Strength Training Sets for Distance Runners - How Many Sets Should You Be Doing?


By Rick Morris


As a runner you're probably already familiar with sets and reps as you perform your interval training on the track. The best number of sets and reps for your track workouts depend upon your goal, experience level and where you are in your training schedule. But how many sets and reps should you be doing for strength training? Determining the most appropriate number of sets and reps for strength training is a similar process.


How Many Sets?


There aren’t really a lot of choices here. You are either going to perform one, two or three sets of each exercise. There simply isn’t enough benefit to doing more than three sets to offset the additional time required plus the added risk of injury that 4 or more sets would present. So, what is best? Should you be doing one, two or three sets? I always like to balance common sense, anecdotal data and science when looking at training controversies. First let's take a look at what science has to say.

Most current studies agree that multiple sets result in great gains in strength and power when compared to single set training. A 2001 study of 27 women between 20 and 40 years old found that “superior strength gains occurred following 3 set strength training compared with single set strength training.”
























Does the same results hold up for men? Yes, it does. A study at the Norwegian College of Sports Sciences looked at the effect of single versus multiple set strength training in men and concluded that “3 set strength training in superior to 1 set strength training with regard to strength and muscle mass gains in the leg muscles..” It was interesting that this study also found that no difference exists between 1 and 3 set training in upper body muscles.


Another group in Colorado Springs performed a meta-regression of many studies and found that “2 to 3 sets per exercise are associated with 46% greater strength gains that 1 set in both trained and untrained subjects.

Well, it appears crystal clear that the scientific community is convinced that 2 or 3 sets of strength training will result in superior gains in strength, power and muscle mass. How about common sense. In my opinion common sense agrees with the science. Improving any physical attribute whether it’s strength, power, speed, endurance or lactate turn point, depends upon the principle of overload.


 As a runner you know that if you want to improve your endurance you must run longer distances than your body is accustom to. That same principle holds true for strength training. If you want to get stronger you need to place more stress on your muscles. It just makes sense that 2 or 3 sets will place more stress on your muscles and will result in greater strength gains.


Does that mean that you always need to perform multiple sets of each exercise?  The answer is a surprising no. It’s true that multiple sets will maximize your strength gains. The studies prove it. But let’s take a closer look at those studies. Nearly every study used exercises that isolate on muscle or muscle group. For example many of studies included such exercises as knee extensions, biceps curls and bench press. Those types of exercises, while very effective, tend to concentrate on one specific muscle or muscle group. They are not highly functional in nature. If you're doing a lot of single joint strength exercises using machines or free weights that isolate specific muscles; then two or three sets will maximize your strength gains. Now, how about the more functional body weight exercises that typically involve multiple joints and/or muscle groups?


Those type of body weight exercises are more dynamic and functional in nature. Each exercise involves more than one muscle group. What that means is that when you perform one set of a full series of these distance runners strength exercises you are in effect performing multiple sets using each specific muscle or muscle group! For example, if you do one set of both lunges and bench step ups you will be working your hip extensor muscles with two sets and both of those sets will be very running specific.


The advantages of performing one set of these dynamic exercises for a distance runner are threefold. First your strength exercises will meet the law of specificity. They will mimic the motions you use when running. Second, your strength training will take less time and will give you more time for your most important workout - running! Third, as a distance runner you need to walk a fine line with your strength training. You want to maximize your strength gains without adding excessive muscle mass. Single set training using dynamic, functional body weight exercises will do that for you.

There are certain situations where performing multiple sets will be advantageous, but for the majority of distance runners I believe that single set training using dynamic bodyweight exercises is the most efficient way to improve your running strength. Below are my recommendations concerning strength training sets.


Beginning Runner - Bodyweight - Upper Body1 Set Lower Body 1 Set

Recreational Runner - Bodyweight - Upper Body 1 Set Lower Body 1 Set

Recreational Multi sport Athlete - Bodyweight - Upper Body 2  Sets Lower Body 2 Sets

Competitive Runner - Bodyweight - Upper Body 1 Set  Lower Body 1 - 2 Sets

Competitive Athlete Multi Sport - Bodyweight - Upper Body 2 Sets Lower Body 2 Sets

Weight Loss - Bodyweight - Upper Body 2 - 3 Sets Lower Body 2 - 3 Sets

All Single Joint Machine or Free Weight Exercises Upper Body 2 - 3 Sets Lower Body 2 - 3 Sets



Single vs multiple set training in women. J Strength Cond Res. Aug;15(3);284-9

Dissimilar effects of one and three set strength training on strength and muscle mass gains in upper and lower body in untrained subjects, J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb; 21(1):157-63

Single versus multiple set of resistance exercise: a meta-regression. J Strength Cond Res 2009 Sep:23(6):1890-901

Strength Training Repetitions - How Many Repetitions and How Much Resistance for Distance Runners?

There has been a theory around for many years called the strength - endurance continuum. Basically this theory is a scale starting with one repetition of the most weight you can lift (1RM or 1 rep of maximum weight) that progresses to many repetitions of a lighter weight. The logic behind the strength - endurance continuum is that performing 1RM will maximize strength gains and performing many reps of a very light weight will maximize muscle endurance. As you increase your number of repetitions and decrease the weight you improve your muscle endurance gains and decrease your strength gains.

There have been many studies over the years that have proven that theory to be true. Doing just a 1 to 5 reps of a very heavy weight will maximize your strength gains while doing 20 or more reps of a lighter weight will maximize your muscular endurance gains. At first glance it seems obvious that doing just a few repetitions of a heavy weight is the way to go for strength gains. After all, that's the goal of strength training - right? In my opinion, maybe not.

Don't forget that you are performing strength training to improve your performance as a runner, not simply to improve your overall strength. Building up a lot of strength isn't going to benefit you much as a runner if it doesn't help you meet your running goals.

So what's the matter with building strength? Won't strong muscles make you a better more powerful runner? The answer to that is yes - if you build that strength in the right way. In order to make your strength gains beneficial to you as a runner they must be highly specific to your running movement patterns. The closer your strength training mimics your running movement patterns the greater the benefits you will reap as a runner. You need to build not only strength, but more importantly power. In physics text books, power is defined as "the time rate of doing work". For our purposes as distance runners power more specifically refers  to your ability to produce force at high speeds. In simple terms a high degree of power will allow you to produce a large amount of force in a very short amount of time - a perfect situation for building your running speed and efficiency.

It's that very definition of power that presents a basic problem to distance runners when performing high weight low repetition strength training. Lifting heavy weights requires relatively slow muscle contractions which is in direct opposition to the rule of specificity that says your training should mimic your goal - in your case the many very fast repetitions of running. It is also in opposition to the definition of power which places a great deal of emphasis on the speed of your repetitions. For those reasons I am convinced that performing a high number of repetitions of a more moderate resistance level is more appropriate for a distance runner.

Is there any data to support my opinion? Yes there is. A study performed by the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Ohio University investigated the response of athletes to three different resistance training routines using leg press, squat and knee extension exercises.. The researchers divided their volunteers into four groups - a low repetition group, an intermediate repetition group, a high repetition group and a control group that did no strength exercises. The low repetition group did 4 sets of 3 - 5 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets. The intermediate group did 3 sets of 9 - 12 reps with 2 minutes rest between sets. The high repetition group did 2 sets of 20 - 28 reps with 1 minute rest between sets. The scientists monitored maximal strength, local muscle endurance, maximum oxygen consumption, maximal aerobic power and time to exhaustion both before and after 4 weeks of the routines.

As expected the low rep group showed the most increase in maximal strength. Of most interest to runners were the results that showed only the high repetition group showed significant increases in maximal aerobic power and time to exhaustion. In other words, only the high rep group showed improvements that would help them as distance runners. Another important factor in strength training for distance runners in avoid excessive hypertrophy or increase in muscle size which would cause some weight gain. This same study showed that "the low to intermediate repetition resistance-training programs induced a greater hypertrophic effect compared to the high repetition regimen." The researchers went on to conclude that "The High Rep group appeared better adapted for sub maximal, prolonged contractions, with significant increases after training in aerobic power and time to exhaustion."

Again, in my opinion, backed up by scientific data, a distance runners strength training routine should be composed of mostly high repetition - low to moderate resistance exercises. That doesn't mean that you should never perform the low to moderate repetition - high resistance exercises. There are always times when you may need to maximize your strength gains or build lean muscle mass. During those times the low rep - high resistance regimen may be the way to go. But for general running performance and power increases I think you would see superior results with a high rep - low to moderate resistance routine.


This article is adapted from "Bear Naked Strength Training for Distance Runners"



Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones, Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50-60.



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