Should you strength train before or after a run?

Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything besides daily check-ins. I’ve finally found a topic I want to separately discuss.

I’ve talked about this before, when you as a runner want to strength train with your endurance workouts, and whether to do it before or after the run.

First of all, I offer the caveat that serious endurance training will always compromise growth and development in any strength training you also do. Your body physiologically does not compartmentalize its recovery and adaptation to multiple simultaneous forms of exercise. Your finite hormonal and nutritional resources will spread recovery efforts across everything in your body that needs repair.

The more you have to recover from, the less benefit any of those needs will receive day over day. Other than through illegal/dangerous means, there’s little you can do to boost the quantity of available hormones and nutrients. The advice I give on nutrition and supplements can help you maximize what you have available, but you still have a finite capacity.

That said, very generally speaking, if you’re days into recovery for one kind of exercise, then your body will make available more resources for any new exercise done than it will for the exercise you’ve previously been recovering from.

Obvious caveats: Your body is always generally regenerating and repairing and this requires hormones/nutrients, this generally applies over days and weeks rather than hours since deep sleep is a key component, and if your old recovery is an injury, it will probably still take up an abundance of your body’s recovery resources even if you introduce a new exercise stimulus elsewhere.

OKAY, so all of that said, some will argue that if you want to strength train for max gains, you need to strength train before running as you will be at max energy for your lift.

Here’s the issue: You’re not going to get max gains from strength training at all if you are also endurance training. I don’t just mean on the same day. I mean if you are in the middle of an endurance training cycle, e.g. training for a marathon.

Your body will not recover and super-compensate (aka grow) efficiently from hard strength training if you are also endurance training… unless you completely stop endurance training long enough for maximum strength gains.

And that could take up to two weeks. You really want to stop endurance training for two weeks every time you want to max out your barbell squats? That does not sound efficient.

Obviously, there are people who max out the barbell and still run, not realizing they’re wasting energy on the lifting while also compromising their run training. The only athletes I see get away with combining max strength work and sport are athletes in what I call Single Blast Sports: Sports where you perform in isolated bursts lasting seconds at most. Examples are powerlifting (obviously), and throws like the shot put, discus, hammer throw. Even sprint sports like (obviously) sprinting, or jumps, require too much sustained anaerobic effort in attempts to really be single-bast sports. Significant anaerobic or aerobic effort in other running and kinetic training aside from max strength work is required to succeed.

All of that is to say that, while strength training is important and can help your endurance running… max strength training is not an efficient approach to strength training. Your strength training needs to be sub-maximially focused: Endurance, power, dynamic and sport-specific strength.

That’s quite the digression to say that max effort at strength training doesn’t matter much at all when you’re strength training as a runner. It’s irrelevant. If you want to work on max strength, do it when you’re not in an endurance training cycle. Your body biologically can’t focus on both max strength and endurance at once; the results of one or both training disciplines have to suffer. If you must do both, you are better off strength training to maintain or gently test the limits and endurance of your strength. You can still gain strength here, obviously, but the gains are more marginal and best serve to supplement your endurance performance.

You can strength train before or strength train after your endurance workouts, and see benefits. Which one you should prefer can depend on what you’re looking for.

  • If your endurance workout is not a key workout, e.g. not speedwork, a long run… doing the strength workout first is fine. If you are doing a tough endurance workout, you’re better off saving strength training for the end.
  • The hormones released during strength training can help with recovery, but they tend to get flushed away without much use if you endurance train afterward. Plus, you tire out muscles in strength training that may be needed in endurance training.
  • If your strength training workout isn’t going to be too hard, then it may be fine to do before endurance training as a warm-up for the endurance workout.
  • Obviously, logistics may require one or the other. For example, if you do both workouts at the gym and the gym gets more crowded over time while you’re there, it may be better to strength train first while all the equipment’s free. It’s much easier to find a treadmill or cardio machine in a crowded gym than to get to all the weights and equipment you need to strength train in the same environment. Vice versa applies too: If your gym’s crowded when you get there but tends to thin out later, do your endurance training first and strength train after when equipment’s freed up.
  • Your best bet either way is to double: To do two workouts in the day, one strength training, and one endurance training. The same hormonal and recovery caveats apply, though the gap between sessions can help reduce the losses of doing both in one day. You can also take in nutrition to help recover from the first session, plus obviously you typically get to rest between sessions which helps too.
  • With specific exceptions, I recommend not doing a full-body strength training routine on the same day as endurance training. Split your routine so you’re doing different exercises each time, e.g. push exercises, pull exercises… upper body, lower body… back one day, arms the next, core/legs the next… etc. Exceptions where full-body can be fine (any one can apply): The endurance workout is super easy. Tomorrow is a rest day. The full-body workout is your last workout. No part of your body is being trained very heavily (e.g. all light weight, or just one set per part).
  • On that note, I do recommend you do some strength training for every major muscle group at least once every couple weeks. Don’t just do core bodyweight stuff, or just leg exercises, or just runner-specific stuff. Do some training for every muscle group. You’d be surprised how much strength and endurance in the chest, upper back, shoulders and even biceps/triceps matter when running.
  • I just wrote a bunch of stuff about the barbell and Crossfit that I just deleted as I type this, because it’s a digression. However, in this situation I will say I’d avoid both unless you’re very experienced with either or both. They’re too tough and heavy to work as complementary training to endurance training. Strength/conditioning coaches who swear by either may insist they’re worth integrating into your training. While their point of view generally has value, that premise is not correct here (it’s actually a huge problem with college athletics in general). For now, avoid unless you must.

Basically, given the choice, I would typically strength train after a run, when the hormones released from strength training can help the body recover better, and to avoid them getting flushed away from the high powered circulation of running.

That said, I have (especially recently) been strength training more prior to endurance workouts due to various circumstances. It does help that my strength training is typically low/moderate intensity and quick recovery from that isn’t paramount so whatever’s lost from aerobic training afterward isn’t too big a loss. I’ve also worked around this by strength training in the morning, then endurance training in the evening after spending all day idle and recovering.

What works for you depends on your circumstances, and honestly it’s not worth sweating as much as it appears I have above. Do what works best for you, your situation, and your needs.

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