How to Balance Running With Weight Training

You don’t have to pick one or the other — you can combine cardio and strength.

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Finding the balance between running and weight training is not an easy task. In fact, there are many different variables that come into play when striving to excel in both without ending up overworked or even injured. 

Some key areas to think about are the following:

  1. Warming up properly
  2. Form and breathing 
  3. How much rest do you really need?
  4. Increasing weights while running more miles 
  5. Nutrition and hydration

Warming Up

Let’s be honest: Many of us skimp out on warm-ups. Warming up is a crucial component to any training program. Think about it: Running is one of the most taxing activities on your body. Now add heavy lifting onto this and you have a recipe for disaster if you’re not taking care of your body with a proper warm-up, rest and recovery. 

The best warm-ups include a mixture of foam rolling, dynamic stretching and drills. Before a run, I may do A skips, high knees, leg swings, B skips, carioca drills and strides. Similarly, before lifting, make sure you prep your muscles to be worked. If you’re doing a leg workout, for example, warm up and loosen up your legs, hips and back.

The key is to warm up the muscles you’re using in the workout by performing similar movements without the load so your body gets used to those movement patterns. Also, warm up your ankles and core because you’re using these muscles to stabilize you in a variety of movements. A great way runners and lifters warm up is by using resistance bands. In running, resistance bands can help activate the hips, glutes and adductors, which will be used as you run. The mini-loop bands are a great place to start.

When you’re lifting, use bands to warm up by performing some of the movements you will be completing in your workout, but just do a few reps and with a light band. Focus on feeling those muscles working beforehand so that when you begin adding weight, you will reduce the risk of injury. 

Form and Breathing

Proper running form is key in reducing injury and increasing speed. When you’re running, make sure you’re upright and not slouched over or leaning back. As you’re running, bend at the ankles rather than the hips. Make sure your hands and shoulders are relaxed. The more you tense up or clench your fists, the more energy your body is using. Your arms should swing naturally by your hips and not side to side. Your arms will help propel you forward. Look ahead rather than at your feet, and avoid excessive heel strike. These are key tips to help you when running fast or for longer distances. 

Next, breathe slowly. You want to stay relaxed. Although it seems impossible to keep your breath even while pushing yourself on a long run, this will help you control your breaths and feel good for the duration of the run. More controlled breathing will lead to better endurance and likely a less painful run. Breathing hard and heavy will use up more energy, increase your heart rate and cause cramping. Focus on breathing from the diaphragm, and make sure you’re not taking shallow breaths.  

See also: Follow These Steps to Breathe Easier on the Run from Women’s Running

How Much Rest Do You Really Need?

Resting your body is a key component in your overall training program. If you’re not getting proper rest, you can run into some severe overuse injuries. You also may notice a decrease in performance, an increase illness, constant soreness or fatigue, and moodiness. The damage that exercise causes triggers your body’s immune system to repair that damage, explains Adam Rivadeneyra, M.D., a sports medicine physician at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute and the Orthopedic Specialty Institute in Orange, California. “But you have to cause some damage to your body for it to adapt,” he adds.

It’s important to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, try increasing one weekly rest day to two weekly rest days and see whether this makes a difference. If it does not, you can consider decreasing the volume of training sets and increase at a slower rate. 

Increasing Weights While Running More Miles 

When you want to run faster and get stronger, keep in mind that sometimes less is more. Sure, your weights and training volume will increase as time goes on. Mileage also may increase in your runs. However, doing too much training might put a halt in your progress, to say the least.

Increase mileage slowly over time. For example, if you’re starting at 25 miles per week, run this for a couple of weeks, and then you may start increasing around 10 percent each week. Pay attention to how you feel once you’re at this point. If you feel like you increased too quickly, you may try cross-training to build your base with things such as a stationary bike or swimming laps.

2-Week Plan to Balance Running and Weight Training

A sample running program for someone who is at a moderate level can look something like the following:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Run 3-4 miles Run 2 miles (warm-up).

Run 2 minutes on (tempo pace), 1 minute off for 15 minutes.

Run 2 miles (cool-down)

Strength training
Run 3 to 4 miles. Run 2 miles (steady pace), run 1 mile (tempo pace) and run 1 mile (steady pace) = 4 miles

Strength training
Run 3 miles

Core work
Run 6 to 7 miles. Rest 
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

Run 5 to 7 miles (easy pace)
Run 2 miles (warm-up)

6 to 8 150- to 400-meter hills (walk or jog down)

2-mile run (cool-down)

Strength training
Run 4 to 5 miles (recovery run). Run 2 miles (warm-up)

6 to 10 600-meter intervals with 100-meter roll on recovery

2-mile run (cool-down)

Strength training 
Run 4 miles. Run 3 miles. Rest 

Your weight-training schedule can consist of full-body and compound movements, with a focus on balance, core and explosive exercises. Each week, you can have a lower-body day and an upper-body day, focused on main movements each week such as hex bar deadlifts, squats, hip thrusts and overhead presses. Focusing on compound movements will allow your entire body to get stronger. In my experience as a Division 1 athlete and competitive runner post-college, I have performed best with two lifting days while mixing in abs and core on the off days from the gym. 

If your focus is endurance running, then your weight training will be more focused on endurance. If you are working to improve speed and short-distance running, then your strength training might look a bit different. One important thing is that lifting is lifting. You get your fast-paced cardio workouts when you run. When you come in the gym to lift, focus on going slower, perfecting your form on each exercise, getting stronger and using the mind-muscle connection.

As you check out the running plan above, I mention something called “tempo.” A tempo run is a pace that is slightly faster than a recovery run, during which you are pushing yourself harder but you’re still able to maintain a conversation with the person next to you every few breaths. 

As far as splitting running and lifting, I recommend running first, and then a couple of hours later, complete your lift. This will allow you ample rest time in between both strenuous activities so that you can finish each one to the best of your abilities. I also recommend eating a nutritious meal in between each one. For example, a great meal would be chicken, rice and a small serving of veggies. As a runner and a weightlifter, your body is burning a ton of calories, even at rest. So you have to take in ample calories for the activity that you are doing. Making sure you have a steady flow of nutrients will allow you to perform well.

A sample meal plan could look like the following:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal + eggs and fruit 
  • Snack: Apple + rice cakes and peanut butter 
  • Lunch: Chicken, rice or potato, veggies
  • Dinner: Pasta, lean meat/fish/tofu, veggies, olive oil 
  • Snack: Protein shake 

Nutrition and Hydration

Make sure you are fueling up for your workouts and you are hydrating. Your body needs to be hydrated to work properly. A good rule of thumb is, if you’re waiting to be thirsty, chances are your body is already dehydrated. Aim to drink somewhere between 3 to 5 liters of water per day. 

By using these tips above, I am hopeful that you will excel in running and lifting to become a stronger, faster and better overall athlete.