Heavy Lifting Improves Running Economy in Masters Athletes

A new study explored the best way to improve running economy in masters athletes, and it looks like heavy lifting is the way to go.

Running economy has been a major topic of research for endurance sports in recent years. This is for a good reason, as it may be a better predictor of performance than traditional measures like VO2 max. However, despite the fact that the topic has been well studied, there seems to be a lack of good science in the realm of masters level runners, meaning those over age 35. This lack of literature is surprising when you consider that in endurance events, and especially ultra-endurance events, people in this age group account for a major portion of competitors.

Something else we have all come to take for granted in the last decade or so is the benefit of strength training for running. One reason why strength training might be so important for runners is its effect on running economy. In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers sought to examine how strength training interacts with running economy, specifically in masters runners.

The reason running economy may be such an important trait to measure is that it matches your performance level of intensity. In contrast, a marker like VO2 max is the rate at which oxygen can be maximally used by the body, but that’s not necessarily the rate at which we all train or compete. Running economy, on the other hand, is the VO2 level at any given exercise intensity. That means you can match a group of individuals at a given pace or their race pace and compare how much oxygen is required to maintain that pace. Presumably, the less oxygen needed, the better the performance will be over a given distance, since the pace can be maintained for longer.

In this study, the participants were all masters runners competing on a team. They were divided into three groups, all of which continued their normal running program:

  1. The resistance training group used a traditional rep scheme of 3 sets of 10 reps at about 70% of their max with a few minutes rest in between.
  2. The maximum strength group did a strength-oriented plan of sets of 3 or 4 reps, with longer rests at 85% to 90% of their max.
  3. The third group was the control, so the members of this group just ran.

strength training, running, endurance athletes, masters athletes

There were no confusing results with this one. The resistance training group and the control showed no significant improvements, while the maximum strength group increased their strength in the gym and also their running economy. That means only the maximal strength training program caused reduced necessary oxygen at their marathon pace.

Another important finding of the study was that the maximal strength training improved running economy and strength without building any muscle. The weight of extra muscle mass would be a detriment to most endurance athletes, since bodyweight is one of the most substantial factors in running performance.

So while running economy is an important facet of running performance, it finally received some attention for the 35+ crowd. Since older individuals don’t always respond the same way to training as their younger counterparts, this study is enlightening. The researchers ultimately recommended that when preparing for a race, masters athletes engage in maximal strength training twice per week for six weeks prior to competition.


1. MF Piacentini, et. al., “Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training Effects on Running Economy in Master Endurance Runners,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(8), 2013.

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