Strength Training for High School Runners: The Do’s & Dont’s

Strength Training is an important consideration for any high school cross country and/or track coach of distance runners. However, there are some important considerations before enforcing a program.

Benefits of strength and weighttraining for distance runners

As you are most likely already aware, one of the most important factors in promoting good running form is strength and range of motion. We’ve all seen the runner, who, when fatigued mid race, starts to hunch and lean far forward, placing unnecessary stress on their back and legs, and compressing their lungs, not allowing for maximum oxygen intake. Though some individuals just naturally have great form, or not-so-great form, there are ways of improving this to maximum a runner’s stride rate and power output.

One of the best ways to start is through strength training. What is strength training exactly?

Strength training is any combination of the below:

  • Core abdominal exercises
  • Weightlifting
  • Plyometrics
  • Circuit training

All of these have an important place in a successful strength training routine.

Who Should Participate

I maintain that all runners could benefit from some combination of the above. However, I strongly advise against a blanket protocol for all your runners, as each age group, level of development, will require something slightly different.

For core and body weight exercises, I think it is safe to incorporate this into all of your athletes routines a few times a week. For weightlifting, I only recommend this type of training for your older, more developed athletes, typically juniors or seniors.

When should they do it

Since any strength training is secondary to the primary exercise of running, I recommend performing these routines post-run. It’s ideal to have your athletes go through a strength routine shortly after running so that they are still warmed up and not working cold/tight muscles.

I recommend doing these routines only 2-3 days per week. There is no advantage to strength training every day. All this serves to do is over tire your runners, and sap their strength / motivation.

What should they do

As I mentioned above, each athlete is different and therefore should be considered on an individual basis. For your younger or less developed athletes, I would recommend getting them into a 10-15 minute core and pushup routine 3-4 days a week. This can be any combination of core exercises, some of the best for runners are:

  • Planks
  • Supermans
  • Bicycles
  • Russian Twists
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Mule Kicks
  • BirdDog

And then for pushups you can just alternate between standard hand placement (shoulder width), close grip, wide grip. You can also switch it up with a pseudo pushup, like the pushup to side rotation. Perform a normal pushup and when at full arm extension lift one hand off the ground, keeping arm extended, rotate towards that side until you’re hand is pointing at the sky, then rotate down and complete for the other side.

For your older, more mature athletes, it should be fine to incorporate light weight lifting and body weight exercises. You can standardize this routine for all runners and event groups, or you can adjust the number of reps to weight ratio up or down based on your goal.

However, for high school aged athletes, I recommend a standard weight lifting routine that promotes low weight / high reps. I recommend including exercises that hit each of the main upper body groups:

  • Dumbbell bench press
  • Dips
  • Dumbbell Shoulder press
  • Rows
  • Wide grip pull ups or lat pull downs

Another worthwhile exercise which helps to improve arm carry is dumbell arm swings, where you take two lightweight dumbbells (5-10 lbs) and lock your elbows into a 90 degree angle. Then slowly swing your arms in a running motion. Do this for 60 seconds for each set.

Whenever possible, I recommend using dumbbells in place of bars. The reason for this is to promote strengthening for the stabilizing muscles as well as the primary muscle group. This also will reduce chance of injury and over exertion.

It is important for the athletes to focus on form, not to just rush through the reps. Make sure they maintain proper back alignment, not rounding their spine. They should make slow and deliberate motions with each rep, this will maximize the benefit and promote proper upper body posture, which should carry over into their running.

To maximize time, athletes can alternate between muscle groups and move through the routine at a good clip, like bench press to rows, to shoulder press, to lat pull downs etc.

There’s no need to overexert, or elevate the heart rate during these exercises as this defeats the purpose. The intent of this routine is to simply work muscles of each group when tired, focusing on posture, so that in a race or workout situation, when your body is most fatigued, you are able to maintain optimal form.

For these workouts, I recommend adhering to a 20-15-10 rep count per set, with appropriate increases in weight for each set. The routine should take no more than 20-25 minutes to complete. If you were to do this routine 2 days a week, I would schedule them for workout days, so that you exhaust the body on those days, and have the recovery days for rebuilding.

Core and plyometrics can be completed 3-4 days a week for the older group of athletes. I will talk about plyometrics and drills, as well as circuit training in a future post. The key thing to remember is that we do not want to overwhelm our athletes with a loaded routine, we want the focus to be on the primary exercise of running, with anything else being secondary, and should extend the athlete’s day no more than 30 minutes maximum.

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