Push-Ups for Runners: 3 Benefits of This Bodyweight Exercise

Want to improve your running performance with one simple exercise? Add push-ups to your training plan.

You might think this classic bodyweight exercise doesn't have a lot to do with running.

But when you're...

  • Racking up miles
  • Sprinting down the track
  • Navigating a gnarly trail, or...
  • Pumping your arms for that final kick to the finish line...

Upper body strength can make a big difference.

Push-ups may just be the perfect bodyweight exercise to help you become a better runner.

Forget about the old-school ways of push-ups being used as a form of punishment. And add this exercise to your training plan.

Why? Well, push-ups saved me during a race. Here's what happened...

When Evan Jensen last ran the Timberline Marathon at Timothy Lake, push-ups played an important part of finishing the race...injury-free.

Saved by push-ups: This happened during the Timberline Marathon

About a month before I ran the last Timberline Marathon, a friend asked me join a 200-push-ups a day challenge.

It wasn't part of my training plan. And just a month before the race, I was reluctant to change anything.

But after some friendly banter about runners having weak upper-body strength, I agreed to participate.

The push-up challenge

Here's the ground rules for the push-up challenge:

  • Crank out 10 to 20 push-ups at a time.
  • Rest + repeat throughout the day.
  • Hit 200 push-ups before bedtime

Most of the time, this is how I made time for 200 push-ups a day. 

But on some days, the schedule was so packed with work, shuttling kids to school, and everything else, I did all 200 push-ups in about 30 minutes. (Not recommended, LOL).

Every day, my friend and I would check in. And he was cranking out 200 a day, too. 

It was great motivation to stick with it, so I did.

But I had no idea all those push-ups would pay off at the Timberline Marathon.

The race-day surprise

I've been running the Timberline Marathon at Timothy Lake ever since I moved to the Pacific Northwest about 12 years ago.

  • The 13-mile loop around the lake is less than an hour away from where I live
  • I know the trail, minor technical spots, intersections with the Pacific Crest Trail, and terrain
  • And I know the course, what to expect on race day, and what my typical finish time will be

But on this particular race day, something unexpected happened.

Just after beginning the second loop around the lake, I was cruising...

  • Pace was dialed in
  • Breathing was easy
  • Arms pumping, feet churning
  • Trail ahead was clear

And then it happened....

Out of nowhere, my toe tripped on a rock, stump or root (I still don't know what exactly)...

  • There was no stumble. 
  • No wacky off-balance maneuver. 
  • Not even a few awkward seconds of grasping at air.

It was a near-instant face plant.

I only had a split second to react before hitting dirt and rocks face first.

Instinctively, without even thinking, I threw up my hands just before I hit the ground.

"Dude, are you OK?" a runner yelled from behind.

It must have looked pretty epic. And it could have easily been a race-ending fall with blood, broken bones, maybe even a head wound.

But you know what? Those 200 push-ups a day, saved the race.

I hit the ground full-force in push-up position, my face just inches from the ground.

I was stunned for a few seconds. When I realized I wasn't hurt, I popped right back up and resumed running.

"I'm fine," I yelled back at the runner. "I'm not sure how, but I'm fine."

When Evan Jensen tripped during the Timberline Marathon, the 200-push-ups a day challenge he just completed saved the day.

Ever since then, I've made push-ups a regular part of my training for marathons, trail races, and ultras. 

And it's paid off in a variety of ways.

Check out these 3 benefits of push-ups for runners

1. Push-ups improve arm swing

How? By developing the muscles in your:

  • Chest
  • Triceps
  • Shoulders
  • Back

With more upper body strength, you can actually run faster, improve running efficiency, and even handle longer distances.

Carve out some time for push-ups, and the next time you're pumping your arms to stay on pace or revving up for that final kick to the finish line, you'll be glad you did.

2. Push-ups improve core strength

There's a common thing that happens when you run long with a weak core.

  • Your form deteriorates. 
  • You slouch. 
  • Maybe you lean forward too much. 
  • Your lower back starts to ache.
  • And then other things start to hurt...hips, knees, ankle, feet...

That ever happen?

Push-ups help develop core strength, and that has some big payoffs in the form of:

  • Improved joint stability
  • Lower risk for overuse injuries
  • Better posture

3. Push-ups increase stamina

Want to tackle a longer distance?

Push-ups can help you get there. 

How? With a strong upper body and core, your running economy improves (form, pace, foot strike, stride).

For runners, upper body and core strength help reduce inefficient technique that can literally wear you down and slow you down.

Want to be better runner? Drop and give me 20.

3 types of push-ups

Want to add push-ups to your training plan?

Here are 3 types of push-ups you can do:

1. Standard push-up

1. Standard push-ups

1. Lie with your chest facing down, palms flat on the floor and slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Your feet should be together and your legs straight.

2. Push your body upwards and straighten your arms.

3. Lower your body returning to starting position.

4.Repeat.

If a Standard Push-Up is too hard, try the Incline Push-Up

2. Incline Push-Up

2. Incline push-up

1. Using an object to create an incline with your body, support your body on your toes, legs and arms straight.

  • Try using a chair, bench, box, or couch to do incline push-ups

2.Lower your chest, elbows bent.

3. Push up to a straight arm, returning to starting position.

4. Return.

If the Incline Push-Up is too hard, try the Kneeling Push-Up.

3. Kneeling Push-Up

3. Kneeling Push-Up

1. Support your body on your knees and hands with your elbows bent, legs crossed, feet raised and your chest nearly touching the floor.

2. Push up to a straight arm position.

3. Lower your body returning to starting position.

4. Repeat.

Add push-ups to your training plan

You don't need to do 200 push-ups a day.

After the 200-a-day challenge, I backed off to doing push-ups 3 times a week.

If you want to add push-ups to your training plan, here's a good place to start:

  • 3 to 5 sets
  • 10-20 push-ups per set (standard, incline, or kneeling)
  • 2-3 days per week

You'll build upper body strength to improve your arm swing. You'll develop core strength to improve stability. And you'll improve running efficiency to go the distance.

And who knows, push-ups might even save you from a nasty fall.

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Evan Jensen 454
Ambassador
SANDY, Oregon

I help RUNNERS reduce injuries, fix running form, run longer & faster by strength training without running ragged. I'm a NASM-certified personal trainer, and hold the record for the most finishes at the Mountain Lakes 100-Mile Ultra in Oregon.

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