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There are many different ways to improve your current exercise routine. What about running with weights, what are the pros, cons, and alternatives?
Running with weights can offer a few benefits over regular running but it is not for everyone. Some workouts like strength training can help you get certain benefits to a larger extent than running with weights.
Not all external weights are equally useful and safe to use when running. Generally, weighted vests are the safest way to run with extra weight.
This article will go over who can consider running with weights, what benefits you can expect from it, what different weights you can use, how to avoid injuries when running with weights, and what alternatives may be better for achieving your workout goals.
Should you run with weights?
Before going into the benefits you have to know that running with weights can also have a few downsides.
Running can be hard on body parts like ankles, shins, knees, and back. Carrying running equipment like weights increases the pressure on your body and thus the injury risk even more.
Not all types of weight to run with are equal. Some external weights like weighted vests for running generally only increase pressure on the same muscles you already use in a “normal” ratio.
On the other hand, doing something like running with ankle weights engages your muscles in a different ratio. This can lead to muscular imbalances that in turn can lead to a change in gait that may not be optimal for your daily life or running race performance (1, 2).
Some of the benefits of running with weights may not outweigh the downsides. Other workouts may also offer these extra benefits without the downsides.
If you are injury-sensitive it may be smarter to not use extra external weights, and even do a different workout than running.
Benefits of running with weights
If your body can handle running with weights it can offer you some of the following benefits compared to regular running.
Helps you burn more calories
A big factor in how many calories you burn during a running session is your weight. To move around your body needs energy, measured in calories. The more weight you carry, the more energy you need to fuel movement.
For example a 155-pound (70 kg) person running for 30 minutes at 5.2 mph (8.4 kmh) burns around 330 calories.
On the other hand, a 185-pound (83 kg) person running for 30 minutes at 5.2 mph (8.4 kmh) burns around 393 calories.
There will likely be a difference in how much external weights increase calorie-burning vs the same weight in body fat but that just shows how running with weights can benefit calorie burning and in turn weight control.
Helps you build more muscle
One of the benefits of running is that even though it is mainly a cardio workout, it also helps you build and preserve some muscle mass. Extra muscle is not only beneficial for your health in many ways but it is also considered to be visually appealing.
Generally the more weight you have to move, the more muscle you will build with an exercise. That’s one of the reasons why people go to a gym instead of doing bodyweight exercises at home.
This means that running with weights can help you build more muscle compared to running without.
Can improve cardiovascular health
Your cardiovascular system is the circulatory system inside of your body and includes heart and blood vessels. These transport many types of important nutrients, oxygen, and waste throughout your body.
When you move more intensely your body needs to transport these things, which means using your heart, at a higher rate.
Your heart is a muscle that can be trained by using it more intensely. Running with weights makes your heart beat faster and thus helps you strengthen your cardiovascular system more. This in turn leads to a wide variety of other benefits (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
Do keep in mind that muscles can get injured. If you have not done any physical activity in a long time you may want to start out with low-intensity movements without extra external weights and build up from there.
Can improve athletic performance
Getting better at a certain sport or exercise isn’t necessarily done by doing these activities more. Cross-training which is training in a different sport can be useful.
One study suggests that jump height in turn is related to sprint performance (10). This means that running with weights can improve your performance in basically any sport that involves fast running.
One small study observed that runners who warmed up with a weighted vest had a higher peak running speed compared to runners who warmed up without one (11).
Improves bone density
The way many parts of your body work is that by challenging them you set in motion processes that strengthen these body parts. The same goes for your bones, by putting pressure on them you make them stronger in the long-term.
Running with weights puts more pressure on your bones than running without weights. This in turn will benefit your bone density in the long-term (18).
Different weights to run with
Not all types of external weights are equally useful and safe for running. By making the right choice you can avoid injuries and gain more benefits.
A weighted vest is simply a vest with some weight, often sand, added to it. You can wear a weighted vest while running to make your workout more challenging.
Generally you want your weighted vest to be about 4-10% of your body weight. With certain vests you can also go outside of this range but that is not always recommended.
Running with a weighted vest is generally the best way to run with weights. This is because it only increases pressure on the same muscles you already use in a “normal” ratio.
Weighted belts again put most of their weight on your body but this time the area covered is limited to your waist. A benefit of this is that you have more breathing room during your runs compared to a weighted vest.
The first downside of this option is that even the best weighted belts have a relatively low weight capacity. If you really want to make walking a lot more intense you will have to go for certain weighted vests.
Additionally, weighted belts tend to have more risk of moving around than weighted vests. This can be inconvenient during a running session.
Ankle weights are simply straps with some extra weight that are attached to your ankles. They can be used in many exercises including running to add some extra resistance to your training.
Ankle weights may be a relatively popular way to add some external weight to your running training but they are not optimal for exercises like running and walking.
This is because ankle weights engage your muscles in a different ratio than you are used to. This can lead to muscular imbalances that in turn can lead to a change in gait that may not be optimal for your daily life or running race performance.
Wrist weights are very similar to ankle weights but as the name implies you attach them to your wrists. Even though the placement is different wrist weights may still lead to a change in gait although likely less than ankle weights.
By running with wrist weights you engage your arm muscles slightly more on top of the common potential benefits of running with weights.
Certain ways to carry water while running will offer a similar experience in a more functional way.
Another option is running with actual external weights, for example light dumbbells, in your hands. The effects are similar to running with wrist weights but there are some small differences.
It’s easier to make a mistake like dropping the weights involuntarily. The chances of that may be small but if it happens you have to interrupt your training. On the flip side, you do train your grip strength a little bit.
Weights in a backpack
Lastly some people even purposely run with a heavy backpack. Depending on how you approach it this may be ok but there are some possible issues.
The first issue is that the weights in the backpack or the backpack itself will bounce a lot. Secondly compared to a weighted vest the weight distribution of a heavy backpack is more uneven. This can cause lower back issues.
How to avoid injuries
Another important point when running with weights is the injury risk involved. An injury can reduce the amount of time you can exercise to 0 in the worst case. Consistency is an important factor when improving your health. Doing one big workout is often not as effective as three medium ones.
That means that running without weights may offer slightly fewer benefits today but more in the long term by avoiding periods of injury in which you do no exercise at all.
Especially if you are more of an exercise beginner you want to start with gentle runs without any weights and build up from there. Many weight types allow you to change up the weight. In that case, you can start with lower weights first and if that goes well go up to higher weights.
If you feel pain in any body parts it may be a sign you are overdoing it. In that case, you may need some rest, better lifestyle habits, a less intense workout schedule, or it may be a sign that running with weights is not for you.
In general, running with a weighted vest will be the safest way to run with weights.
What is your goal with running with weights?
It may also be smart to consider what your goal is with running with weights.
If you are aiming for the benefits associated with more muscle mass implementing days with strength training exercises is likely a better option. You don’t necessarily have to get a gym subscription, just some bodyweight exercises can go a long way.
You may be interested in a more intense cardio workout. In that case, running at higher intensities may offer a similar effect.
Running with weights can improve your athletic performance but strength training may help you just as much or potentially more with this.
That being said, running with weights can be a fun way to make your running sessions more challenging. If you don’t like running at high speeds but do want more intense workout sessions, running with weights may also be the solution.
Running with the right types of weights can certainly be beneficial for some groups of people. For others, it may be smarter to stick to regular running.
As long as you don’t cross your limits making an exercise more intense is usually beneficial for your long-term health. The challenge is being able to do this without injuries.
The message is rather safe than sorry. Especially if you are an injury-sensitive and/or inactive individual you may want to start with soft workouts and build up slowly from there.