Stumbling Blocks with XC Strength Training


Stumbling Blocks with XC Strength Training

After youth runners have mastered the basic movements and principles discussed in our last post HERE, we want to work on building up their strength with exercises that will positively affect running. Our main focus when incorporating lifting is to build strength with challenging lifts that are continually being progressed. When we go to write programming for the weight room, here are a few common stumbling blocks people often run into. 


1. Calling extended PT strength training (i.e. under loading)

The video above shows a basic bridge exercise which is commonly prescribed for runners when dealing with an injury. Many runners start with basic exercises like this and will never progress them. Bodyweight exercises are great as a starting point from both an access to equipment, and safety standpoint, but they have to be progressed for us to actually see any benefit. Long term, these types of exercises can not be one of the primary exercises we are performing in order to get stronger and more resilient.

The video below shows a high school client of mine who has progressively gotten stronger over the last three years. As she has gotten stronger and more powerful,  we have made her lifts more challenging. Here she is doing a unilaterally loaded split squat with 44#. 

This is not where she started as a sophomore. We have continually progressed to this point as she begins to enter her collegiate running career. 

Many runner’s fall in the camp of under loading when it comes to lifting. Safety, access to equipment and familiarity with certain movements are all reasons to not progress someone to more challenging lifts. The problem with this is staying with the same program that involves little external resistance and just builds on more repetitions leaves a lot on the table. This is the same argument I would make for just building mileage with running. You get better by running more to an extent, but their is a cap to those improvements. With lifting, we have to be making things more difficult so we continue to see the desired adaptations in the athlete. I would much rather have a runner doing a challenging split squat than some hip strengthening exercises lying on their side. We should be progressing loads, and lifting speed, as runners build up their abilities over weeks, seasons and an entire high school career. 

2. Using programming from football, basketball, etc. 

Back Squats, barbell bench press, and power cleans are your standard lifting routines for a lot of high school sports, and with good reason. They are great for developing strength, power and putting on muscle. However, these are three very technical lifts. They take a lot of skill to perform with correct technique and adding more weight is often done at the expense of developing good technique.

With the time restraints on high school sports practice, most of the focus during a week is on building up running volume and plugging in workouts.  Most high school coaches would say budgeting more than two 30-40 minute lifting sessions into a training week is unrealistic. We want easy to learn exercises, that can be progressively loaded in a group setting and is efficient with our budgeted time.

3. Focusing on isolated muscles instead of total body movements

The skill of running requires the entire lower body to work together in order to propel us forward. We have to remember this when designing programming in the weight room.I listed my main go-to exercises to progressively load the runner. I think hip strengthening is great for a lot of people, but I see it being way OVER programmed for runners. Isolation exercises are great in the rehab setting, but when dealing with performance we need to make sure the exercises we choose are actually going to make us better. For me, every session needs to include at least one exercise from these three categories.  


Goblet Squats

Goblet squats are great for building up the strength of the quads and lower quarter while also demanding the runner keep tension in their upper body and maintain an upright posture.

If runners really struggle with controlling this motion, I'll start them out with the version in the video below showing a bench as a way of encouraging control and movement from both the hip and knee. 


Kettlebell Deadlifts

Deadlift movements are fantastic because they load the lower body in a different manner than squatting exercises. By moving more from the hip, you can load the posterior chain more than in the knee dominant squatting pattern. Also, it teaches runners how to create stiffness in their upper back and shoulders which is crucial for many of the more advanced exercises we progress towards. 


Single Leg RDLS

Building off of the KB Deadlift, we can now challenge the runner in a single leg manner while also placing more demand on the lateral hip. 

Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats

Progressing from the goblet squat, we can further challenge the lower body in a knee dominant pattern while again forcing the runner to maintain control on one leg. 


As runners get a few weeks of lifting under their belts, often their legs are not the limiting factor when progressing weight. For many, the ability to hold heavier dumbbells and kettlebells is the most challenging element of a lift. Because of this, we want to include exercises designed to build up their grip strength and upper body capacity to allow them to lift heavier and heavier weights. 

Farmers Carries

Carry variations are very beneficial in developing grip strength as well as shoulder capacity in an upright position. Exercises in this category help teach control in an upright position as athletes fatigue, which is our main focus when programming upper body exercises for runners. 

These exercises serve as a foundation for high school runners to master. They require minimal equipment and can be easily taught with minimal cueing. For many runners, these can be progressed by five to ten pounds every week until their upper body becomes the limiting factor. Try them out and let me know what you think. Our next post will cover how to help transition runners into heavy lifting.  Thanks for reading!

Nathan Carlson DPT, USATF


Part I: Introduction to Strength Training

Part II: Building Resilient Runners in the Weight Room

Part III: Progressing Load and Grip Strength

Part IV: Developing Power with Plyometrics