Distance runners and the gym: Where do I start?

As folks from different walks of life become involved in distance running, the main focus appears to be that stimulus alone – running.

Why does a key aspect of training for sprints, jumps and throws sometimes go missing in distance running programs?

Anecdotally, many a runner note the aesthetic of their club, state or country’s best athletes. Often this is where a misconception occurs in a body type equating to a type of relative strength.

It might then come as a surprise that your favourite Aussie distance runner likely spends a substantial amount of time in a gym every week.


For a summation of a broad query, I’ll turn to scientists far wiser than myself.

Researchers from the University of Limerick and the Irish Institute of Sport assessed changes in two different performance indicators – running economy (RE) and velocity at maximal oxygen uptake (VV_O2max). Now, if these terms seem foreign, fear not.

Running economy is mentioned regularly in the coaching and training space, and refers to the metabolic cost to cover a given distance at a constant velocity (Shaw, Ingham et al. 2014). This form of economy represents the ability of a runner to convert cellular energy into running velocity, often expressed as how much oxygen is consumed per unit of body mass when running a kilometre. Running economy is popular as a scientific measurement unit, in that it’s a stronger predictor of running performance than VO2 Max.

VV_O2max sounds complex, but it’s best understood as how fast you’re running, when breathing in as much oxygen as possible. I would encourage any particularly scientific readers to show empathy here, for the purposes of this piece, this explanation is sufficient.

In measuring these two variables during a 40 week strength program, researchers found a significant influence in terms of neuromuscular function – which can be improved through strength training. The experimental group showed statistically significant improvement in maximal and reactive strength qualities, RE, and VV_O2max. Most interesting, maximal and reactive strength qualities were improved without muscular hypertrophy, further quashing the ancient myth – ‘don’t do gym work, you’ll get too big’.

A systematic review of the effects of strength training on running economy from Spanish and Greek researchers supported industry findings. Analysis of over 600 studies on the topic found that a strength program of 4 or more weeks, even in highly trained runners, showed a significant beneficial effect on running economy (Balsalobre-Fernandez et al. 2016).

In a 2018 review, British and South African researchers quantified the positive effect of a 4 week (or longer) strength training program on running economy. The review found that running economy improvements ranged from 2-8%, with time trial performances and anaerobic speed qualities continuing to improve following additional strength training (Blagrove et al. 2018). A substantial finding, the review found that measures relating to body composition were not negatively impacted by a strength training intervention – repeatedly outlining the performance benefits of two to three strength training sessions a week for middle to long-distance runners.


Strength training interventions vary throughout scientific literature, but tend to involve resistance training. Noted by the studies above, the types of lifts involved were often simplified to prioritise correct technique, including varieties of squats (back, single-leg, split squat), power cleans and deadlifts in the 5-12 repetition range. Gluteal and abdominal supplementary core workouts also featured following lifts, with additional sessions focusing on ballistic strength in box, squat and broad jumps. Whilst strength interventions should always be individualised, through consultation with a professional – the following examples may provide some food for thought.

Athletics Weekly: Strength Training for Runners Part 1 & Part 2

Strength Training with NN Running: Core – listed exercises here

Team USA: Weightlifting for Distance Runners – sample exercises and programs.


Beattie, Kris, et al. “The effect of strength training on performance indicators in distance runners.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 31.1 (2017): 9-23.

Shaw, Andrew J., Stephen A. Ingham, and Jonathan P. Folland. “The valid measurement of running economy in runners.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 46.10 (2014): 1968-1973.

Balsalobre-Fernández, Carlos, Jordan Santos-Concejero, and Gerasimos V. Grivas. “Effects of strength training on running economy in highly trained runners: a systematic review with meta-analysis of controlled trials.” Journal of strength and conditioning research 30.8 (2016): 2361-2368.

Blagrove, Richard C., Glyn Howatson, and Philip R. Hayes. “Effects of strength training on the physiological determinants of middle-and long-distance running performance: a systematic review.” Sports medicine 48.5 (2018): 1117-1149.