Girl power

Strength training is essential for female runners – but choosing the right exercises for you is key says Christina Neal

girl power

Running can be hugely addictive. Once you begin to feel fitter, you’ll naturally want to do more. But if you run regularly, strength training has a key role to play in your overall fitness. You may be daunted by the idea of using weights in a gym. But strength training for running isn’t necessarily about lifting heavy weights. While it’s true that on some exercises you may use resistance provided by a machine (such as the leg press), or via a weights stack on a cable pulley, you might be using your own bodyweight for resistance on other exercises such as squats, bodyweight lunges (for legs) and the plank (for core).

Having a strength-training plan is important if you want to run injury-free, improve speed and build distance. Even if you don’t have any specific running goals, it still has a role to play in your training schedule and you should aim for two to three strength training sessions per week. “Strength training is an important part of fitness,” says physiotherapist Tim Allardyce from Surrey Physio ( “Top athletes all do strength and conditioning. It’s just not the sprinters. Every distance runner does strength training at an elite level. Strength and conditioning improves performance and reduces injury. Stronger leg muscles can absorb greater loads and impact and generate more drive, which can certainly aid running.”

Physiotherapist Mark Buckingham from Witty Pask & Buckingham (wpbphysio. says there is a proven link between strength and performance. “There
is a very well established correlation in both research and in practice between strength and performance,” he says. “Fast movements require high and rapid force production and reduction – both acceleration and deceleration. So if you are going to produce fast movements, which is what running is, you need to be able to produce force quickly and also to decelerate impacts quickly. Although running is in a relatively straight line and obviously doesn’t have the stop-start nature of a sport like squash, it still requires fast movements and high forces.”

You may argue that you’re not a fast runner, but running speed doesn’t matter. “Running is still a fast movement,” adds Buckingham. “It may only be at 10-minute miles but, as opposed to sitting behind your desk or walking, it’s still a fast movement.”

When we talk about strength training, we think of improving muscle strength, but you’ll strengthen more than that. “Strength training increases the strength of connective tissues and of bone – not just muscles,” says Mark.

“The more you load tissues and muscles, the stronger the tendons get, the stronger the ligaments get and the more healthy the cartilage. Equally, strength training increases the density of the bones. It also has a big influence on the neural system and the way in which you control your joints, muscles and limbs. The stronger you are, the more consistent your movement patterns and the better you can control your biomechanics (when you run) for a longer period of time.”

All of these are great reasons to start strength training, but first it’s best to think about having a plan tailored for you as an individual. This is where things become more complex. From a general perspective, targeting certain body parts will still benefit your running. For example, having stronger quadriceps (front of the thighs) can help to reduce the impact of running through the knee joints by up to 60%. So exercises like squats, leg press or leg extension, which all work the quadriceps, are beneficial. Having strong hamstrings and glutes will benefit your running, too. “Running uses the posterior (rear) chain of movement,” says personal trainer Victoria Zimmer ( “When you have stronger glutes, your hips are more open so this pulls your knees outwards so you get correct tracking of the knees along with the IT band.” This can reduce injury risk, as if the  knee is rolling inwards during running and not tracking well, it can create pressure on the knee joint and cause knee pain and tightness in the IT band.

Having a stronger back can benefit your running by improving posture. A tight chest from hours of sitting could lead to poor posture when running. “You want to focus on opening up the chest when you run,” says Victoria. “So you would stretch the chest and then strengthen the back muscles.” This means you’re less likely to run with poor posture. If you are tight in the chest, then avoid exercises like chest press that will only make you tighter.

While targeting certain muscle groups makes sense, think about where you are weak. If certain muscles get tight during longer runs, then you may be weak in those areas. If you get stiff hip flexors during the latter stages of a half-marathon, then working your hip flexors on the cable machine by replicating the driving forward action of the legs will be a sensible option. If you’ve had calf injuries before, then doing single-leg calf raises will reduce the risk of further injuries.

“Look at the movements involved in running,” says Mark Buckingham. “For running you are looking at calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and adductors (inner thighs). Train them in the range of movement that you require for the sport you are doing.”

Essentially, this means mimicking the running action and this is where you may need help from an expert who is well placed to devise a personal plan for you. “Talk to somebody who appreciates the requirements of runners, whether that’s a personal trainer with a running background or a physiotherapist with a running background,” adds Mark. “It would be very helpful to have someone look at you and say, ‘You are weak in those areas.’”

Once you have established where you need to get stronger, Mark has a very clear set of parameters in certain exercises that he uses daily to help his running clients become injury-free.

“For calf raises you should be able to do three lots of 25 single leg raises with at least 20kg on your back,” he says. “You should be able to squat at least one and a half times your body weight on a single leg. For lateral (side) glutes in isolation you should be able to do at least 15kg on pure hip abduction movement (sideways and back at 45 degrees) for eight reps. These are the pelvic stabilising muscles. You should be able to do the same on a foot inversion movement where you turn your foot in against a pulley. This is for the Tibialis posterior (the key stabilising muscle in the lower leg). Hamstrings should be working
at around 80% of what your quadriceps can produce. Simple seated and prone (lying) curls have a place in
any programme but using a cable pulley attached to the ankle and pulling the leg back in a running action is nicely functional.”

Be careful here. You need to build up strength gradually. Don’t just attempt these exercises or weights without being realistic about your current strength levels. “Work out what the load is where you can get to eight reps,” says Mark. “If you fatigue using your own bodyweight for single leg calf raises then that’s where you are. If you can’t get off the ground on a single leg calf raise then start off with double leg calf raises and then gradually increase the amount of weight you are putting through one leg. Don’t try to do 25kg to start with on single leg calf raises or you’ll be very sore. Start off and get up to roughly those parameters, then you stick at those parameters and start to increase the reps.”

If you are worried you might get stiff using weights, time the strength sessions appropriately so that it doesn’t affect your running. “Time it around your easy runs,” suggests Mark. “A typical week of training might include an easy run on a Monday, a session on a Tuesday and a harder one on a Thursday. Potentially you would do the weights on the same days you’ve got your easy runs.”

Kettlebells or Bodypump classes can be useful for those seeking to improve general strength, but aren’t specifically tailored to running. But some moves might be beneficial if your technique is good. Victoria Zimmer says: “Classes can be good if you don’t have any issues with your posture or movement patterns. But it also depends on the structure of the class. If your technique is poor and you already have poor posture or weak movement patterns, or one side of the body is weaker than the other, it can worsen the condition because we always tend to train the stronger side more than the weaker side without realising it.”
Bodypump classes can also be hard on the body as the reps are high and, in a class setting, you may be less likely to stop when you feel tired. “You do exercises standing, which can put extra pressure on your joints,” says Victoria. “You have to be careful with the balance of running and other exercises. You want to do exercises that help you and not make things worse.”

Strength training can also mean getting stronger through your core (the torso, or deeper abdominal muscles and your back), which will benefit your running. “It’s vital because core muscles are the muscles that keep your body in a vertical position so every movement we do is from the core,” says personal trainer Victoria Zimmer. Exercises like the plank and side plank (for the core) and the swimmer (for lower back and glutes) can be good choices. Try not to let your hips drop during the plank or side plank and rest when you feel your body position changing. On the swimmer, avoid letting your lower back arch. These moves may look easy but in reality are quite tough as the key is to maintain control throughout.

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