Hard Days Harder: When to Strength Train

Strength training on your toughest run days is tough, sure, but it maximizes recovery
Staff Writer

By Jeff Gaudette—Whether the desired outcome is general fitness, increased explosiveness and stride efficiency, or injury prevention, most runners understand the importance of adding strength training to their running schedule.  However, few runners actually incorporate it into their training schedules on a consistent basis.

When asked why not, most runners concede that they don’t know how to properly integrate it into their schedule. The big question they have is whether they should do their strength work after their hard workouts or on their easy days.  Not knowing the answer, they skip it.  

Luckily, there is a simple answer to this burning question: Keep your hard days hard and your easy days easy. Let’s take a look at what exactly this means and how it can impact your approach to strength training.

The philosophy is simple. You want to combine your hardest strength training and running days so that your easy days remain as easy as possible and recovery can happen.  Combining hard/easy days, by contrast, reduces the body’s ability to recover by adding stress and by shortening the total time you have to recover before your next hard workout. This is the single most important reason to include strength training on your hard workout days. 

RELATED: Should Your Strength Training Be Hard?

In addition to allowing you to properly recover between workouts, the hard/hard approach provides a few additional benefits:

1. It prevents you from going too hard during strength training.
Since running is the most important part of the training plan, it should be the primary focus and consume most of your available energy and attention. While this does leave you more tired for your strength workout—and consequently won’t allow you to be as strong or explosive as you would like—it’s actually a positive. Being tired going into a strength workout will prevent you from going too hard or lifting too heavy, which happens too often when runners hit the weights fresh.

2. It burns more calories and aids in recovery.
Scientists from Brigham Young University found that post-exercise metabolism increased most when people did intense cardio first and lifted weights afterward. This means that you’ll burn more calories, and burn them for longer, if you do your strength training after your more intense running sessions.

Likewise, researchers from the College of New Jersey found that following weight training, heart rate and blood lactic acid returned to resting levels faster, which means you could potentially recover from hard running faster if you perform strength training that day.

While the “hard days hard, easy days easy” philosophy is the best approach to incorporating strength training into your schedule, it does have a few drawbacks and negatives to be aware of. They are:

1. Be extra careful to perform exercises correctly.
As noted above, you will be tired when performing your strength sessions after hard workouts. As a consequence, you need to be extra cautious and ensure that you perform the exercises with proper form. The more tired you get, the easier it is to cheat or put your body in positions that could lead to injury.

RELATED: Can CrossFit Make You A Better Runner?

To overcome this potential issue, you should focus intently on your form by performing each exercise slowly and using lighter weights to start. It’s a much more effective, and safe, approach to perform exercises with light weights and slow movements as opposed to rushing through a workout and trying to lift as much as you can. Having a coach or trainer spot you and keep an eye on your form is a good idea to ensure you’re performing the exercises properly.

2. Hard workout days are already your longest days.
For most runners, hard workout days already consume quite a bit of time. The combination of a warmup, stretching, rest intervals, cool down, along with a 5 x 1 mile interval workout, takes much longer than running five miles straight. Therefore, it may be impossible to fit in a 15- to 30-minute strength training session after what has already been a long workout.

One possible solution is to split up the running workout and strength routine into a morning and afternoon/evening session. Generally, strength training sessions don’t (n.b. shouldn’t) take too long, so it can be squeezed into your routine when you get home from work or before bed.

The final piece of the puzzle is how to incorporate the “hard days hard, easy days easy” principle when you have multiple strength training sessions or only one workout per week. In this case, you should schedule your hardest, most running-specific strength routines after your hardest workouts, your medium effort routines (like basic core work or hip strengthening routines) on your regular running days, and any preventative routines on your off or recovery days.

RELATED: Sets, Reps And Loads For Runners

Here is a sample week that incorporates seven days per week of strength training that you can modify to fit your needs (you don’t have to strength train every day of the week, but this outline should help you see where each type of routine would fit):

Monday            Easy Run + Core Routine (moderate)
Tuesday           Speed Workout + Leg Training (difficult)
Wednesday      Off or Recovery Run + Preventative Exercises (easy)
Thursday          Easy Run + Core Routine (moderate)
Friday               Tempo Workout + Plyometrics (difficult)
Saturday           Run + General Strength—Gym or Bodyweight (moderate)
Sunday             Long Run + Speed and Form Drills (easy to moderate)

If you’ve been struggling with how to incorporate strength routines into your training plan, try using the “hard days hard, easy days easy” approach. You’ll ensure that you recover before your next hard workout while still getting maximum benefit from your time spent strength training.


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