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“People add weights in the hopes that they’ll get used to training with a heavier mass so that their body starts performing a higher level and stays there once they remove the weights,” says sports medicine doctor Christopher Hicks, MD. Some research suggests running while wearing weights on your wrists or ankles can increase your exertion, heart rate, and calories burned. But Hicks cautions that the extra weight can put an unwelcome strain on your muscles, joints, and tendons, setting the stage for injury or chronic pain.
Running is probably intense enough, to begin with. “Be cautious when using weights while running,” says physical therapist Jeremy Adelman, PT, DPT. “It’s already a high-impact sport. You’re taking thousands of steps, and your full body weight is transmitting that force through all your bones and joints. To then add weight could increase that impact, compromise your form, and put you at risk for stress fractures and other injuries.”
Keep reading to hear what else these experts have to say about running with weights: the risks, the benefits, and alternative ways to up your running game.
Meet the Expert
- Christopher Hicks, MD, Clinical Associate of Orthopedic Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine at University of Chicago, is a board-certified orthopedist who specializes in non-operative sports medicine.
- Jeremy Adelman, PT, DPT, is a Chicago-based licensed physical therapist with a doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Benefits of Running with Weights
If your workout goals fall into these categories, you might benefit from short sessions of running with weights:
- Speed training to condition your muscles to perform explosive movements
- Your profession requires you to move quickly while wearing heavy equipment
Wearing weights during short sprints might help improve your speedwork, says Hicks. Carrying that extra load for short periods of time and at small distances is less likely to tire your muscles to the point of jeopardizing form, which can lead to injury.
And some people might benefit from running with weights for professional reasons. For instance, if you’re a firefighter, you might train with a weighted vest because you’ll actually have to run in heavy equipment as part of your job.
Beyond that, running with weights might do more harm than good. “Our bodies can’t sustain too much weight for too long,” says Hicks. “You lose muscle endurance at an earlier stage; your muscles don’t perform as well, fatigue sets in, and you lose the ability to maintain form. This can lead to chronic joint or tendon issues.”
If you must run with weights, Hicks recommends keeping it short and not carrying heavy amounts. “It can be fine in short bursts because your muscles can keep up with that higher level of weight to a good degree since you’re not doing a repetitive action over and over,” he says.
And if you feel pain, stop. “People often think, ‘No pain, no gain.’ I would advise against that mindset,” says Adelman. “It only increases your odds of sustaining a worse injury. Monitor your pain and listen to it.”
Types of Running Weights
What kinds of weights you use can put you at more or less risk for injury. Hicks discourages the use of hand, wrist, or ankle weights while running. “When you start putting extra weight at a longer lever arm, it creates more room for error,” he says. “It puts more stress on your joints and tendons.” Use these weights during strength training instead to build muscle endurance without compromising your running form and safety.
He instead recommends weights that are securely and evenly distributed throughout the core of your body. Weighted vests are the safest option, and you can customize how heavy they are by adding or removing weighted blocks from the garment, says Adelman. The vest should not exceed 10 to 15 percent of your total body weight.
Backpacks with weights are okay too, though they can put extra stress on your back or shift around during exercise, notes Hicks.
The Right Way to Run with Weights to Avoid Injury
Start small, says Adelman. “Begin with a really low-weight vest and a small amount of exercise,” he suggests. This will help prevent overstressing your joints. And avoid distance running with weights, counsels Hicks--even a mile is probably too far.
Adelman also recommends having a physical therapist or other health professional assess your gait with and without weights since the impact on stride differs from person to person. They’ll help pinpoint how the weights alter your form and joint alignment, like if they make your ankles wobble or cause you to swing your arms side-to-side instead of forward-and-back. They can also give you customized insight into avoiding these potentially dangerous changes in mechanics and how to optimize your exercise routine for your fitness goals.
But the best way to use weights to improve your running might be to not run with them at all. Instead, says Adelman, start by defining your objectives. “What are you trying to achieve with that extra weight? If you want to improve cardio endurance, try running for a longer distance or incorporating different running types, like sprints. If you want to increase muscle endurance and strength, consider cross-training to target specific muscle groups.”
If muscle stamina is what you’re working towards, Adelman recommends a low-weight, high-rep strength training routine. “You’re spending much more time fatiguing the muscles while still incorporating weight,” he says. “This will also allow you to make sure you're using proper body mechanics while you’re doing exercises.”
It’s probably best for your body to skip the weights on your run. Instead, opt for safer ways to build weight, strength, and endurance training into your fitness program. Try weightlifting with low weights and high reps to increase muscle endurance or upping your mileage to build cardiovascular stamina. The bottom line is that when it comes to running, less is more: compromising form by adding weights can fatigue and stress your body in unproductive ways and even lead to unnecessary injury.