Jan 29, 2015
A Great Finish

At the University of Washington, strength training for middle distance runners focuses on establishing a good base, improving leg strength through full ROM, and limiting muscle soreness. This spring, it lead to two first-place finishes at nationals.

By Matthew Ludwig

Matthew Ludwig, SCCC, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Washington. He can be reached at: [email protected]..

Last year, I was given the job of creating a strength and conditioning program for our middle distance runners here at the University of Washington. I quickly learned that the task had a few built-in challenges. Most middle distance runners haven’t spent much time in the weightroom, and many of them are skeptical, thinking that strength training will bulk them up and cause more harm than good. In addition, many middle distance runners compete in both outdoor and indoor seasons, so soreness and overuse injuries are always a concern.

I set to work designing a program that would get our middle distance runners excited about strength training, improve their performance, and help keep them injury-free. They responded by bringing home NCAA Division I outdoor titles in the men’s 800 meters and the women’s 1,500 meters. One of the keys to our program’s success has been starting off carefully and building a solid foundation. Another has been open communication between myself and Head Track and Field Coach Greg Metcalf, to ensure that the work we do in the weightroom complements the training athletes do on the track. In this article, I will outline our strength and conditioning program for middle distance runners, and detail the logic that went into its design.


In our strength training department here at Washington, we like to work closely with our sport coaches to develop programs. Therefore, my first step in setting up the middle-distance runner workouts was to meet with Coach Metcalf. We talked about the team’s strengths and weaknesses, the athletes’ past experiences using the weightroom, and previous training they had tried. We also discussed our philosophies on the biomechanics of the sport and energy system needs. At the conclusion of our analysis, Coach Metcalf and I set the following goals for the program:

Make it doable. We wanted to develop a program that would keep our runners coming back for more. The greatest strength-training programs ever written are the ones that get done! You can pour your heart and soul into a training program, but if the sport coach does not support it or the athletes give minimal effort, you will get minimal results. Therefore, we keep it very simple in our weightroom and rely on the principle of progressive overload to establish strength throughout full ranges of motion.

Shin splints, knee pain, foot and ankle pain, calf and achilles pain, and hamstring and low back pain are common in middle distance runners because of the high volume of impact on their lower bodies. Athletes who are hurting aren’t going to be motivated to keep coming back, so we monitor muscle soreness and adjust our program accordingly, and we talk to the athletes often to find out how they are feeling. The more we show we care about them, the harder they work for us.

Establish a base. Many middle distance runners are unfamiliar with the weightroom, oftentimes because strength work isn’t stressed and because of misconceptions that lifting weights generates hypertrophic muscles that will make them look like football players. We explain to our runners that science has shown many times over that being involved in an organized strength-training program promotes muscle balance, enhances metabolic adaptations, and improves force production, joint stability, performance output, recovery rates, flexibility, structural stability, and motor development for improved balance. To receive these benefits, they first need to establish a base. Our program for middle distance runners consists of two or three workouts a week lasting 45-60 minutes each depending on the time of year.

Improve flexibility. Any time a muscle repetitively performs an action in a limited range of motion, it gradually becomes limited to that range of motion. Distance runners run straight ahead and rarely utilize their full stride length with maximal hip flexion and hip extension. Consequently, they end up with tight hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes, calves, internal and external hip rotators, and backs.

Incorporating static, dynamic, and PNF stretching into a runner’s training program can have astounding results. Our athletes always come to the weightroom after they have trained on the track, so we don’t have to spend time warming up. Instead, we focus on improving flexibility. As one form of dynamic flexibility training, we train every movement in the weightroom using the fullest range of motion possible. We finish the workout with static flexibility training and a PNF (contract-relax) program using elastic bands.

Improve core strength. To build core strength, we believe it is most important to teach the athlete to move their limbs throughout a full range of motion in space before introducing balls, gadgets, and other resistance- or balance-manipulating devices. Although these are all great tools for training, we take the time to first generate motor unit recruitment in the core through sport-specific movements like squatting, pulling, lunging, and steps-ups. In addition to these exercises, we incorporate weighted abdominal work, physioballs, and static abdominal work.

Stweak and lagging muscle groups. Although middle distance runners use their legs for most of the work they do, a large portion of their lower extremities are often underdeveloped. Common areas of lower body weakness in middle distance runners include hamstrings, hip flexors, hip abductors, and hip adductors. Most middle distance runners also display some level of weakness when asked to perform any unilateral exercise. Upper-body weaknesses typically consist of weaker posterior chains compared to their anterior counterparts. Therefore, we focus our program on strengthening these muscle groups to avoid imbalances.


After we gather information through our needs analysis, it is time to get athletes into the weightroom for preseason conditioning. Simply introducing a training program for middle distance runners, as easy as it sounds, has proved to be more challenging than I originally thought. Track athletes at the University of Washington are very in tune with their bodies, and know two things: “The better I feel, the better I will run,” and “the stronger I am, the faster I will run.” This influences my approach to their training.

We begin by introducing basic movements to establish an understanding of the motor development the athletes currently possess. Muscle soreness has to be very limited as to not have a detrimental effect on performance. We know the first four weeks of learning a new exercise are mainly neurological, but if the muscles are being asked to perform in an unfamiliar range of motion, the risk of micro tears increases.

Remembering another of our goals, to create a training program that keeps our runners coming back for more, we are careful to not get overzealous on day one. You can always add to a program, but it is extremely difficult to undo overreaching in a short amount of time. I start with very low volume and very low intensity and slowly raise the volume from week to week. I don’t progress the athletes to more volume or more intensity until I feel they have established a sound comfort level with the load they are initially assigned.

For example, when introducing squats, we start with sissy squats holding a 10-pound plate across the chest. Sissy squats allow the athletes to keep their torsos in an upright position, and promote maximal range of motion without limitation. Hamstring strength for distance runners tends to be very weak after the first 45 degrees of hip flexion. By placing the athletes in a position to use the quads and get maximum depth, we build up to performing a back squat.

Week one consists of the following exercises to begin strengthening the lower body. Each exercise is performed with one minute of rest between exercises and sets.

Sissy squat: Three sets of five (between each set stretch hamstrings statically for 20 sec.)

Body weight step-ups: Two sets of five on each leg using 90 degrees of hip flexion (focus on using glutes and hamstrings for hip extension).

Standing single-leg hip flexion with knee extension: One set of eight each leg.

Hanging knee-ups: Two sets of 10.

At five weeks, we are able to increase the volume using the same loads to minimize muscle soreness and show the athletes that strength training can be done effectively with minimal muscle soreness. Week five training goes as follows, with 30-45 seconds of rest between exercises and sets:

Sissy squat: Three sets of 10 reps.

Body weight step-ups: Three sets of eight reps on each leg.

Standing single-leg hip flexion with knee extension: Two sets of 12 reps each leg.

Hanging knee-ups: Three sets of 15 reps.

Using this program over the first five weeks of their training in 2005-06, our athletes improved their overall ability to do work from the original baseline in week one of 53 reps to 123 total reps. During the five weeks, the load never changed. This is a very basic approach to improving general physical preparedness and diminishing recovery time.


The training year for our middle distance runners is divided into six mesocycles: off-season, preseason, transition, in-season, transition, and postseason. Below is a detailed look at a year-long macro cycle and how we have designed the strength-training program for each phase.

Off-season (mid June to September): We conduct two full-body workouts per week, Monday and Thursday. This training cycle focuses on recovery, restoration, and repair from the high-intensity loads experienced during the season that just ended. The athletes cut back on the majority of total running volume in June and gradually increase from July to September. Strength training focuses on building strength endurance starting in week one of the off-season program with a total volume of 298 reps (excluding core work) per week and building to 520 reps by week 18 (see “Off-Season Conditioning”). Many of our middle distance runners compete in outdoor competitions in September and October, so we try to enhance both their ability to metabolize lactate and their metabolic response to training by improving oxygen consumption and fuel utilization.

Preseason (October to mid December): We progress to three full-body workouts per week. Training is now focused more on improving overall muscle strength and forcing production in preparation for the indoor/outdoor seasons. During this time period, the athlete’s volume stays at or under 120 total reps per workout (excluding core work). Set and rep ranges consist of two to four sets of five to 12 reps, depending on the exercise being performed. Athletes also spend more time with their sport coach working on their running economy and efficiency and building cardiovascular endurance.

Transition (last two weeks in December): Continuing with the three full-body workouts per week, the transition phase is a short deloading period lasting one to two weeks that allows the body to recover from off-season and preseason training. A strength-training program is still in place, but the total volume of work drops to less than 80 total reps per workout (excluding core work.)

In-season (January to May): We go back to two full-body workouts per week. The inseason is long and hard for our middle distance team, which competes in both indoor and outdoor events for five solid months. We perform two workouts per week on Mondays and Wednesdays to allow for full recovery in time for weekend events. During this time, the weightroom is more of a tool for active recovery and restoration, maintaining flexibility, and prehab or rehab work. In-season is a time of specified training on the track and the intensity must be high at every practice.

Transition (one week in May): Athletes are off from training for one week to allow a mental and physical break. This is a time for those who are competing in conference, regional, and national events to freshen up mentally and disengage for a brief period.

Postseason (second week in May until nationals): Weightroom activities are voluntary during this time, but flexibility training after every track practice is strongly encouraged.


Throughout the season, we strive to improve communication between myself, Coach Metcalf, and our athletic trainers. Each person involved with the progress of our athletes needs to be on the same page. The success of our program revolves around open communication.

As a staff, we meet weekly to discuss current injuries, practice plans, and each athlete’s progress in the weightroom. This ensures that we avoid overtraining and that we utilize the knowledge of our sports-medicine staff to help validate our training plans. We also revisit our overall needs analysis at least twice a year, once before the indoor season and once at the conclusion of the outdoor season.

Our program at the University of Washington works very well for us and we are proud of the athletes who have dedicated themselves to it. When a middle distance runner steps on the track for competition, they know they have trained hard and can compete to their fullest ability.


During the off-season, our middle distance runners complete two strength-training workouts per week. Listed below are the exercises performed on each day, along with the reps and sets performed on Week One. To see a copy of the complete 18-week program, visit: http://huskystrength.ica.washington.edu.

Week 1


  • Back Squat: 3×8
  • Bench Press: 4×4
  • DB Step Up: 2×8, each leg
  • Wide Grip Lat Pulldown: 2×12
  • Triceps Pushdown or Push Up: 3×8
  • DB Rear Fly: 2×8
  • Core Work

  • Straight Leg Sit Up: 3×15
  • Seated Russian Twist: 3×15
  • Superman: 3×15
  • Lying Hip Abduction: 2×15, each side


  • DB Incline Bench: 2×12
  • DB Walking Lunge: 2×10, each side
  • DB Military Press: 3×8
  • RDLs With Barbell (Hold 2 sec on bottom): 3×6
  • One-Arm DB Row: 2×10
  • Shoulder Complex*: 2×8, each exercise
  • DB Curl 3×8
  • Core Work

  • Elbow Bridge: 3×30 sec
  • Side Crunch: 2×30 sec
  • Alternating Pointer: 2×12, each side
  • Standing Hip Flexion w/ Knee Ext.: 2×10, each side

*(The shoulder complex consists of Front Raise, Side Raise, and Upright Row. Athletes do all three exercises in succession, then rest.)

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