Why Older (and Younger) Runners Need to Strength Train

Last month, the NY Times Well Blog dropped a piece discussing the results of a recent study of how endurance runners alter their stride as they age. Investigators observed a group of 110 experienced runners aged 23 to 59 making their way around a track. Runners under 40 tended to display greater lower leg activity as they ran, whereas runners over 40 showed impaired lower leg activity. The latter relied more on their hip musculature (the absolute activity of which was still lower than that of younger runners) and showed an impaired “push off”; they had weaker strides and didn’t rise up as high off the ground. Overall, the older runners used their ankles and calves less without increasing hip musculature activity to cover the difference. They just got slower.

The study has its limitations. This study was a brief snapshot in time, rather than a decades-long study of how the same runners change their stride over the years. But it was quite clear: older runners tend to be weaker than younger runners, especially in the lower legs, and this results in a less powerful stride, an altered running gait, and a slower running speed.

What’s my take? I’m completely unsurprised.

This is just the latest in the growing body of evidence showing the beneficial effects strength training has in endurance athletes, especially older ones. Long ago, when I was running marathons competitively, I was one of the few guys paying any serious attention to strength training. It’s partially why, despite my genetic predisposition to joint injuries, I was able to stay in the game as long as I did. Sure, I had sky high inflammation, digestive issues, and some nasty tendinitis, but structurally, I got out relatively unscathed. I look around at some of my peers who are hobbling around and I realize I got off easy.

First and foremost—because it’s what runners truly care about—strength training can improve performance. Yes, even if you replace some of your miles with time in the gym. Yes, even if you spend less time running and more time lifting. Yes, even if you lift heavy, you’re not going to “get too big and unwieldy” enough to hamper your running performance. Why?

Strength enables optimal positioning. When you run long distances, you get tired. That’s unavoidable. Fatigue is a fact of running life and dealing with it is the name of the game. If you’re deadlifting once a week, your trunk musculature will be able to support the proper upright spine during long runs. If you’re not strength training and your lower back is a weak point (as it is for many runners), your body will reduce power output to protect you from injury. By strength training, you’ll increase your resistance to form degradation and increase power output.

Strength actually increases endurance. Lifting heavy things makes the muscles doing the lifting more efficient at what they do. That includes running long distances. And as the NY Times article showed, a distinct lack of lower leg strength may be causing the performance deteriorations associated with increased age.

Strength improves your finishing kick. It’s a pivotal moment of any race: the finishing kick. You’re coming up toward the last leg of the race. You’re exhausted. You want to quit. But what about that poser just ahead of you who’s been leading the entire race? He’s right there. He’s within reach. You can totally beat him if you just summon a burst of strength for the final few hundred meters and go all out. The guy who strength trains every week is going to have the explosive power necessary to make the final kick happen, even when fatigued at the end of a long endurance effort.

Strength reduces unnecessary stress. My friend Dr. Kelly Starrett, master physiotherapist and author of Becoming a Supple Leopard, notes that the optimal positioning provided by strength training can actually make running less stressful. Superior strength allows runners to keep an upright posture throughout the stride pattern, even as you fatigue in the latter stages of a workout. Rather than droop the head forward, roll the shoulders, tuck the pelvis, and constrict the breathing apparatus when fatigue sets in, strength training allows runners to maintain the “power pose.” This minimizes the fight or flight stimulation from the workout and speeds recovery by reducing unnecessary added stress that has nothing to do with the actual training effect.

Strength training improves resistance to injury. For many reasons, lifting heavy things increases your resistance to common running injuries.

First, strength enables good positioning and maintenance of proper technique; bad positioning and poor technique is what ultimately causes most degenerative injuries that occur in runners.

Second, strength training increases the injury resistance of joints and connective tissue. Running puts a huge amount of stress on the knees, ankles, and hips. Lifting heavy helps prepare your joints for some of that stress, and it may even help you recover from existing damage; just last week, a paper was published showing that high-weight, low-volume strength training may heal degenerated discs in the back.

Third, strength training improves bone density. Long distance runners consistently have lower bone density scores than age-matched athletes from other disciplines like sprinting, middle distance running, and power athletics. One reason is that endurance training tends to burn the most calories and cause the most stress to accumulate, leaving little energy left over to devote to bone maintenance, let alone growth. Another reason is that except for the legs, endurance running is low impact. Our bones require the application of direct mechanical stress to stimulate bone density growth. Throwing in a couple sessions of heavy (relative to your capacity) strength training each week can really make up the difference and stimulate bone density improvements. Since older folks are already the population at the greatest risk for low bone density, older folks who are also endurance runners absolutely must lift heavy things.

In the NY Times article, they reference a 2012 list of standard lower leg stretches and exercises older runners should employ to make up the strength deficit, the kind of thing you’d get on a fading printout from the orthopedist’s office. Give it a look. These are actually great choices, but they’re probably not sufficient. For instance, the heel cord stretch they recommend is inadequate. You’ve seen this one. Face a wall and do that thing with your legs where it looks like you’re trying to keep the wall from falling over. It’s the classic calf stretch, but in my experience, it doesn’t do much.

Two better alternatives?

Kelly Starrett’s heel cord wall stretch targets the same tissues with greater intensity. Just wear shoes for this one.

Lately, my favorite calf/Achilles’ tendon stretch has come from Angelo dela Cruz. If I squat, feel a bit stiff, do a few rounds of Angelo’s stretch, and squat again, my range of motion noticeably increases. Really raise those toes off the ground to stretch the calves. This also hits the hamstrings a bit.

The rest of the exercises are actually really solid. You might add some weight to the calf raises or, if you have a partner and a willingness to look ridiculous, try donkey calf raises. Still, simply focusing on the lower legs isn’t enough to truly obtain the benefits listed above.

Going barefoot (or minimalist) will help. Anyone who’s ever gone for a long hike or run in their bare feet or wearing minimalist shoes can attest: it blasts your calves and strengthens your feet. Doing that every once in awhile is a recipe for perpetually sore calves. Doing it habitually and gradually until your lower legs are inured to the stress makes for rock-solid, powerful calves, feet, and ankles. Be sure to run through my barefoot transition exercise recommendations, which are also good for general lower leg health and function, and be extremely cautious if you’ve spent your entire life inside shoes.

To really get the benefits, you’ll want to do some basic full-body strength training. Now, strength training is scary for many people who’ve been told to “take it easy” and warned about catastrophic injuries. Seniors can strength train. Heck, they can do power training. They can move quickly and lift heavy. Why? These are relative terms. A 64 year-old master’s marathoner doesn’t need to do jump squats with his own bodyweight laid across his back. A 55-year-old 10k enthusiast doesn’t have to power clean 0.75x her bodyweight to get an effect. What’s important is that they lift weights that are heavy—for them. One systematic review of the evidence even found that power training is slightly better than standard strength training at producing benefits to functional fitness in elderly people.


Bodyweight movements may be plenty. For most runners who aren’t doing anything strength-related, bodyweight training is perfectly adequate. Establishing proficiency first in the Primal Essential Movementssquats, pushups, pullups, planks—will give an inexperienced runner a huge boost to performance and injury resistance. Bodyweight training also gives a good foundation for further exploration of strength training methods.

The classic barbell lifts—squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bench press, rows—are difficult to surpass for sheer strength-building. They probably offer the most bang-for-your-buck.

Barbells are great, but machines are not the enemy. While I’ll always celebrate the aging runner who wants to squat and deadlift, the leg press and hack squat machines are both excellent choices for building real strength without requiring the mobility of the barbell movements.

Single-leg and single-arm training (unilateral exercises) build strength and offer a unique stimulus without requiring the loads inherent to bilateral movements. Instead of squatting with a 200 pound barbell, you can do reverse lunges or rear foot elevated split squats with a 50 pound dumbbell in each hand.

Whichever you choose, go high-weight, low-rep, low-volume. Keep sets short. Take breaks. It’s better to do 5 sets of 3 reps with slightly more weight than 3 sets of 5 reps with slightly less. You’re not trying to get huge (well, maybe you are). You’re not trying to destroy yourself and ruin the next day’s run. You’re looking to enhance your endurance work with smart, targeted strength work.

In my upcoming book Primal Endurance, I’ll lay out the optimal way for endurance athletes to strength train for performance, injury resistance, and longevity. For now, though, just go lift!

Any endurance athletes out there? How do you use strength training to improve your performance?

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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14 thoughts on “Why Older (and Younger) Runners Need to Strength Train”

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  1. Of course, no matter what we do, age eventually slows us down. Which prompted me to wonder, what is the peak age for a long-distance runner? And is it different for women than it is for men? Has anyone even researched these questions? Food for thought.

    1. There is a worldwide research project on this very topic which you can find the raw data for if you do a search for “Masters Track and Field Records”. I’ve only looked closely at the sprints since I’m trying the maintain the times to eventually get a world record, although it likely won’t be for another 40 years or so, and maybe never since I’m in Willie Gault’s age range. The sprint times are pretty smokin’, at least for the men up into the 70 – 80 range. I vaguely remember that someone looked at the age ranges and decline curves as a proxy for aging and showed that the distance people go into severe decline much earlier, which is at least one data point for strength/explosion training being a better anti-aging strategy and that is very consistent with what I have observed, but you can check out the data yourself.

  2. More and more I wonder why you would want to be a distance runner? (and I was one) I see all these people jogging around the neighborhood and I wonder if any have a clue as to why they are jogging…do they ever think about what they are eating?

    1. I was tired of the stress I felt from running, so I didn’t run for 5 years – I rowed, lifted, crossfitted, did everything but go for a run. I am running again now. I like it. It clears my mind, opens my lungs, and makes me feel good. I just don’t run how I used to – even when I was tired, wearing heavy ‘running’ shoes, and to the exclusion of all other athletic activities. I am an athlete who runs.

      The folks you see jogging – try to understand them. There’s more to running than all of the negative aspects we focus on. It’s what you make of it.

    2. I think the same thing about lap swimmers, road bikers and mountain bikers that only do wide gentle fire trails.I seriously don’t know how people can handle the repetition and lack of variety. After 35 laps in a pool I’m bored out of my mind. I’ve only done it for occasional rehab and it’s just mind numbing to swim back and forth in a pool.

      1. I cycle for transport – if you can handle the true mind numbing dullness that is driving, cycling is a cinch.

        I also personally find the stress of exercise more pleasant than the stress of finding a place to park. The difference in time taken isn’t more than 15 minutes for any of the places I need to go regularly.

    3. IIRC, the first modern Olympian to win the marathon was a Greek man. He ran far so he could visit his girlfriend. When you are a young man, seeing the girlfriend can be very strong motivation 🙂

  3. Former endurance runner here…. I actually got into ultramarathons before going mostly primal.

    My first was a 100 miler (jumped right in after my longest race to that point being marathon). Personally, if my understanding of the body is correct, the approach of being low body fat, small muscle capacity seemed counterintuitive since it seems to shorten energy stores.

    My train of thought was a healthy amount of body fat provides an energy source. The logic that muscles require energy and will hurt endurance didn’t make sense to me. At the same time, I would reason more muscle provides more capacity for glycogen stores.

    Once this occurred to me I altered my training to replace my shorter runs with heavy weight training. I got 60 miles on my first attempt in decent shape (most first timers were just chewed up and spit out and dropped out way before me). I had a minor knee injury, but that was from tripping on a root I wasn’t paying attention to.

  4. In Iyengar yoga, we knew there was something not quite right about long-distance running. We could see how haggard runners were. Mark has put a name to it. When I was young and before everything fell apart from my hundred-mile weeks, I wrote on a card the first three winners of a great endurance race, the world’s toughest, I thought. This, to inspire myself. Little did I know it would be the fourth-place finisher in that race who, decades later, would write the best health advice ever, ever. Even better–dare I say it–than old man Iyengar, god unto us. Iyengar said, walk. Iyengar said, do yoga carefully but powerfully like this. But we didn’t quite know what was wrong with running for three hours every day. Now I am old, but not so old, and Mark has said a few things. I am fasting, climbing trees again, planking the heck out of my urban neighborhood instead of the thousand daily situps I used to do. Got in a tense stand-off last week with five young guys ordering me to put my shoes on (I won). I am full of adventures and injuries, but I am also strong and disciplined and now have four-sixths of a six-pack! The experiment continues. (sorry for the long post. An old man rambles…but also sprints!)

  5. My father has been a long distance runner since the 1970’s in large part because he was career military and needed to stay fit. He is now 75 and at the moment is sidelined with a heel injury that he is having some difficulty getting healed. Up until this point he has stayed active running and walking. The older he has gotten the more walking and less running he does. He also admits he is slower than he used to be as well. But at 75 years old he still walks 12-14 miles a day mostly for fun. He is more capable than many younger people I know. He is not a big person and is 5’6″ and 135lbs and has been for a lot of years. His mother lived to be 90 and I think he is very much on track to do the same.

  6. Great article! I read it a few days ago and knew/hoped that you would address it. The stretching demo from Angelo dela Cruz is really good.

  7. This is timely – I’m trying to run a half-marathon next April in under 2:00:00 so that I can finally say I hit my goal and stop running so much. Will try to incorporate the tips above into my training plan.

  8. Angie, yes! Fourth-place ironperson, I think, anyway first-place health writer, Mark S. All I ever wanted to do was run. Now I think perhaps the twenty thousand miles I would have run in that time weren’t too awfully terrible to have missed. I have found other ways to drift over the land and water.