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Going on a simple run is a good way to get in your cardio exercise. But can adding weights turn your run into a strength workout as well?
The answer is mixed. There’s some evidence that running with weights can increase your:
- calorie burn
- top speed
But it’s not the most effective way to build muscle mass.
So, what does “stronger” mean to you? Running with weights may make you a stronger runner, meaning it will improve your speed, endurance, and strengthen your joints, making you less prone to impact injuries.
But weight training, or resistance training, would likely be a better method for building lean mass.
Running with weights means you’re increasing the difficulty of your cardio workout by adding more resistance.
Guidelines published by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) say that running with one- to three-pound weights on your arms or legs can be great for aerobic fitness, but won’t necessarily help you build much muscle mass or weightlifting capability.
The most common ways to run with weights are:
- using a weighted vest
- holding hand weights
- wearing wrist weights
- attaching ankle weights
Running with weights does offer several fitness benefits, including:
Running with added weight means your body needs to exert more energy than normal to cover the same ground distance at the same speed. That means you’ll burn more calories.
Moving your body weight across a certain distance at a certain speed takes a certain amount of energy expenditure. When you add weight onto that amount, the energy required goes up.
According to ACE, doing aerobic activity while using one- to three-pound arm or hand weights will make you burn about 5 to 15 percent more calories.
Running with weights can help you build more strength than regular running in someways, but not all.
- One study looked at young men who wore weighted vests of 5 to 10 percent of their body weight during everyday activities. Researchers found that wearing a weighted vest during aerobic training sessions can measurably improve speed and agility. Strength and power, however, weren’t meaningfully affected.
Another studyfound improvement in postmenopausal women’s isokinetic strength after 12 weeks of running with weighted vests. In a 2012 studyon adults with overweight and obesity, aerobic training was less effective at increasing lean muscle than some aerobic training combined with some targeted resistance training.
Different kinds of training will benefit different types of muscle fibers. Steady-state endurance training, like moderate-intensity running with low or no added weights, may help improve slow-twitch muscle fibers. These are the kind most important to sustained running.
Running with weights isn’t necessarily a good way to improve your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are the kind of muscles associated with explosive power or higher-intensity force.
In the future
More research is needed in order to know exactly how much functional strength and muscle mass running with weights is likely to increase.
There aren’t currently any comprehensive studies on humans that measure meaningful differences in strength and mass before and after beginning to run with weights.
Checking your heart rate is one way to measure the intensity of your exercise. Running with wrist or ankle weights, between one and three pounds per side, may increase your heart rate by 5 to 10 beats per minute, according to ACE.
A higher heart rate could be a good thing or a bad thing for your running, depending on your goals. If you’re just starting out, you likely won’t have trouble reaching a high enough heart rate. But if you’re a seasoned runner, you might want additional weight to boost your exercise intensity.
You can calculate the best heart rate zones for your goals using a variety of online calculators, but field testing your maximum and resting heart rates is the most accurate.
Max Heart Rate Targets
If your goal is to burn the highest percentage of calories from fat, you want your heart rate between:
- 60 and 75 percent
If your goal is heart health and cardiovascular performance, you want your max heart rate to be between:
- 75 and 80 percent
You can use several types of weight for your runs. Here’s a breakdown of the most popular types:
- Weighted vest. Using a weighted vest of up to 10 percent of your body weight is one of the safest ways to try weighted running.
- Wrist weights. Well-fitting wrist weights of one to three pounds can be a beneficial way to increase exercise intensity and calorie-burning efficiency.
- Dumbbells. Dumbbells offer similar benefits to wrist weights, but need to be held, so there’s more room for user error.
- Ankle weights. Ankle weights of one to three pounds can be beneficial, but aren’t as necessarily the best choice. They might alter your running mechanics negatively and cause injury.
- Weights in backpack. This type of training might make sense for people with functional goals, like backpackers or military members. But weights in a backpack aren’t as safe as other methods because of the potential for shifting and bouncing.
Avoid adding too much weight too quickly. If you experience any unusual joint pain, make sure to stop immediately and speak to your doctor.
Running with hand or ankle weights may do a bit more to target arms and leg muscles, but could also leave you more prone to injury.
It may be safer to run with a weighted vest, which will distribute the weight more safely. This will help you build aerobic strength without as much added risk of injury.
Start by establishing a baseline for your running workouts without weights. Then try slowly adding small amounts of weights to a well-fitting weighted vest. Try to complete these running workouts at least at the same speed and distance you were doing without weights.
Running with added weight can increase the impact on the joints and negatively affect your running form. You might be more at risk for joint injury.
Try running with no more than a three-pound weight per arm or leg, and no more than 10 percent of your body weight for a vest.
You should also avoid overtraining or increasing your workouts too quickly. Make sure to take plenty of rest days and stay within a safe exercise intensity.
There is some evidence that running with weights can improve your:
- calorie burn
- top speed potential
- bone health
However, running with weights isn’t the most effective method of building muscle. It’s good to consider the total picture of your health and fitness and do a mixture of aerobic and resistance weight training.
It’s important to consult your doctor when starting a new exercise program. A health or exercise professional, like a personal trainer, can also make sure you’re exercising safely and working effectively toward your goals.