Training Essentials For Distance Runners

            Distance running traditionalists have long resisted the idea that strength training can be beneficial to improving running performance. Fears that lifting weights will make runners” bulky” or “stiff” leading to decrements in performance or increased injury risk have never been substantiated.

Meanwhile, recreational runners are injured at a rate of 50% per year and with nearly 70% re-injury rates within 12 months.[1] It only gets worse for marathoners who average an injury rate over 90% per year.[2]

Now, before the running enthusiasts rise up against me let me warn you that this isn’t going to be an anti-running article. I understand the value of running for exercise due to its low barrier of entry. People can pick up running as an exercise habit very easily with little to no economic commitment, however, that is also part of the problem.

When it comes to running I do believe there is an element of “getting fit to run, instead of running to get fit” at least for the average consumer. At their most simple, injuries are a capacity problem. Too much, too soon is almost always a recipe for disaster and as often occurs when someone picks up a new exercise habit well-meaning, exercise enthusiasts come out with reckless abandon with very little thought of progression and preparation.

I spend a fair amount of my time as a therapist and coach at Movement As Medicine and MBSC working with recreational and competitive runners to manage injuries and improve performance. I don’t dissuade people from running if they love it, however, I will encourage them all to take a hard look at their programming to see if there are any adjustments that we can make to optimize their performance and reduce the occurrence of nagging injuries. More often than not some adjustments to their running plan and the addition of a basic functional training plan done two or three days per week can go a long way to keeping runners healthy and high performing.

Let’s take some time to talk about all of the factors that we can address to keep runners on the road and running their best.

Load Management

Managing training load should stand firmly at the front and center of injury mitigation for runners. Too much, too soon is always a problem whether we are in the weight room or out on the road. Injuries in the weight room can easily be tied to numbers on the bar and sets and reps, making it easy for coaches and athletes to understand the why behind a soft tissue injury. However, from the performance coach’s perspective, the generator behind running-related injuries doesn’t always appear so clearly.

We know that running-related soft-tissue injuries are complex problems that are a result of numerous variables including..

Although we can’t account for all of the factors that lead to injury, when it comes to managing training load, there are some hard and fast guidelines you can work with.

  • Previous Injury/Pre-Existing Condition
  • Training Intensity (Speed)
  • Training Volume (Distance)
  • Environmental Conditions
  • Equipment/Footwear
  • Physical/Psychological Fatigue

Although we can’t account for all of the factors that lead to injury, when it comes to managing training load, there are some hard and fast guidelines you can work with.

  • Start by determining your baseline mileage. This is the amount of weekly miles that you can run without feeling excessively sore or tired. You should be able to run your baseline mileage week in and week out without having to think twice about it.
  •  Avoid the comparison game. Everyone’s baseline/running plan is going to be specific to their body, injury history, and training age. Being honest about your baseline will set you up for success in the future.
  •  Allow for gradual mileage increases week to week to allow for adaptation. The body isn’t a machine so we cannot expect that we will adapt linearly to training stress. Make small jumps of 5-10% bi-weekly or even every 3 weeks to allow for adaptation.
  • As your overall mileage increases, you will get closer to your training “ceiling” meaning your mileage increases will likely have to get smaller. Think of it as similar to adding load in the weight roo, as we get stronger our gains will become more marginal so progression will be made in smaller increments.
  •  When starting a running plan, start just below your pre-determined baseline mileage and work your way back up to it in a week or two. This will allow you to adapt and reduce soreness.
  •  If you are planning to run a longer race like a marathon or half marathon, start at the race and work backward. If you know that you will do a 22-mile run 2 weeks prior to race day, chart out your runs back to your baseline mileage.

Foot and Lower Leg Movement Quality

The lower leg and foot is often the most under-appreciated segment of the body and that is especially true with running. We know what each heel strike is equal to roughly 3-4x bodyweight and that over the course of a mile a runner can expect 800-1000 strides.

 With this in mind, it’s vital that we maintain the movement quality of the foot and lower leg to ensure they can accept the repetitive stresses associated with running.

 We know that individuals with tight gastrocnemius are three times more likely to suffer forefoot stress-related injuries like plantar fasciitis and metatarsal stress fractures. Researchers hypothesize that a lack of dorsiflexion leads to an early heel lift and as a resulting in a greater percentage of force being transferred to the forefoot during gait.[3]

The maintenance of foot range of motion in dorsiflexion, plantar flexion, inversion, and eversion can help to stave off the development of reactionary tissue stiffness that comes as a result of repetitive foot striking.

Dorsiflexion Range Of Motion Test:

            I find that a quick and easy way to assess the quality of ankle dorsiflexion is simply to perform a knee-to-wall test with a yoga block. A yoga block is 6 inches in width, ideally, we should be able to achieve 6 inches of forward translation of the knee into dorsiflexion. This ensures that we have enough range of motion to cleanly move the ankle during gait. To keep the test standardized, have the athlete perform it with bare feet and drive the knee directly forward over the middle toe.

Box Dorsiflexion Active Stretching:

The kneeling box dorsiflexion drill is an especially effective drill to improve tissue extensibility in the tricep surae and soleus. I cue this in PNF style by having the athlete contract the target tissue at end range for roughly 30 seconds followed by actively pulling deeper into dorsiflexion using their anterior tibialis muscles.

Wall Dorsiflexion Stretching:

 The wall dorsiflexion stretch is an effective dynamic stretch for the posterior tissues of the lower leg that often will present with stiffness in running athletes. I will typically have athletes perform 10-20 reps of this prior to training or running.

Kneeling Plantarflexion Mobilization: 

While we often spend lots of time discussing improving dorsiflexion I find running athletes often present with high levels of tension in anterior tibialis, limiting their plantar flexion range. In my experience by taking some time to improve plantarflexion mobility, athletes will often report reduced overall tension in their foot and lower leg.

Ankle Controlled Articular Rotations:

Controlled Articular Rotations for the ankle joint can be an extremely helpful tool to maintain overall ankle health and functionality. With increased, repetitive training stress we often see reduce overall variability of movement in the ankle joint. By performing slow, controlled active rotations through full range of motion you can help to renew synovial fluid, maintain health of the joint surfaces and re-establish end-range motor control of the joint.

Toe Yoga:

One of the most common things that I see amongst long-distance runners who suffer from foot-related issues is the inability to control the toe flexors/extensors and intrinsic foot muscles. Lots of time in running shoes often means, very little time barefoot and disuse of the intrinsic muscles that control the toes and the feet. These can be great drills to do at home when relaxing or post-run to rejuvenate the feet.

Power and Elasticity Training:

“Endurance athlete” and “powerful” aren’t exactly two words you associate with one another but you should. Arguably there isn’t a quality that is more valuable to the long-distance runner than lower body power. If we go back to the idea of “filling buckets”, the power bucket is often the one that most needs filling, meaning there is most potential for training and impact on performance.

We should focus on training interventions that maximize neurological power and elasticity to improve power expression and running economy.

 We know from the research that the inclusion of plyometric training can significantly improve the running economy and performance in low, medium, and highly-trained medium and long-distance runners.[4][5]

Additionally, the development of tissue elasticity in the lower leg can help to develop resiliency in the local tissue, improving load tolerance and reducing the likelihood of stress and strain related injuries in the lower leg.

 Unilateral Hops:

Hopping variations are one of the most valuable tools at our disposal for both performance enhancement and injury reduction. In one exercise we are able to train neuromuscular coordination, power development, elasticity, and eccentric deceleration. We will often progress these drills from a deceleration focus to and elasticity focus over the courses of multiple phases.

 The typical progression demonstrated in the videos looks like this:

  •  Eccentric Deceleration Focus: Stick Landing
  •  Mini-Bounce Lower Leg Stiffness Focus: Mini-Bounce
  •  Elasticity Focus: Continuous Hopping

 Linear Hopping Progression:

Medial Lateral Hopping Progression:

Diagonal Hopping Progression:

Pogo Drills:

Bilateral and Unilateral pogo drills are a great exercise to work into an active warm-up or power session to work on lower leg stiffness and elasticity. We typically perform these for 10-20 yards at a time.

Acceleration Technique and Timed Sprinting:

Although it may seem counterintuitive, sprinting is a valuable quality to work on in training for the distance runner. The greater speed we can develop in the endurance athlete the easier it will be for them when needing to kick and push velocity during the race. It doesn’t take a ton of volume to make a significant impact on a distance runners mechanics and acceleration ability. We typically work this skipping and acceleration technique drills into warm-ups on lifting days and will work 2-3 full speed timed 10 yard splits into the work out 2x week.

Sled Sprinting:

 Often we may progress from regular timed sprints to timed sled sprints for stronger, more advanced athletes. The addition of some external load can be a valuable stimulus to develop more force production into the ground. To determine loads for sled sprinting we simply take their best standing 10-yard timed sprint and multiple by 1.5 to find the time we want them to run on a flying 10-yard sprint with an external load.

 Example: 1.5 second standing 10 yard Sprint * 1.5 = Desired time for loaded sprint = 2.25 seconds

Strength Training

Despite fears that strength training will make the endurance athlete excessively bulky or stiff the research is demonstrating that strength training can be a powerful tool to improve performance in endurance sports and reduce running-related injuries.

 Research has shown that female runners presenting with patellofemoral pain tend to present with marked decreases of hip external rotation and abduction strength and show significant improvements and full return to training following hip strengthening.[6]

 Additionally, there is strong evidence to show that strength training can have a large impact on running performance. In the most comprehensive research review to date titled “Effects of strength training on the physiological determinants of middle-and long-distance running performance” they state:

“The research reviewed suggests that supplementing the training of a distance runner with strength training is likely to provide improvements to running economy, time trial performance and anaerobic parameters such as maximal sprint speed. Improvements in running economy in the absence of changes in VO2max, blood lactate and body composition parameters suggest that the underlying mechanisms predominantly relate to alterations in intra-muscular coordination and increases in tendon stiffness which contribute to optimizing force–length-velocity properties of muscle.”[7]

When it comes to strength training for distance runners, a little goes a long way. More often than not runners will have a low training age in the weight room, making it very easy to have large impacts on performance even when only lifting two times per week.

Single-Leg Strength Training

We prioritize single leg exercises for running-based athletes as they will have greater levels of transferability to running, lower injury risk, and are more efficiently loaded than traditional bilateral lower body strength exercises.

 Single leg training strength and power training allows for the development of multiplanar strength and stability and has been shown to produce higher relative force production than bilateral lower body training.[8] [9] Single leg knee dominant exercises are especially helpful for developing deceleration ability and eccentric control of the lower body while hip dominant exercises will help to build the propulsion system necessary to keep the runner powerful throughout the run.

 Single Leg Knee Dominant Exercises:

Single leg squats, split squats, and skater squats would be my primary choices for knee dominant exercise for running athletes. They allow for high loads relative to bodyweight while and are effective tools to develop the quadriceps, hip external rotators and abductors. We will typically try to include all three of these exercise over the course of a two or three-day program.

  • Single-Leg Squat Progression:
  • Split Squat Progression:
  • Skater Squat:

Single-Leg Hip Dominant Exercises:

 Externally loaded hip dominant exercises like single-leg bridging and single leg deadlifts are exceptionally valuable tools to develop hamstring and glute hip extensor strength. Slideboard leg curl and Nordic variations have proven to be especially valuable at improve eccentric hamstring strength and reducing the occurrence of hamstring strains. Be conservative when first prescribing slideboard leg curls as they are difficult to execute well and can cause high levels of soreness and cramping for the untrained athlete. Begin with the eccentric variation shown below and progress slowly towards the normal tempo variation before ultimately reaching the single leg eccentric slideboard leg curl and Nordic hold.

  • Shoulder Elevated Single Leg Hip Bridge:
  • Single-Leg Deadlift:
  • Slideboard Leg Curl Progressions:
    • Progression 1: Eccentric Only Slideboard Leg Curl
    • Progression 2: Slideboard Leg Curl
    • Progression 3: Eccentric Onle Slideboard Leg Curl 
    • Progression 4: Nordic Holds

Sled Marching

 Sled marching is a great overall lower body exercise that has low injury risk, is easy to teach and allow for high external loads on the quads, hips and calves in an acceleration-specific pattern. Typically, we will program these once per week for 3 sets of 5 to 10 steps.

Calf Raise

I previously would have never programmed isolated calf raises but have recently found them valuable for distance running athletes and field sport athletes suffering from Achilles and patellar tendon pain. I tend to prescribe these proactively for athletes undergoing high levels of impact and repetitive lower leg stress like distance runners or basketball players.

Hopefully, this article has provided you with some basic guidance on how to develop a functional strength training plan for yourself or a runner that you coach. Distance runners of all levels of fitness and experience can benefit greatly from the inclusion of a basic functional strength training plan. Don’t let fears of getting big, bulky, and stiff dissuade you from including strength training as a tool in your arsenal to improve performance and keep you healthy.


[1] van Mechelen W. Running injuries. A review of the epidemiological literature. Sports Med. 1992 Nov;14(5):320-35. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199214050-00004. PMID: 1439399.

[2] van Gent RN, Siem D, van Middelkoop M, van Os AG, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Koes BW. Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2007 Aug;41(8):469-80; discussion 480. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2006.033548. Epub 2007 May 1. PMID: 17473005; PMCID: PMC2465455.

[3] Michaud, T. C. (2012). Human locomotion. Thomas Michaud.

[4] Saunders, Philo U., et al. “Short-term plyometric training improves running economy in highly trained middle and long distance runners.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 20.4 (2006): 947.

[5] Turner, Amanda M., Matt Owings, and James A. Schwane. “Improvement in running economy after 6 weeks of plyometric training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 17.1 (2003): 60-67. 

[6] Cichanowski, Heather R., et al. “Hip strength in collegiate female athletes with patellofemoral pain.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 39.8 (2007): 1227.

[7] 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.

[8] Bogdanis, Gregory C., et al. “Comparison between unilateral and bilateral plyometric training on single-and double-leg jumping performance and strength.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 33.3 (2019): 633-640.

[9]  Graham-Smith, Philip, Natera, Alex and Jarvis, Mark. “LOAD COMPARISON RATIO IN SINGLE AND DOUBLE LEG MOVEMENTS.” UKSCA Annual Conference. 2020/12/22