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How to build strength for your best run yet

Two runners run side-by-side on a city road.
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Runners love to run. But to feel your best, optimize your form, and crush your goals, it's also important to learn how to build strength through resistance training. After all, during running, even though your aerobic system is keeping your muscles supplied with blood, oxygen, and go-go-go energy, it's your muscles that are literally moving you. Strong, durable muscles help propel your body with every stride, support a tall, healthy spine, and help you sprint to the finish line.

For those still hesitant about strength training, scientific research consistently shows this type of training is one of the best ways to improve your running economy. What's that? It's a measure of how hard your body has to work to keep up a given pace. And as you might imagine, boosting that is the key to faster, better-feeling runs.

It's time to add some strength training to your regular workout routine. But don't worry; it doesn't have to monopolize your running schedule. By simply doing the below workouts a couple of times per week — ideally on days when you don't run, or at least don't have a hard run — you'll develop the strength, stability, and run efficiency you need.

A 4-week strength training plan for runners

Within each workout, the exercises have instructions on the number of reps and sets to do, but more important than hitting a certain number is listening to your body and giving it what it needs. After all, if you push yourself too hard, at best, you'll head into your running workouts feeling sore. At worst, you'll wind up injured. Meanwhile, if you don't push hard enough, you won't challenge and strengthen your muscles.

Your goal: During each move, aim to work at about an eight out of ten on the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. At an eight, things are definitely challenging, but still doable. End each set feeling like you probably have one or two more good reps left in the tank.

If any exercise starts to feel more challenging or your form starts to falter, take a break, regroup, and try doing fewer reps or lowering the weights during your next set. If things feel too easy, plan A is increasing how hard your body has to work by using a heavier weight or adding an isometric pause to that move — i.e., pause for a second at the bottom of a squat. If that doesn't work or isn't possible, you can add a couple of extra reps to your set.

Each week, you'll repeat the same three base exercises but with a few tweaks. After all, to build strength, you need to focus on progressive overload, or gradually challenging yourself with consistent feats of strength by slowly increasing weight, reps or intensity week over week. These exercise variations will keep you challenged and help you better see and feel your strength gains. Celebrate every win along the way.

Week 1

In this first week, master the body's fundamental strength patterns and learn how to build strength from head to toe.

Band-resisted hip hinge

Do three sets of 8–12 reps, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Secure one end of a long, looped resistance band around a couch leg or low anchor point. Place the other end against the front of your hips and step away from the anchor point until the band is very tight. Keeping your feet hip-width apart, lean forward slightly from your ankles. From here, push your hips back behind you and allow your knees to slightly bend. This is a hip hinge. Pause here, then stand back up by pushing through your heels and squeezing your glutes.

Dead bug

Do three sets of 8–12 reps per side, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Lie face-up with your arms and legs extended straight up toward the ceiling over your shoulders and hips. Brace your core and tuck your tailbone to press the small of your back against the floor. Maintain this flat-back position throughout the entire exercise. From here, extend one arm and the opposite leg toward the floor as far as is comfortable without arching your lower back. (Don't let them actually touch the floor.) Pause, then squeeze through your abs to raise your arm and leg back up to the starting position. Complete all reps, then switch sides.

Split squat

Do three sets of 8–12 reps per side, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and take a giant step forward or backward to get in a split stance. Your front foot should be flat on the floor with your weight centred in its heel, and your back foot's heel should be raised. Brace your core. From here, bend your hips and knees to lower your body straight toward the floor as far as is comfortable. Pause, then press through your front foot's heel to raise back to a split stance. Complete all reps, then switch sides.

Week 2

Now that you're getting the form down (so important!), you can start to increase the load on your muscles.

Band-resisted dumbbell goblet deadlift

Do three sets of 8–12 reps, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Set up for the band-resisted hip hinge, but this time place a medium-weight dumbbell between the balls of your feet, on one end. As you lower into the hip hinge, grab the dumbbell by its raised end, then stand up. Continue all of your reps while holding the dumbbell.

Hollow hold

Do three holds, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Get into a dead bug starting position, then lower both of your arms and legs toward the floor. Hold the position as long as possible without letting your lower back arch. When you feel the small of your back start to raise, lower onto the floor and rest.

Reverse lunge

Do three sets of 8–12 reps per side, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

From your split stance, step one foot behind you, lower into a lunge, pause, and then step that foot back up to start. Do all reps, then switch sides.

Week 3

Things are getting tougher now! Think: more resistance and greater stability challenges.

Dumbbell goblet deadlift

Do three sets of 8–12 reps, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Nix the resistance band (it was there to help teach you form), and work your hip hinges with a heavier dumbbell.

Weight-supported hollow hold

Do three holds, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

To increase the challenge on your core, maintain the hollow-body position while holding light dumbbells in both hands straight over your shoulders.

Bulgarian split squat

Do three sets of 8–12 reps per side, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Do week one's split squats, but with the top (laces) of your foot resting on a sturdy bench or step. All of your weight should be in your front leg.

Week 4

Put it all together to max out your total-body strength.

Dumbbell deadlift

Do three sets of 8–12 reps, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Instead of holding a single dumbbell with both hands, hold a dumbbell in each hand. Your arms should stay in front of your body at all times with your palms facing your thighs.

Hollow hold dumbbell chest press

Do three sets of 8–12 reps, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Once you get into the hollow-hold position with weights extended above your chest, lower the weights to your shoulders and then press them back up to start. Each press equals one rep.

Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat

Do three sets of 8–12 reps per side, resting 30–90 seconds between sets.

Repeat your split squats from last week, but with a light dumbbell in each hand, down at your sides. Your palms should face each other.

Strength = faster, happier runs.

Strength training is an effective way to complement — and even improve — your running routine. For the greatest benefits, prioritize consistency and progressive overload over time. Regularly working at, and progressing, just a few fundamental movement patterns each week will lead to faster, happier runs in no time. For more training plans to take your running journey to the next level, visit the Run Happy Blog!

Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.

Written By
K. Aleisha Fetters

Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

Headshot of Aleisha Fetters

I'm a quirky (aka nerdy) strength coach with a passion for science and sweat. I love to help people meet their body goals, but it's their mental and emotional gains that make me do a happy dance. My flirtation with running includes two half marathons and, someday, I will run 26.2.