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

As a runner you’re probably already familiar with sets and reps as you perform your interval training on the track. Do you need single sets or multi sets for strength training? 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 for strength training? Determining the most appropriate number of sets for strength training is a similar process.

How Many Sets For Strength Training?

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? How many sets for strength training 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 for strength training 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 for strength training 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 I have included a table that give you my recommendations concerning strength training sets.


GoalUpper Body SetsLower Body Sets
Beginning Runner - Bodyweight Exercises1 Set1 Set
Recreational Runner - Bodyweight Exercises1 Set1 Set
Recreational Multi Sport Athlete- Bodyweight Exercises2 Sets2 Sets
Competitive Runner - Bodyweight Exercises1 Set1-2 Sets
Competitive Multi Sport Athlete - Body Weight Exercises2 Sets2 Sets
All Single Joint Machine or Free Weight Exercises2 - 3 Sets2 - 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