Do Runners Benefit From Upper Body Training?

Although when we run our arms are obviously moving, their function in locomotion isn’t always immediately clear. When we think of the greatest long distance runners through history we don’t picture big or well muscled upper bodies either. So is training your upper body necessary if you want to be better at endurance running?

Function - balance is our primary goal when running. In order to move forward and do so quickly, we must not fall down. Our arms move in alternating tandem with our legs in order to control the rotation that would otherwise occur. Think of Phoebe from Friends running - she’s flopping around all over the place because her arms are out of sync with her legs! Our secondary goal is acceleration. We can emphasise a forward/downward force with our legs by putting more effort into our arm drive.

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So there is a purpose to our arms in running, but how much strength do we need from them and how is best to develop that strength? What type of strength is it that we need?

There isn’t a huge amount of research out there on how upper body strength training effects running directly. Some information has to be inferred from basic scientific principles. One study that did however use direct upper body exercises (bench press, shoulder press and biceps curls) did so alongside lower body strength work (squats and lunges etc). That study showed improved running economy and no decrease in VO2 max (didn't negatively affect aerobic performance)!

Studies since have primarily focused on lower body strength training which appears to have more return on time invested. However, we feel it would be detrimental overall to ignore upper body training. Direct upper body work such as pull ups, press ups, rows and dips all do more than one thing. Yes, we are making the muscles in the arms stronger, but we are also learning to keep our torsos’ rigid, transferring force through our hips and abs out into the arms and hands. This is where most of the benefit, we believe, occurs.

It isn’t about body building. We don’t want heavy upper bodies that make our legs work even harder. It’s about using everything we have to be better at running, propelling ourselves forwards, staying in a good and economical position that creates a faster run time. 

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Our typical ‘go to’ upper body strength exercises fall into two camps;

  1. Max strength where only 2-6 reps are possible
  2. Strength endurance where 15-25 reps are possible

Neither should cause any unwanted increase in muscle mass but both will challenge not only the arms but also the trunk as a whole. Improving shoulder girdle position, trunk/core strength and giving more balance to the body has to be a good thing!

We can then break things down further using the above classifications. Some exercises lend themselves well to max strength work and others are better suited to high rep, strength endurance work. For example:

Max strength: 

  • 3-4 sets of 3-5 pull ups with 2mins rest
  • 3-4 sets of 3-5 dips with 2mins rest

Strength endurance:

  • 2-3 sets of 15 banded face-pulls with 1min rest (exercise shown in image above. For a full video demonstration click here)
  • 2-3 sets of 15 pull-a-parts with 1min rest (exercise shown in image below where Marc forgot to smile. For a full video demonstration click here

Band pull-a-parts and band face pulls both work on our mid-back and the rear of our shoulders - areas that improve our posture when running and in everyday life.

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Our focus for upper body training are drills that will simultaneously increase our trunk strength or improve our posture. Spend less time on bench pressing and more time pulling and rowing in general.

Our posture can improve rapidly with the right type of whole body strength programme. This will not only improve your quality of life dramatically but also increase your running economy and reduce your running times. The trick is to master the basics really well and stay within the realms of maximum strength or strength endurance. We’re not saying a running needs massive guns!

Reference - Blagrove, R. (2015). Strength and conditioning for endurance running. Crowood.

By Alex Adams