¸Imagine you’re watching pro long-distance runner Stephanie Bruce, who recently competed in the 10,000-meter and marathon Olympic Trials, break away from the pack in slow motion—each step she takes is more like a single-legged jump, a leap from one foot to the next. Running, boiled down to its most basic form, is a balancing act. To manage that balancing act while tapping into top speeds or going the distance takes power. And, unfortunately, running alone doesn’t build the kind of strength you need to propel yourself forward, especially as you tackle hilly terrain or hit the gas at the end of a race.
“Strength training is a big part of our success,” says Ben Rosario, head coach and founder of the HOKA NAZ Elite team. “We’ve been so good late in races. We’ve been so good late into our careers. Athletes like Stephanie and Kellyn Tayler—there’s no way 20 years ago they’d be running this well. Strength training has revolutionized professional athletes’ careers.”
Many runners, though, don’t prefer to spend their time in a weight room or trying to figure out how to best use the dumbbells that have been gathering dust in their closet. They just want to run. But without focusing on strength—even occasionally!—you’re actually sabotaging your running potential in the short- and long-term.
“Strength training not only helps runners prevent injury, but it also can improve performance,” says AJ Cregg, a chiropractic doctor and the NAZ Elite team’s official strength and conditioning coach.
It’s kind of a no-brainer—the stronger you are, the easier running should feel (and who wouldn’t appreciate that?). That’s because having stronger legs makes you more likely to be capable of taking on more volume or intensity with less effort, which translates to fewer injuries. It’s not just about strengthening your muscles; it’s about bulletproofing your bones and connective tissues, including your tendons and ligaments.
But in case you need scientific evidence to get you to the gym, strength training has been linked to reduced injury risk since the 1980s. More recently, runners who performed a strength-training program two to three times a week for eight to 12 weeks showed significant improvements in running economy, or how efficiently they ran, a review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found. Plus, runners demonstrated more endurance and improved VO2 max, an indication of cardiovascular fitness, after strength training in a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
To build a strong running foundation, NAZ Elite athletes like Bruce, Taylor, and Olympic marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk tend to do two days of heavier lifting throughout the week and some type of ancillary rehabilitation or activation drills daily, says Wes Cregg, a chiropractic doctor who works with the team.
Of course it’s about building legs tough enough to handle fast paces and varying terrain, but “you need to strengthen all the different muscle groups involved in the entire running process, from your toes all the way up to your neck,” says Rosario. “Everything has to be firing and everything has to work together.” To do that, the Creggs program big compound movements like deadlifts and front and back squats.
When things aren’t firing or working together, you may be experiencing some kind of muscular imbalance, which means one part of the body is working harder than another to compensate for weakness (a super common one: quad dominance, when the quads and hip flexors overwork compared to the glutes and hamstrings). Over time—especially considering that running is an endlessly repetitive sport—that imbalance can increase the likelihood of injury. Knowing where those weaknesses are, though, says Wes, can help you dial in your strength training and help you identify other strategies, like seeing a physical therapist or chiropractor, to keep you on your A-game.
Unsurprising, “lower leg injuries are one of the most common types of injuries among runners, so that’s one of the key areas we try to focus on,” says Wes. Think back to that image of leaping from one stride to the next; the more force you can put into the ground every time your foot hits it, the more you can increase your stride length and decrease ground contact time—both of which will boost your performance.
“We do a lot of single-leg strengthening with counterweight,” says Wes. That includes single-leg Romanian deadlifts, single-leg squats, and split squats. “Holding a weight in the opposite hand really challenges stability,” he adds, which allows you to engage even more muscles, especially the core.
No runner can harness their full potential with a weak core. Your core is the foundation of your running; if it’s not strong enough, you’re going to fatigue sooner via wasted energy (by, for example, over-rotating with your arm swing) and compromised form (when you start to hunch over, you lose full extension in your hips, which affects your stride), explains AJ. And when your core is strong, the rest of your muscles can do their best job. “We do a lot of isolated core exercises to build that raw strength,” he says—that means stabilization challenges like hollow holds over moving exercises like crunches.
Still reluctant to take away time from the road to make gains in the gym? Think about it this way: Even the most elite runners—those who are logging 100-plus-mile training weeks—prioritize strength training. They know better than anyone that putting some muscle behind your running is what helps you go the distance.