As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve become particularly fond of using the weight vest for strength training in the past few years. However, what I haven’t talked about much, is the fact that I am also using it on a semi-regular basis for running.
After a couple of years running in a weight vest (as well as coaching others on it), I feel that I can confidently discuss the topic and provide some insight.
What follows are some of the pros and cons of running with a weighted vest on, as well as a discussion of who should consider running in a weight vest, and some considerations for getting started.
Considerations for running with a weighted vest
Running with a weighted vest on is a noticeably different experience than running without one. In fact, at points during my training year last year, it actually felt weird to run without one.
That being said, I was already a fairly accomplished runner, having completed numerous half marathon and OCR-type events in the last few years.
If you’re new to running, skip the weighted vest for a while
Here’s where I think the first consideration comes into play: if you’re just getting into running, I would skip wearing a weighted vest entirely, at least for a little while.
This is because, despite running’s accessibility as a form of physical exercise, there is a learning curve. Runners are famous for getting injured when they are new, or when they are returning to the activity. In fact, the rate of injury among recreational runners is about double what it is among people who lift weights.
This statement is not made as an attempt to “nocebo” anyone away from the activity of running, but I would advise you to at least be a proficient runner who is aware of how your body responds to volume and intensity variations.
That said, if you’re capable of handling a 10-mile week of running on a regular basis (a fairly low bar), you’ll likely be fine.
What are you hoping to get out of it?
I would also ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of running in a weighted vest.
Improved weight loss? Muscle gain? Personally, I think there are other ways that are more efficient to accomplish these goals, at least in the beginning.
If you’ve been running for a while, and you want to improve your physical fitness, running in a weight vest is a great way to add variety and challenge. Furthermore, if you have some specific fitness goal or job-related reason for running a weight vest, then it can also be a great idea.
Maybe you’re training for that Grand Canyon hike once and for all! Maybe you’re trying to finally get that sub-one-hour Murph time, and you plan to use the weight vest to add specificity to your training. Maybe you are a firefighter, first responder, or military member who needs to get used to having weight on your back. Wow performing strenuous activities for long periods of time.
For these types of folks, running with a weight vest can be a great idea.
Benefits of running with a weighted vest
If you’ve taken the above considerations into account, and you’re ready to give it a shot, you’ll likely be pleased with the results (I have). Based on my experience, here are some of the weight vest benefits for running:
1. You’ll get faster
Ask anyone who’s tried this type of training for a while, and they’ll tell you that running in a weighted vest makes the activity of normal running feel effortless. If you want to improve running speed to fly through your next 5K, doing some training with a weight vest on may be just the ticket.
However, I would not advise that you abandon normal methods of developing speed and improving your V02 max (such as tempo runs and interval workouts) in favor of running in the vest. If your goal is to develop your speed for a specific goal, use the weight vest for one run per week, and keep the others to traditional methods.
2. Your running form will improve
Utilizing a weight vest will naturally cause you to sense mistakes and inconsistencies in your running form, such as swaying too far side-to-side. As you continue to run with the extra weight week after week, your form should improve naturally.
Once you return to normal running, you’ll definitely notice the effects of this improved form – you’ll be able to run farther, with greater efficiency, before getting tired.
3. Your general physical preparedness (GPP) will improve
“General physical preparedness” is a fancy term for what most people simply call fitness. Improving our level of GPP has the pleasant effect of making most activities easier, whether they be job-related, recreational, physical, etc.
Running with a weight vest is certainly challenging; you are forcing your body to work harder per unit of time spent. Since you’ve already got a weighted vest, combining your running with a simple program of weighted vest squats, weighted push-ups, and pull-ups will provide you with an excellent minimalist fitness program.
It will get you breathing more heavily and challenge your muscular endurance much more than normal running, all else being equal. As a result, almost any endeavor becomes easier as we’re more quickly able to recover.
4. Improved bone density
The last benefit of running with a weighted vest that I’ll call out is more health-related: any type of training with resistance will improve bone density over time, which is especially true as we age.
WebMD’s article on weight vest training specifically calls out a 5-year study during which using a weight vest helped maintain bone density in older individuals.
Some common questions about weight vest running
When I mention to others that I’ve been running with a weight vest on and off for a couple of years, two questions inevitably come up: “isn’t that bad for your knees?” and “does that help with building muscle?”
Let’s discuss both of these questions now:
Is weight rest running bad for your knees?
There is some conjecture on this topic, stating that running in a vest could lead to more overuse injuries, but I would submit to you that asking, “Is X bad for Y?” tends to be the wrong question.
For instance, many people still believe that deadlifting with a rounded back is a terrible idea when we know that certain high-level powerlifters do it all the time. What’s the key element? They have specifically adapted to the activity and learned how to do it properly.
The reality is that the body is a highly adaptable organism. We often hear about how new runners get shin splints immediately into the first few weeks of their running program, but nobody in seriousness, argues that running is bad for your shins.
If someone is getting injured during a new physical activity, it tends to be that they did too much too soon, and they didn’t properly and progressively load their exercise.
Following a logical, progressive program allows the body, bones, connective, tissues, and muscles to get used to the activity before plunging into the deep end.
Therefore, the problem is not that the exercise itself is bad, the problem is, the programming is bad (or simply just wrong for the individual doing it).
If you don’t jump into this expecting yourself to be “advanced“ on the first day, you will be fine.
Will running in a weight vest build muscle?
Running in the weight vest will likely not build muscle unless you have very little muscle mass to begin with. The range of motion used in running is too limited to serve as a good muscle-building exercise. If your plan is to build muscle or strength, I would recommend doing actual resistance or weight training exercises instead.
While running in a weight vest may make you very sore, don’t conflate that soreness with muscle growth. The reason that running in general is not very good for building muscle mass is not that running doesn’t put any stress on the muscles (it does). It’s because the range of motion is so small and the movement pattern is so specific.
You will get a far better muscle-building stimulus from a couple of basic sets of squats and push-ups than you ever will from running.
Do dedicated resistance training exercises 2 to 3 times per week for the full body, using a full range of motion, and strive for 10-20 sets per week, per exercise.
How to progress your weighted vest running
Running in a weighted vest is a highly rewarding activity if you follow some basic principles of exercise in general. Start too easy, progress slowly, and assess how your body handles the work.
In my experience, following the box stock running advice of adding 10% volume per week tends to go well for myself and the individuals I have coached.
If you’ve never tried running with a weight vest before, start running some very short runs in the beginning, along the lines of 1 mile at a time. Do this a couple of times in one week, and see if your body does or does not agree with this style of training. If you handle it with no problem, then add 10% per week to your total volume until your target volume has been reached.
Personally, I tend to weight vest run only about 3 to 4 miles at a time, and I don’t generally add more than 20 pounds. Your mileage may vary (pun intended).
I have definitely experimented with doing more than this, but generally, I have found that running around 3 miles with 20 pounds on tends to provide me with the cardiovascular stimulus that I’m looking for. Any more distance, and I tend to just leave the vest at home.
Who should try running in a weighted vest?
Running in a weight vest is great if you’re trying to add difficulty to running in a shorter period of time, or burn more calories by simulating a heavier body weight. Running in a weight vest is great if you’re trying to burn more calories per unit of time by simulating a heavier body weight. After all, that’s what I weight vest really does.
Another great benefit of running in a weight vest is that it can increase your general running speed. There are some studies to show this, but you can also try it for yourself. Spending even a couple of weeks running in a weight vest and then taking the weight vest off, you will feel light on your feet and fast as you do your normal runs.
If you have the inclination to try running with a vest on, I encourage you to do so. It can be good for efficiency in a fat loss program, it can be good for improving speed, and it can be good for improving specific fitness goals that require us to be able to move over long distances of time with external weight (CrossFit, distance running, backpacking, hiking or career specific goals).
Take it slow, see how your body responds, and go from there. It’s likely that you will find another use for this valuable and personal training, tool, the way best.