HIT - Strength Training Designed for Runners

HIT: Strength Training Designed for Runners

By Stephanie Blozy (with an interview with Mike Broderick)

Balanced strength.
These are all keys to improving a runner's performance at any distance.

Logging miles at various intensities is only the foundation upon which a quality training program should be built. To become a stronger runner, you also need strength training, flexibility, cross-training and good nutrition. In this article we will explore the benefits and methods of strength training - specifically the HIT system which is used by 12 NFL teams (including the Redskins) and the US Olympic Bobsled and Skeleton teams.

HIT stands for High Intensity Training - a philosophy of weight training that focuses on the 'perfect rep' to achieve optimal strength and performance. HIT stresses both the lifting AND lowering of the weight so that maximum muscle fiber breakdown occurs (a condition called momentary muscular failure or MMF). This in turn, leads to enhanced muscle growth since to build muscle you must first break it down.

A major proponent of the HIT system is John Philbin, an All-American decathlete who has successfully trained Olympians, professional football players, boxer and world-class runners using HIT. Philbin owns Philbin's Family Fitness & Athletic Training Center (home of the MCRRC Stride Clinic) and is founder and president of the National Strength Professional Association. NSPA has certified over 18,000 personal trainers in the HIT system, making HIT the fastest growing strength-training system in the 21st century.

Philbin likens HIT to 'pre-rehab' in that it helps runners prevent injury while enhancing performance, endurance and recovery time - all factors that lead to better quality runs whether you are out for a leisurely jog or trying for a new PR. The key is that HIT builds 'balanced strength' such that no muscle group predominates inappropriately during a run since imbalances can lead to injury as well as stride inefficiencies.

Go to any gym and observe people lifting weights. You will notice that most of the movements are quick and jerky. Not only does this method limit the number of muscle fibers that are recruited (and thus, will get stronger), but it increases the risk of injury. Instead, HIT utilizes a slower, more controlled repetition with three distinct phases which constitute the 'perfect rep:'

1. Lift the weight (concentric/positive phase) through its full range of motion in 2-3 seconds
2. Isometric pause (squeeze and engage the muscles)
3. Lower the weight (eccentric/negative phase) until it taps the weight stack in 3-4 seconds

The key is to keep the lift slow to eliminate any bounce or momentum and to move through the full range of motion (ie don't cheat on a leg extension and stop before your leg touches your buttocks).


At the core of HIT is the 'one-set theory' - the principle that only one set of each exercise is necessary as long as each repetition within the set is 'perfect.' In fact, most HIT workouts can be completed in 30 minutes, and just two workouts per week (one upper body, one lower body) can lead to significant improvement which is great for runners short on time.

In HIT, the number of reps in each set is not as important as the 'time under tension' - the total amount of time the muscles are being engaged during each rep. Because of the aerobic nature of running, Philbin advises runners to focus on a longer 'time under tension' to improve muscle endurance and stamina, as opposed to developing explosive power and strength.

The objective is to reach MMF by the last rep or two. As you near MMF, your muscles will begin to burn and quiver, then they will 'fail,' leaving you unable to lift or lower the weight without cheating. As you become experienced in HIT, your muscles will learn to recruit more fibers to enable you to lift more and longer.


As a runner, you need to build strength in your slow-twitch muscles which help sustain your effort over the course of a run. For this reason, Philbin recommends that runners perform 25 or more reps in a single set or do 6-8 super slow reps which last a total of 12-14 seconds compared to 5-7 seconds in a normal HIT rep.

In order to lift for a longer period of time in each set, the runner may need to use a lighter weight that accustomed to. Remember, it is the quality of the lift and set rather than the quantity of the weight and number of sets which leads to stronger, more balanced muscles necessary for running.

If you are only able to fit in two strength training workouts each week (one for upper body, one for lower body), Philbin advocates performing one set of 12-14 exercises. If you can workout four times per week (two each for upper and lower body), reduce the number of sets to 6-8, but always includes at least 48 hours between workouts with the same muscle groups for optimal recovery/muscle building.


To get the most out of a HIT training session, you need a partner. Not only are they there for safety and motivational purposes, but they can provide assistance and resistance which will take your workout to a high level than you can achieve lifting on your own.

Assistance lifting the weight through the full range of motion is sometimes necessary so the lifter can take advantage of the muscle fiber recruitment during the negative phase. Because the lifter is 4-6-% stronger in the negative phase, even when the lifter can't lift the weight in the positive phase, they have 'fresh' muscle fibers available to complete the weight-lowering phase. These are the muscles that you depend on in those last miles so don't neglect them. 

Additionally, a spotter can provide manual resistance to make the weight stack heavier during both the positive and negative phases. This is especially beneficial during that critical negative phase when the muscles can handle more weight than they can in the positive phase. WIth a partner dynamically changing the weight throughout the course of the rep, the lifter can make deeper inroads into muscle fatigue and subsequently, muscle development.


I added HIT to my training this spring and shattered my previous marathon best by 28 minutes. MCRRC Coach, Mike Broderick has also found great success with HIT, including setting recent PR's at the JFK 50 Miler and the difficult Massanutten Mountain 100 Miler (cutting 2 hours off of his previous time!) - all while reducing his overall mileage.

"I am certain that the additional muscular strength and endurance I've acquired through resistance training following HIT principals has a lot do with [my PR's]," says Broderick. "I used to downplay supplemental strength training, but now I am a strong advocate of strength training for runners."

In fact, Broderick has incorporated a HIT Seminar at Philbin's gym for his experienced marathon training group. "I am convinced that HIT training will make runners stronger and less prone to the kinds of overuse injuries that commonly afflict runners."

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