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Why Runners Need Upper-Body Strength Training

Think a strong upper body isn't important in running? Think again.

strength training Apr 19, 2021

Running isn’t just about your legs. It requires the whole body to perform. So doesn’t it make sense that you should train your whole body to get better at running?


You may not feel like you have time to strengthen your upper body — after all, those miles aren’t going to run themselves — but the truth is, no matter how many hours you spend running, you may never get faster if you don’t spend some time on your top half.


Consider the results of a recent study, which found that having a strong upper body is key to running efficiency. The research looked at the neuromechanical link between the brain, the central nervous system, and the muscles between the head and the arms during both a walk and a run. Walking didn’t trigger the neuromechanical link to fire up in study participants, but running did.


The findings suggest that strengthening the neuromechanical link can help improve your form, stabilize the body, and keep your energy moving in the same direction — all resulting in faster times at longer distances, and a reduced risk of injury.


Breaking down the boost to running efficiency


When you strengthen the upper body, all kinds of great things happen to your running. Here are just a few of them:


  • Expanded glycogen storage = greater endurance

By building the muscles in the upper body, you increase your body’s capacity to store glycogen, a form of sugar that serves as one of the body’s main energy sources. You use glycogen when you run, and when you run low on it, you start to fatigue. If your body can begin to store more glycogen, you can run longer at the same pace.


  • Stronger arms = faster times

Your arms help maintain your rhythm during a run, which is essential for running efficiency. With every step you take while running, your arms pump along with you, so it makes sense that the stronger your arms are, the less work the rest of the body will have to do, and the faster you’ll run.


Plus, weak arms can cause imbalances in the body. Pumping your arms during a run brings balance to your legs, helping them transfer power from side to side.


  • Increased lung capacity = less energy expended

Building a strong upper body helps you maintain good form and improves your lung capacity. It also reduces how much oxygen your body needs to hold the same pace, meaning you can run faster while using the same amount of energy.


Injury prevention


When you think of the body’s anatomy, picture a system of segments, joints, and muscles all working together to perform movement. When one joint moves, it allows for the movement of another joint. When you run, the movement of your legs sets off a chain of events, called a kinetic chain, that affects the movement of neighboring segments, joints, and muscles — including those in the upper body.


Because movement requires these interconnected parts of the body to work together, if just one area is out of whack, it can throw off your form, which can lead to injury.


Look at the core, for example, which works to maintain balance and control joint movement, as well as improve the transfer of energy between the lower and upper body. If your core is weak, you may not have the balance you need to keep you from leaning too far forward while running and putting unnecessary pressure on your lower back. By strengthening your upper body, you can maintain good form, even as your body tires, and help reduce your risk of injury.


Putting upper body strength training into practice


If you want to prevent injury, get faster, and build endurance, you have to be willing to strength train the entire body, and grab some heavier weights.


The goal of strength training should be the same as the goal for running if you want to improve: You have to stress the muscles to the point that the tissue breaks down (i.e., you can’t do another rep at that weight), then builds itself back stronger and leaner.


Experts recommend lifting heavy weights and performing total-body exercises that target the arms, back, and core two to three times a week. These exercises can include squats, planks, push-ups, overhead presses, and renegade rows. Just make sure you maintain proper form when strength training (if you don’t, you won’t reap the benefits and you’ll risk injury), exhaust the muscles and make time for it. In fact, replacing that last mile of your daily run with 10 minutes of strength training is a good way to start if you don’t think your current schedule allows for it.


By taking a full-body approach to strength training, you can benefit your running performance overall.


Now get out there and run your life.

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