Diet and Fitness, Fitness and Exercise

The Best Strength-Training Program for Runners

16 Comments 01 June 2011

RunningInPark_300Female runners are often afraid of weight training because they think it adds bulk. Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher shares two workouts for women that will help you become a better, stronger runner—without filling out in all the wrong places. From Kara Goucher’s Running for Women: From First Steps to Marathons.

The following program will help make you a better, stronger runner. And you only need to do two sessions a week, each lasting well under an hour.

Women runners aren’t as good as their male counterparts about doing regular strength training, which is too bad, because it offers an important array of benefits. A well-designed program will help you build overall strength, improve your muscle tone, burn more calories, and lower your injury risk. Women often give one of two reasons (sometimes both!) for not doing strength work: they don’t want to bulk up, and it’s too boring.

The first one simply isn’t true. Men sometimes bulk up, which is not always the best thing for their running, but women? “It almost never happens,” says Salazar. “Improved muscle tone, sure. But too many muscles? Almost never.”

As for the “too boring” excuse, that’s where Salazar’s plan can help, because there’s lots of variation, yet the exercises are simple to learn and execute. You do just two sessions a week — and remember, always separate them by at least one to two days — and each session involves a completely different set of eight exercises. Result: plenty of variation, and you really work the whole body.

Before getting to the exercise descriptions, here are four important points:

1. Lower the reps, raise the weight. Each week for 4 weeks, you’ll be lowering the repetitions you do with each exercise but increasing the weight. But always aim for three sets of each exercise. Here’s how it looks:

Week 1: 3 sets of 12
Week 2: 3 sets of 10
Week 3: 3 sets of 8
Week 4: 3 sets of 6
Week 5: Off

Note: Take every fifth week off completely, then return to week 1 (i.e., 3 sets of 12) but with gradually heavier weight amounts.

2. Remember your rest: Rest at least 60 seconds between each set. You can do light stretching during this time.

3. Don’t strain: Be sure you can get through every rep without straining or losing form. If necessary, drop down in weight.

4. Start easy if you’re new to lifting: If you’re a novice, do one set of 10 reps for each exercise for 2 full weeks before starting this program.

First Session Each Week

Exercise 1: Barbell Squat
Keep shoulders back and chest out. Feet shoulder width apart. Sit back and down until thighs are parallel to the floor. Pause for a split second, then stand up. Keep chest and eyes up during the entire lift. Sit back so that your knees are never going farther forward than your feet. Don’t let your knees cave in at all; keep them directly above your feet the entire time. Push through your heels.

Exercise 2: Dumbbell Incline Press
Bench should be at approximately a 45-degree angle. With dumbbells just outside of your shoulders, push them up until your arms lock above your head. Lower back toward your shoulders and pause for a moment before repeating. Reach to the ceiling, and control the weight on the way down.

Exercise 3: One-Leg Dumbbell Russian Deadlift
With dumbbell in right hand, balance on your left foot. Keep slight (10-degree) bend in left knee. In a smooth motion, bring dumbbell down your left thigh/shin until it reaches midshin. Hold for a second, then raise back up. Attempt to keep right leg in a straight line with your back. Therefore, the leg will be straight out while dumbbell is at the bottom of the lift. Repeat with dumbbell in left hand while balancing on right foot. Keep your glutes tight and the weight close to your lead leg the entire time.

Exercise 4: Pull-ups
With palms facing away from body, grip the pull-up bar with hands outside of shoulders. In a slow, controlled motion, pull your body upward until your chin is above the bar. Slowly lower your body back down and repeat. If this lift is too difficult to complete without assistance, you can have someone hold your feet and provide assistance. Don’t cheat — go all the way down.

Exercise 5: Dumbbell Step-up
Holding a dumbbell in both hands, use a bench/box, which can be up to knee height. The higher the box, the harder the lift. Firmly plant your lead foot onto the bench/box and stand up until your front leg is straight. Slowly lower your back leg back to the floor. Switch legs and repeat. Don’t push off your down leg; instead, step off your lead leg.

Exercise 6: Tri-Pushdown
Using a cable machine, set up bar so that it rests at chest level. Keeping elbows pinned to your sides, lock arms out at the bottom. Let bar come back to midchest and push down again. Don’t cheat by using momentum; feel it only in your triceps.

Exercise 7: Back Extension
Keep your back straight the entire lift. While bending at the hips, lower your shoulders toward the ground. Raise back up. Keep good form; hips to shoulders should be a straight line.

Exercise 8: Crunches
With knees bent at right angles, only come up enough that your shoulder blades come off the floor. Keep head in line with torso; don’t “nod” forward or otherwise put strain on your neck. Raise up faster; lower down slower.

Second Session Each Week

Exercise 1: One-Leg Squat
Hold dumbbells in each hand. With back foot resting on a bench, bring your front foot out far enough so that when you are in down position your knee is not farther forward than your foot. With chest straight up, bend your front leg until your thigh is as close to parallel as possible. Raise back up to starting position. Try to get your front thigh to parallel. Keep your front foot pointed straight forward.

Exercise 2: Dumbbell Bench Press
Same as Dumbbell Incline Press, but with flat bench.

Exercise 3: Russian Dead Lift
Hold a barbell. While maintaining a 10-degree bend in knees, slowly lower the weight down your thighs until you reach midshin level. Keep your back as straight as possible. Stand back up using the same path as going down. Keep your back tight; no bending. The bar should almost touch your shins the whole way down.

Exercise 4: Chin-ups
Same as Pull-ups, but with palms facing in.

Exercise 5: Dumbbell Lunge
Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Take a big step out, and while keeping a slight bend in back leg, lower your body until back knee is almost hitting the ground. Push off front leg and stand back up. Push all the way back to the starting position, not halfway.

Exercise 6: Dumbbell Bicep Curl
With a dumbbell in each hand, keep elbows pinned to your side and curl the dumbbells up toward your shoulders. Don’t swing the weight; lift it with your biceps. Don’t cheat by using momentum; feel it only in your biceps.

Exercise 7: Superman
Lie face down on the floor. In a smooth motion, raise both feet and hands off the floor. Hold for a pause and repeat. Don’t swing or bounce off the floor.

Exercise 8: Medicine Ball Twist
Lie on the floor with feet off the ground and knees bent. Holding a medicine ball/dumbbell in your hands, rotate it in a half circle from the outside of one hip to the other while keeping your feet off the ground. Don’t bounce the weight off the ground; control it.

Kara Goucher’s Running for Women

Kara Goucher’s Running for Women

Kara Goucher


Kara Goucher is the World Championship bronze medalist for the 10K and a top U.S. marathoner. A member of the Nike Oregon Project, improving standards for distance running, she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, professional runner Adam Goucher and son Colt.

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  • Mercer

    Would this strength routine be suitable for male runners as well?

  • kojala

    Strength training is recommended for all runners, and if you follow Kara’s plan, you can always adjust your reps/weight accordingly for your fitness level. Thanks for reading!

  • Free Workout Routines

    Ohh the one-legged squat. Never tried that. Thanks!

  • kojala

    It’s a doozy! Let us know how Kara’s program works for you. We love it!

  • Susan

    Thank you so much for posting this routine!

    It is one of the most effective weight training programs I have followed. In just 2 months, I have become stronger and I have slimmed down quite a bit! If you want to stay strong and lean, this is the routine for you!

  • kojala

    Hi Susan,
    Thanks so much for sharing your success. Kara’s book has been helpful to me as a runner as well. Good luck with your training!

  • Christy

    Two questions: Is the Back Extension using any dumblells/barbell? And is the One-Leg Squat pretty much like a lunge with one leg in back of you on a bench? Sorry, trying to picture the exercises in my head. Thanks for the post!

  • kojala

    Hi Christy,
    Great questions! The back extension simply relies on your own body’s weight-bearing to build core strength, so don’t use weights. The one-leg squat is a one-legged lunge with your back foot resting on a weight bench or similar height. Just be sure when you lunge your forward foot is far enough out for your leg to remain parallel, and bring your thigh parallel to the floor before rising up again. For more exercises, Kara’s book is excellent and discounted here:
    Thanks for reading!

  • Maura Mikulec

    Please tell me, though, when to do this….how to do strength training and run and have rest days. There are only so many days in the week. I do strength training, and love it, and yet I always feel fatigued for a day or so after, affecting my runs (Trail running, with steep hills). Should one run on the same day, before the soreness kicks in, and then rest the next?

  • kojala

    Thanks for your question! According to Kara’s book, you should do strength training sessions 2x/week following her repetition schedule (it reboots every 5th week), then run on the off days. You should alternate days so that muscle fatigue doesn’t affect your runs, and that your long runs don’t affect your ability to lift–so probably best to leave a 48-hour recovery window after those. It depends on your schedule of course, but Kara recommends limiting your runs to 3x/week (varying the types of run you do) and then 2x/week for strength. That gives you two full rest days from any exercise at all. Good luck!

  • Steph

    Is there a video of this or photos in her book? What is the title of her book? Thanks!,

  • kojala

    Yes, you can see more detail in the book–it is called Kara Goucher’s Running for Women.

  • b

    On the 2 days we lift, do we do any cardio at all? spin/cycle? elliptical? Yoga? Or soley strength train?

  • Steve T

    Good article, I learned something and my running may well benefit! Thank you.

  • Renee B

    Hey, I don’t know if this is a silly question or not, but I’m really new to exercising. The instructions say do 3 sets of 12, and then there’s like 8 exercises listed. Do you do each exercise 12 times, and then repeat 3 times over? It seems like it would take a long time, but maybe it goes quick once it gets started?

  • Misty M

    Nice article. There’s not a lot of good workout routines for runners out there on the internet, will definitely try. Thanks for sharing!


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