Friday, April 14, 2017

Tips For Building Muscle While Distance Running

I am often asked by fellow runners what is my secret to building muscle while running so many miles?  It seems like an anomaly to many a runner, but I can assure you, it most certainly can be done!  Just like achieving any other goal you have in running (like a new distance or a big PR), it takes some hard work and dedication.  But with consistency in a well rounded strength and conditioning program, as well as proper nutrition and realistic goals, any runner can build strong, lean muscles while logging in high mileage.

Here are some tips that have worked for me as well as the athletes I work with...

Lift Heavy
Probably one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to runners, especially female runners, is what type of weights to lift...if at all.  I have encountered so many athletes that use the same light weights for years wondering why they are not getting results.  And I've also encountered many an athlete who shy away of weights altogether, and are wondering why all the running, squats and push ups are not building the body of their dreams.

The only way to build lean muscle mass is to challenge your muscles. They only way to challenge your muscles is to get a little physically (and mentally) uncomfortable and push yourself in the weight room.  I tell my athletes, the last few reps of any set should be bit of a struggle, if it's too easy, then you're not going to get results.  Of course form is always key, so do not compromise form for an insanely heavy weight, but do not be afraid to go up in weights when you're no longer feeling challenged!  (And I wanted to add because it's always asked, the chances of you bulking up and looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger is slim to none, so don't worry!)

Amp Up Your Cardio
So I know this sounds a little silly.  You're distance runner, how could you possibly do more cardio!?!  I'm not necessarily suggesting your run more days, miles or even do more cross training.  What you do want to consider incorporating into your regimen if you're trying to build lean muscle mass is more challenging cardio like interval training.  Interval training (short hurts of high intensity followed by recovery) is what really kick starts your metabolism, burning fat and building lean muscle mass for up to 36 hours after a workout!

Yes, you are getting some interval training if you are doing speed work, but it is strictly through running.  Our bodies adapt to what we constantly do and we need a variety in order to achieve results.  Some ways you can amp it up include taking a spin, kickboxing or boot camp class, try a HIIT or MetCon workout, or simply just add in things like jump rope, squat jumps, mountain climbers, etc. at the end of your lifting sets to shoot your heart rate up.
KB Swings are a great exercise that builds strength and power while getting the HR up
Don't Be Afraid of Carbs
When it comes to building lean muscle, protein gets pretty much all the love.  Understandably so, protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of your muscles and body.  Without them, it would be impossible to build, repair or even maintain muscle tissue.  But in order to get energy for anything from running to lifting weights, to day to day activity, you need energy.  And that energy comes from the glycogen stores you get from consuming carbohydrates.  Since carbohydrates and protein work hand in hand (they work together to fuel and repair muscles), you should consume and equal amount of both (1:1 ratio).

As awesome as it would be to fuel up on chips and beer, not all carbs are created equal.  In order to achieve great, healthy results, you will need to take in good, natural carbs.  Some sources of good carbs are from fruits and vegetables, beans and legume and whole grain.

Consider Your Goals
We all have our own personal reasons why we run.  Some run for fitness in an effort to lose or maintain weight.  Some run to relieve stress and/or just stay active.  And some run to really push themselves and chase big PR's.   Regardless of your reasoning to run, you still most likely have some sort of running-related goal you are looking to achieve in the near future.  So if you're looking to build muscles for ascetic purposes as well, you will have to consider what is your bandwidth for training and your ultimate goal.

So what I tell my athletes is to train for performance and not for perfection.  You are first and foremost a runner and you have goals you want to achieve in that realm.  Yes, you want to look good and you certainly can and will.  Building muscles doesn't mean you have to ditch your running goals and focus on strictly weights, but you are going to have to carve out time during your week to dedicate to lifting, which will make you stiff and sore at times.  So why not make that time work for not just your appearance but more importantly your performance.

Having a well rounded strength and conditioning program in your training regimen will help to make you a better runner who is stronger, leaner, less likely to get injured and an over all better athlete.  The lean muscles you build from that program are then the added bonus!

Don't Be A Slave To The Scale
Along those same lines of training more for performance than just on how you look, is to not be so caught up on a number on the scale.  We have heard that muscle "weighs more than fat."  The truth is muscle is more dense than fat, meaning it takes up less space than fat while weighing about the same amount.  So if you're adding strength training into your routine but not seeing the scale budge, do not get discouraged.  If you're being consistent with your training, taking in the appropriate amount of nutrition and pushing yourself, you are going to achieve results regardless of what the scale says.

These results will be more of how you feel and look, not so much your weight.  You may notice some muscle definition starting to show or your clothes feeling a little looser, and your running pace getting more effortless but fore the scale even (or ever) moves!
I weight the EXACT same in these two pics!
Get Some Direction
There are several ways you can incorporate strength and conditioning into your routine in order to build lean muscle mass while running, ultimately making you a better athlete.  Body weight exercises are a great place to start, but as I stated above, you will need to learn to challenge yourself.  Taking group exercise classes and/or adding in interval training is also a great to get stronger and leaner.

But one of the best ways to take the guess work out of the how, what, when, where and why of strength and conditioning is to enlist the help of a coach.  A trained professional, like myself, can design a program specific to your goals and needs while considering your run training as well.  For more information on my training services, check out my services page and/or contact me today from a free, no obligation consultation.


  1. Thank you so much for this post! This answers so many questions I have as I gear up for my next half. I was wondering--how often do you recommend adding strength and for how long each session? Is two days a week for ~45min enough, or do you recommend doubling up strength with run days? Thanks!

  2. Jessica,
    I am so happy to hear this helped answer some questions for you heading into your half marathon training! To answer your questions, it all depends on what you're goals are, what you're currently doing (the volume and intensity), and also what you have time for. I typically suggest suggest 2-3 times per week of strength training to hit all the major muscle groups and see progress, and any where from 45-60 minutes a sessions should be good! Let me know if you have any additional questions and good luck with you're training!

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