherwise, but supplementing your miles with weight training confers a host of benefits to both your running performance directly and your body and health in general, including the following:

It helps prevent overuse injuries.

Probably the biggest benefit to adding weight training to your running routine is that the strength you develop helps prevent overuse injuries from running. Your feet land roughly 1,400 to 1,600 times per mile, each time absorbing a force equal to 2–2.5 times your body weight. Even just multiplying that out for a single run will quickly illuminate the tremendous amount of pounding the body withstands during a given week of running. Weight training strengthens the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments so they are better able to handle the loads they bear as we hit the roads, trails, and tracks. Additionally, developing greater muscular strength allows the muscles and tendons to absorb more of the forces involved when you land during each stride, removing undue stress that your bones and cartilage absorb when your untrained muscles fatigue.

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It increases bone density.

Increasing your bone density is critical for healthy longevity in the sport of running. Particularly if menopause is around the corner or you can see it in your rear view mirror at this point, weight training is especially critical to maintain the bone density you need to support all the miles you dream of enjoying. Weight training loads the bones, which signals them to lay down more bone matrix. Additionally, stronger muscles pull more forcefully on the bones when they contract, which also signals your body to deposit more minerals and strengthen the structure of your bones.

It improves your running economy and efficiency.

Weight training helps develop stronger neuromuscular connections, which basically means your brain gets better at recruiting the muscle fibers you already have. This translates to stronger, more powerful movements. Additionally, weight training can improve your biomechanics and stride by developing stability in your core and supporting muscles.

It increases your metabolic rate.

Weight training increases your lean body mass, the primary determinant of your metabolic rate, or the number of calories you burn in a day. Because of these beneficial body composition changes, weight training is one of the best forms of exercise for those looking to reduce body fat.

It can improve your overall health.

Weight training, like all forms of exercise, is great for your general health. It can improve blood sugar control, lower your blood pressure, and improve your posture and balance.

It’s empowering and can boost your self-esteem.

Lifting weights and getting stronger can help you feel like the badass you are. Some runners lack the confidence to self-identify as an “athlete”, even though any degree of running—regardless of pace—certainly qualifies them to own that distinction with pride, but adding weight training into your exercise routine can bring about a surge in body confidence and self-concept. Plus, the stronger you are, the more capable you are, even in the physical demands of daily life outside of running, which is an empowering feeling.

How to Add Weight Training to Your Routine

In general, most runners should aim to do some form of strength training 2–3 times per week, but before we lose you because you can’t fathom finding the time in your already-limited workout schedule, there’s good news: the workouts don’t have to take long at all. In fact, you can probably get all the key exercises done in two 20-minute sessions or three 15-minute weight training sessions per week. Of course, if you can stretch those workouts to 30 minutes, you’ll be able to complete more thorough routines, but it’s certainly not a requirement.

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Most coaches recommend scheduling your weight training workouts on your easy run days rather than when you have a long run or hard workout scheduled because stacking weight training on an already demanding day can be too much for your body. Though it’s a matter of personal preference, typically it’s better to do your run first—either right before your weight training workout or separate the two by running in the morning and hitting the weights later in the day. Following this order ensures you’re not trying to drag your fatigued muscles through a run.

What Equipment Do You Need to Start Weight Training?

Just as you can run decked out in the latest gear, fancy GPS watch strapped to your wrist, and AirPods feeding your ears your favorite tunes, or simply head out the door with a simple pair of running shoes, you can weight train in a gym using all the latest resistance machines, kettlebells, TRX suspension straps, and medicine balls, or workout in your living room with just a few resistance bands and your own body weight. Both work. If you are going to weight train at home, it’s great to equip your space with a few essentials like a yoga mat, a set of resistance bands, and some dumbbells. Consider getting adjustable dumbbells because they take up less space and allow you to still have a range of weights to use for different exercises and as you get stronger.

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Squats can improve glute strength to help stabilize the hips and extend the hips for power.  Photo: Getty Images

What Weight Training Exercises Will Improve Your Running?

Running is a unilateral exercise, which means that your two legs are operating independently of one another and supporting your body one at a time. For that reason, you’ll want to focus on unilateral strengthening exercises (like lunges), as well as those that develop core strength. With that said, compound, total-body moves like squats and deadlifts are also hugely beneficial for strengthening key muscles involved in running. While not an exhaustive list, the following are some of our favorite weight training moves for runners:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Forward and Reverse Lunges
  • Bulgarian Split Squats
  • Steps Ups
  • Push-ups
  • Planks
  • Rows
  • Pull-ups
  • Hamstring Curls with a Stability Ball
  • Bird Dog

Tips for Weight Training

Learning how to weight train properly is the key to ensuring it’s a healthy adjunct to your running. The following are some helpful tips when you’re starting out:

  • Get some coaching. If you belong to a gym, you might be able to get a free introductory session with a personal trainer who can show you how to properly use the weight machines and perform basic foundational exercises like squats and lunges. Or, consider investing in a few paid sessions to learn the ropes. If you’re going to train at home, check out free videos on YouTube or follow high-quality, running-specific workouts. 
  • Focus on form. Using proper form is not only critical for preventing injuries when weight training, but it also ensures the exercise is actually important. If you find you can’t maintain the correct form for all reps, reduce the weight you are using.
  • Use enough resistance. A common mistake many women make is using weights that are too light and doing tons of repetitions. Running is already a sport that improves muscular endurance, so the focus of your weight training should be to increase muscular strength and power. To do this, you have to have enough of a weight or resistance to provide a load great enough to stimulate your muscles to get stronger. You want to select a weight that you lift with good form for 8-12 reps. If you can get to 15, it’s time to bump up to a higher weight.
  • Don’t use momentum. Move slowly and deliberately through movements without relying on momentum and swinging your weights to complete a rep. For the exercise to be effective, you have to use your muscles. Similarly, control your weights on the way down instead of allowing gravity to do all the work.
  • Mix it up. Just as it’s better for your body to vary your routes and running pace, it’s better to vary your weight training workouts. Incorporate different exercises, use different forms of resistance, and progress the difficulty of your workouts as you get stronger.
  • Have fun. Weight training shouldn’t be viewed as a chore. Like running, it can boost endorphins and be a great source of stress relief. Plus, it will help ensure you’re able to run stronger, healthier, and more consistently, and who doesn’t love that?

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