How to Balance Running and Strength Training, No Matter Your Goals

Yes, you can have it all.

If you had to choose between running a 5k and grinding out a 20-rep squat set, you’d happily choose the latter any day. Or maybe a 5k jog is your warm-up, but you haven’t seen the inside of a weight room since high school. Whether you’re an endurance athlete or a strength nerd who only wants to pick up heavy stuff and put it back down, you might be curious about the grass on that other side. 

Lifters have heard — from their lifting pals and just about everyone on Instagram — that running eats away at their muscles. And runners may be scared that lifting will make them too bulky to effectively run for miles and miles at a time. But it’s not all one way or the other. For lifters, it might be nice to not feel like you’re going to pass out from exertion whenever you need more than one hand to count your reps. And runners might want to get stronger in the weight room so they can last longer on the track.

A person wears a grey tank top while running on a treadmill.
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Yes, you’ll have to look out for signs that your running is interfering with your strength goals and vice versa. But that’s true no matter what new element you’re introducing into your training. You can find a balance between running and strength training that suits your body and your goals. Here’s how you can go out running and still stay strong, and get strong while still marathoning.

Benefits of Running for Strength Athletes

Adding some runs and jogs into your strength training program can be a great way to diversify your training. If you like running but you’ve been scared away from it by the haters out there, take solace in the ways that going for a jog can help out even the strongest of athletes.

Improve Endurance and Strength

Many lifters fear that running will prevent them from getting as strong as they can. And while running can interfere with strength goals if you don’t program it properly often called the interference effect — boosting your endurance through running can get you stronger eventually. (1)(2)(3)

How? Running helps you breathe more efficiently and work harder in a given bout of exercise. When your work capacity increases in that way, you may well find it easier to crank out a few extra reps on the platform. The better you can breathe, the better you can control your fatigue. In that way, injecting a bit of good old-fashioned cardio work into your strength training can help you lift weights for longer periods of time — otherwise known as endurance. That’s a good recipe for being able to build more strength over time.

Build Mental Stamina

Running may well be attractive to people who are predisposed to embracing challenges. (4) And once you’ve formed a habit of it, going for consistent runs builds a tremendous amount of mental toughness and discipline. (4) When you train yourself to run, you develop the ability to self-talk your way by pushing out that extra mile or those final thirty seconds.

A person wearing a grey t-shirt runs on a treadmill.

Doing so forms the same foundation for the kind of discipline and self-confidence you need on the lifting platform. Whether you’re preparing yourself for a one-rep max attempt or struggling through a seemingly endless set of 12, developing mental stamina is key for every dedicated strength athlete. And running can help you get there.

Enjoyment

Some people — yes, even strength athletes — just really like running. When you enjoy your exercise, you’re more likely to stick to it and benefit from it. (5) So if adding a few runs to your strength training program is what you need to make sure you’re having fun with your training, the benefits may well outweigh the risks. All things being equal, it’s likely better to have a training program that you enjoy — with running — than to give up on it because you might take a longer time to make the most massive strength gains.

Benefits of Strength Training for Runners

If you’re a runner who wants to add some iron-style spice to your program, it’s good to know that strength training won’t just make you stronger in general. It can also directly contribute to making you a better runner. You’ll soon be able to leave your pre-strength training self in the proverbial dust.

Improve Running Efficiency

If you’re a distance runner, your job isn’t only to run a lot. You also need to run with good enough technique to prevent premature fatigue. Just like lifters don’t want to leak force with wonky form during a heavy deadlift, runners can’t afford to waste energy on inefficient running form. By helping your body learn to move more efficiently in general — and strategically strengthening your muscles and tendons — strength training can help runners out on the track.

A shirtless person prepares to sprint with their hands on the ground.
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Performing strength training specifically catered to endurance running — think: moves focused on the lower body and core — can help distance runners prevent their form from breaking down as they get farther into their workout. (2)(3) But don’t worry. Unless you’re training specifically for hypertrophy and emphasizing muscle-building over your running workouts, you’re not likely to gain a whole lot of muscle mass. (3

Run Farther, Faster

If you’re already an experienced runner, squatting at a high intensity three times a week for eight weeks can make you a more efficient, effective runner. (6) Higher-intensity strength training also helps long-distance runners maintain their energy across even longer and more intense workouts. (7) Explosive strength training has the potential to improve a runner’s 5k time by boosting their muscular power and speed. (8)

Help Reduce Injury Risk

As long as you’re performing strength exercises safely, increasing the volume and intensity of your strength training can help you reduce your injury risk as a runner. (9) Especially if you’re starting to train for distance running for the first time, balancing your endurance sessions with strength training can help you avoid overuse injuries. (10)

How to Program Concurrent Training

Yes, you want to improve your squat max — but you also want to build your endurance. Or, you want to get faster on the track, and know that hitting the weights can help. Concurrent training is when you’re training for endurance and strength at the same time. To do this successfully, you’ll have to take into account different individual factors and program your specific training accordingly. 

Exercise Order

If you’re performing both strength training and high-intensity aerobic work in the same session, you’ll be fatigued during the second part of the session — no matter which comes first. (11) So, to maximize your chances of emphasizing your strength gains, it’s best to do your endurance training after your weight lifting session. (12)(13) On the other hand, if you primarily want to get better at running, do your running workouts before strength training. (11) Whether you’re a runner or a strength athlete, separating your workouts by at least three to six hours can help you maximize your gains. (14)(15

Strength Training Volume for Runners

Regardless of what type of athlete you are, you don’t want to jump right into a very high volume of a new type of training to avoid injury and overloading your body inappropriately. But what you consider to be “high volume” depends on your experience level.

A person's ponytail flies over their head while they perform a box jump.
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For experienced runners, training heavy squats and explosive lower body work two or three times a week can improve your running form and help you go farther and faster. (6)(8) Find a training volume that works for you by starting on the lower end and building up from there.

Running Volume for Strength Athletes

High-volume running programs might slow your strength gains, especially in your lower body. (1)(16) Some studies suggest that running may only seem to interfere with strength goals because athletes are increasing their overall total volume in a way they can’t recover adequately from. (17)

To make sure you can recover well enough when you want to add running to your training, ramp up your running volume very gradually — as you would with any factor in your program. As you build your work capacity — your body’s ability to handle training and recover effectively from it — you’ll be able to tolerate more running. And the more running you can tolerate, the better you’re likely to recover. So, depending on your experience level, you can potentially jog for 10 to 40 minutes a few times per week without hurting your strength gains.

Strength Training Intensity for Runners

Experienced runners don’t have to shy away from the more intense and explosive aspects of strength training. If you want to run faster, more intense strength training might help you out. Performing two 15 to 90-minute explosive lower body training sessions twice a week can help runners improve their efficiency and 5k speed. (8)

Runners can also train heavy half squats in sets going as heavy as four sets of four reps to failure. (6) As long as they’re prioritizing recovery and running sessions, runners can do this up to three times a week to help them get stronger and improve their running performance. (6)

Running Intensity for Strength Athletes

Many strength athletes enjoy the quick and dirty nature of strength workouts. Go all out briefly, and then you’re done. So you might want to try sprinting instead of slower, continuous running sessions. Some research has found that high-intensity running does still interfere with strength training. (18) But other research suggests that running-based high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions are less likely than low-intensity running to interfere with your strength gains. (13)

A person wearing a hijab and a grey shirt runs on a treadmill.

The difference might hinge on the quality of your recovery. The longer you rest between strength training and running, the better off your lifts will be. (13) Since you’re tapping into the same energy systems and muscle fibers to perform intense strength training and intense running, you’ll need to prioritize your rest. This is when it might be especially useful to lift weights in the morning and run in the evening. That way, you’ll have two versions of leg day within the same 24 hours. When you consolidate your workouts, you’ll consolidate your recovery, too.

Stronger, Further, Faster

Ultimately, if you’re a strength athlete, you might opt to experiment with different forms of running to see how they impact your strength training. Does going on a 15-minute jog a few times a week make you feel generally better and more able to get after it in the gym? Fantastic. Or, you might decide that two or three running-based HIIT sessions a week feels better.

Same goes for if you’re a runner. Try upping the ante of your strength training to see what works best for you. You might find that the harder you go in the weight room, the harder you can hit the trails. Just make sure you’re being smart about your programming — and then really, everybody wins.

References

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  2. Esteve-Lanao J, Rhea MR, Fleck SJ, Lucia A. Running-specific, periodized strength training attenuates loss of stride length during intense endurance running. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jul;22(4):1176-83.
  3. Luckin-Baldwin KM, Badenhorst CE, Cripps AJ, Landers GJ, Merrells RJ, Bulsara MK, Hoyne GF. Strength Training Improves Exercise Economy in Triathletes During a Simulated Triathlon. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2021 May 1;16(5):663-673.
  4. Nikolaidis, P. T., Knechtle, B., & Quartiroli, A. (2020). Editorial: Who Runs? Psychological, Physiological and Pathophysiological Aspects of Recreational Endurance Athletes. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 2247.
  5. Lakicevic, N., Gentile, A., Mehrabi, S., Cassar, S., Parker, K., Roklicer, R., Bianco, A., & Drid, P. (2020). Make Fitness Fun: Could Novelty Be the Key Determinant for Physical Activity Adherence?. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 577522.
  6. Støren O, Helgerud J, Støa EM, Hoff J. Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Jun;40(6):1087-92.
  7. Vorup J, Tybirk J, Gunnarsson TP, Ravnholt T, Dalsgaard S, Bangsbo J. Effect of speed endurance and strength training on performance, running economy and muscular adaptations in endurance-trained runners. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Jul;116(7):1331-41.
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  9. Lauersen JB, Andersen TE, Andersen LB. Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Dec;52(24):1557-1563.
  10. Toresdahl BG, McElheny K, Metzl J, Ammerman B, Chang B, Kinderknecht J. A Randomized Study of a Strength Training Program to Prevent Injuries in Runners of the New York City Marathon. Sports Health. 2020 Jan/Feb;12(1):74-79.
  11. Inoue DS, Panissa VL, Monteiro PA, Gerosa-Neto J, Rossi FE, Antunes BM, Franchini E, Cholewa JM, Gobbo LA, Lira FS. Immunometabolic Responses to Concurrent Training: The Effects of Exercise Order in Recreational Weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1960-7.
  12. Petré H, Löfving P, Psilander N. The Effect of Two Different Concurrent Training Programs on Strength and Power Gains in Highly-Trained Individuals. J Sports Sci Med. 2018 May 14;17(2):167-173.
  13. Sabag A, Najafi A, Michael S, Esgin T, Halaki M, Hackett D. The compatibility of concurrent high intensity interval training and resistance training for muscular strength and hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2018 Nov;36(21):2472-2483.
  14. Doma K, Deakin GB. The acute effects intensity and volume of strength training on running performance. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;14(2):107-15.
  15. Methenitis S. A Brief Review on Concurrent Training: From Laboratory to the Field. Sports (Basel). 2018 Oct 24;6(4):127.
  16. Fyfe JJ, Bartlett JD, Hanson ED, Stepto NK, Bishop DJ. Endurance Training Intensity Does Not Mediate Interference to Maximal Lower-Body Strength Gain during Short-Term Concurrent Training. Front Physiol. 2016 Nov 3;7:487.
  17. Coffey, V. G., & Hawley, J. A. (2017). Concurrent exercise training: do opposites distract?. The Journal of physiology, 595(9), 2883–2896.
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