How can I build lean muscle mass for long distance running?

Want to build muscle for running? From injury prevention to faster times, it’s worth the effort! Strength or resistance training will be the single biggest thing to help you gain lean muscle mass. Any time you lift weights, or do other resistance training, you stimulate lean muscle mass gains, also called muscle hypertrophy. 

The challenge as a long distance runner is that running is a stimulus to minimize lean muscle mass. Your body wants to run as efficiently as it can. One of the easiest ways to improve running efficiency is to decrease your body weight, and muscle mass is heavy! So by minimising the amount of muscle you carry, you also minimize the amount of physical work you have to do when running. 

This is annoying,  A- because muscle mass is actually hard to gain, and B- because that muscle mass can actually help decrease injury risk and improve your runs. 

Strength training considerations as a long distance runner

Training for two different things at once is called concurrrent training. Here’s what you need to think about as a long distance runner: 

Have you lifted before? If you haven’t, you’re in luck: It will be easier for you to gain lean muscle mass when you have no history of strength training. If you have been lifting for a while, you may see slower gains, but the right programming will still stimulate this. 

How much running are you doing? If you’re running long and slow three or more times per week, it’s going to be harder to put on lean muscle mass. Your body will need more time to fully recover after a long run, and also needs recovery time after a strength session. Remember that recovery is when your body replenishes energy stores in the muscle and rebuilds the muscle to be better prepared for the next session. 

How to build muscle for running

When designing a strength training program, we consider several factors. To build muscle for running, we need to balance the muscle demands of long, slow distance with the demands of lifting heavy things. Changing the exercises, the sets and reps, time spent, speed, and how many days can all greatly influence your results. 

Program frequency (how often)

This will depend on how much you’re running. Even one strength training session will be helpful, but I would push for two or even three if you can. You can do both on the same day, which may be helpful if your body needs more recovery time. Research suggests that you’ll get better results from whichever exercise you do first (i.e. run versus strength), but that you can maximise best results in each by having a break between. For example, you might strength train in the morning and run in the evening. 

Program volume (how much, i.e. sets/reps or time, etc.)

I would look at sets of 6-8 reps, which is the low end of the hypertrophy range, and probably three sets per exercise. Four sets will give you additional muscle mass stimulus, but the trade off is additional recovery needs – in this case, time between sessions. 

Program intensity (how heavy)

This will be different for everyone. My rule of thumb is that exercise should generally be challenging but achievable. In strength training, choose a weight that allows you to do the exercise with good technique. If you’ve picked a good weight, at the end of the set you should feel like you could do one or maybe two more reps with (pretty) good technique. 

Exercise selection 

Because you’re a runner training for muscle mass, and not a weightlifter doing cardio, I would prioritize compound movements. These are exercises that use lots of big muscle groups and multiple joints. Think squats or push ups or deadlifts, compared to a biceps curl. And don’t neglect your upper body! The momentum you get from the cross-body swing makes a big difference in your running efficiency, so aim for a full body workout. 

No matter how far or fast you run, building muscle can make a huge difference to your running performance. Every little bit helps, and the added benefit of injury prevention means you can stay on the road longer. So get lifting!

What do you think?