Running With A Weight Vest
Running with a weight vest can be an effective tool for improving your running economy, joint stiffness, and sprinting speed. Research continues to show that running with a weighted vest can be beneficial when compared to non-weighted running.
In training for the sprint events or to improve sprinting for sports performance, one of the tools we use is resisted sprinting. Resisted sprint training can increase muscle activation, sprint specific strength, and explosive power outputs of the lower limbs that are used in sprinting.
Whether you are running or sprinting, running with a weight vest will help make your workouts harder while strengthening your joints and improving your endurance.
Today we are going to look into what role running with a weight vest might play in our running and sprint training programs. We'll cover some research studies, as well as my own personal experiences with using weight vests as a sprinter and track & field coach.
You might also be interested in my review of the best weighted vest for running.
Research On Running With A Weight Vest
One of the areas that has been researched is how running with a weighted vest in your warmup can effect the following workout.
A 2015 study looking at warming up with a weighted vest found that performing strides (submaximal sprinting) in the warm up while wearing a 20% body mass weighted vest caused some major changes. The experimental group was found to have a greater than 20% increase in leg stiffness and over 6% improvement in running economy after running with a weight vest. The conclusion was that strides with a weighted-vest can have a potentiation-like effect on leg stiffness and running economy, and this effect can improve running performance.
Another study by the famous sports performance coach Carmelo Bosco looked at the effects of endurance athletes wearing a weighted vest all day for four weeks. One group wore a weighted vest of 9-10% for half of their workouts, while the other group work a weight vest for all workouts. The results were that the group wearing the weighted vest for all workouts showed an increased time to exhaustion, a higher aerobic threshold, and an improved lactate threshold. The results were attributed to increased fast twitch muscle fiber activity.
Together, these two studies suggest that running with a weighted vest can improve running economy, physical conditioning, and leg stiffness. Improving these qualities will improve your running performance, making it easier to run faster and longer without getting tired.
Weighted Vest Sprint Training Research
In addition to research on running with a weight vest, it is worth looking at weighted vest sprinting research. Since sprinting is simply running as fast as you can, this research can give insights into how running with a weight vest might benefit you.
Acute Effects of Weight Vests on Sprinting
First, let’s take a look at the acute effects of weighted vest sprinting. These are effects that we see right away within the workout, not the long term training effects which occur over time.
From studies ranging from 5-40% of body mass, weighted vest sprinting significantly increased sprint times at all distances from 10 to 50 meters. Put simply, wearing a weight vest when you sprint will make you sprint slower than if you did not wear it. This is probably obvious to all of you.
Incremental loads of 10% body weight increased sprint times by 4-5% per increment, and the biggest reductions in sprint performance were in maximal velocity sprinting rather than acceleration. This is to say that for every 10% load you add, sprint times will increase (get slower) by 4-5%. Also, because of the fact that acceleration is performed in a more horizontal body position with less vertical displacement as compared to maximal velocity sprinting, it makes sense that weight vests will acutely slow acceleration sprint times less than they will maximal velocity sprint times.
Incremental loads of 10% body weight decreased maximum horizontal force by 6-7% and maximal horizontal power output by 11-14%, with each increment increase in vest weight. This means that for every 10% of body weight load added to the vest, your ability to produce force and power horizontally will be reduced.
Weighted vest sprinting caused significantly longer contact times (14.3-19.6%), shorter flight times (-8.3 to -14.6%) and reduced stride frequency (-2.6% to -6.1%). How much load you use will have a major impact on how much these variables are affected.
Longitudinal Effects of Weighted Vests on Sprinting Performance
Now let’s move on to the longitudinal effects of weighted vest sprint training, meaning the training effects which manifest over time after repeated use.
Note that significant differences in study design and study participants make it challenging to compare the results of various studies.
Overall, weighted vest sprint training ranging from 3 to 7 weeks with loads from 5.6% to 18.9% of body weight led to improvements in maximal velocity ranging from 1.2-1.3%, as well as sprint time reductions from 10m to 50m ranging from 1.2% to 9.4%.
It appears that weighted vest sprinting has a stronger effect on maximal velocity sprinting, due to the vertical force demands of upright sprinting and the vertical force influence of adding mass to the sprinter which increases the effects of gravity on the sprinter.
For example in one study, the weighted vest group showed a greater improvement over 30 meters compared to 10 meters, likely due to the greater vertical force demands of the 30 meter sprint.
To me it makes sense that this would be the case, considering weighted vest sprinting slows down acceleration less than it does maximal velocity sprinting. If it is relatively harder to sprint at maximal velocity with a weight vest than it is to accelerate, that suggests that it provides a stronger overload stimulus at maximal velocity compared to acceleration.
The study that I think is most interesting with regards to weight vest training is from August of 1985, called “Adaptive response of human skeletal muscle to simulated hypergravity condition.”
International level athletes were recruited to participate in this study, all of whom had failed to improve after 12 months of highly specific and explosive methods of training.
It was presumed by the authors that these athletes had reached their genetic limits of performance, and typical training interventions were no longer having a beneficial effect.
To try something different, athletes in this study were instructed to wear a weight vest equivalent to 11% of their body weight all day, every day, both during and away from training. The only time they took off the vest was to sleep.
After three weeks of daily hypergravity training, athletes showed significant improvements in vertical jump height, average leg power during jumps, and they showed a strong shift toward velocity in their force velocity curves.
Because of the hundreds of hours during which they wore a weight vest that made gravity’s effect approximately 10% greater than usual, the athlete’s body’s adapted in such a manner that after 3 weeks, their performances without the vest were similar to what they would be in a 0.9g environment. The study authors believed that neurological adaptations led to these changes, and that the long duration of exposure by wearing the vest all day played a major role.
Weight Vest Sprinting: Research Take-Aways
Because of the variance in how research is set up and who is involved, it is hard to take away any certain conclusions with regards to how much weighted vest sprinting can help an athlete improve their sprinting performance.
Personally I think some of the loading used in research is excessive, with some studies using as much 50% bodyweight. If you are attempting to sprint with another half-person on your back, I would argue you are probably doing more of a CrossFit run rather than a track and field sprint.
Sprinting with 50% body weight on a sprint sled would not be anywhere near as challenging as sprinting with 50% body weight velcroed to your torso, so when choosing loads we should probably think about time decrements and how it feels, in conjunction with what the body weight relative load is.
The main thing to take away from the research is that, if sprinting with a manageable load, there is a fair chance that you can see some improvements in maximal velocity sprinting by using weight vests during some part of your sprint training program.
Personal Experience Running With A Weighted Vest & Sprinting
My own training data is limited with regards to using weighted vests in my own sprint training, but I do have some points to make based on my personal experience with weighted vest sprinting and training.
When performing warm ups and drills, wearing a weight vest can be useful for increasing the vertical force demands of drills. When doing something like an A-Switch, single leg hop, skips for height, or similar exercises, weight vests can be used to increase vertical force demands, joint stiffness demands, and to bring in a slightly different coordinative demand.
Adding vertical load will increase the demands for vertical force production, which means that sprinting with a weight vest might help you learn, consciously or not, how to produce more vertical force in short amounts of time when sprinting. Also, it might make it easier for athletes to learn what it means to strike the ground in a vertical manner, which is what we need to do in upright sprinting.
The research I’ve looked at does not show much as far as lower loads increasing ground reaction forces acutely, but they do suggest that weight vest sprinting can in some cases improve sprint performance in upright sprinting. I would expect that the improvements in vertical force production would come over time, after an acute period where there is no change in vertical force production while the brain is learning how to handle this new stimulus.
I also think there is something to be said for changing the coordinative demands by wearing a weight vest. For example if your flight time and vertical displacement is reduced each stride, your brain will have to find a way to cycle the legs through under these constraints.
Since one of our goals as sprinters is to increase flight time and stride length, it makes sense to me that adding load vertically in the form of a weight vest could offer a good stimulus for sprinting when targeting improvements in maximal velocity.
In the past, I’ve noticed that using an 8lb weight vest appeared to have a potentiating effect on my sprinting. One example was in February 2019, where I ran 50m sprints with the vest, followed by unloaded sprints.
In this workout, I was able to run 1.91 from 30 to 50 meters, which at the time was a personal best. Later this year, after wearing vests during sprints, bounds, and other activities, I was able to manage a 5.83 second 50 meter sprint, 6.77 second 60 meter sprint, a 1.85 flying 20m fly, as well as a 2.81 second 30 meter fly from 30 to 60 meters, and a 10.66 100 meter dash in practice, running alone.
There is no way for me to prove that the weight vests had any impact on my sprinting, but it is worth noting that the use of weight vests preceded the fastest I have ever run.
Weighted Vest Running Recommendations
Since we know that running with a weight vest can be an effective form of training, we need to make sure that we go about weighted vest running in the right way.
First, you'll want to introduce the added load gradually. If you buy a weighted vest that goes up to 20-25lb like the Hyperwear Elite, you can start with a lighter load such as 5 to 10 pounds. Then, as your body adapts to this new load over time, you can incrementally increase the load to continue to drive improvement in your running.
Second, you need to make sure that your running technique is adequate. The biggest mistake people make when they run is that they let their feet crash forward into the ground, causing braking forces and a jarring impact which hurts their knees. If you get knee pain while running, chances are you are hitting the ground with your foot moving forward at the moment of impact. Instead, focus on bringing the foot down and back to the ground, rolling from heel or mid-foot to the toe. This will feel like a much softer impact and help prevent injuries when running with a weighted vest.
Lastly, make sure that your running with a weight vest is a part of a well balanced program. Some days you might run with the weighted vest, while other days you run without it. Consider adding strength training for running to further improve your force production, joint stiffness, and running economy.
Weighted Vest Sprint Training Recommendations
Note that these are solely my opinion, and they are not prescriptions or validated by research. Since research lags practical application, we cannot solely rely on research if we want to formulate effective training plans, and instead we have to blend our research based knowledge with intuition and wisdom gained from anecdotal experience.
For the goal of improving maximal velocity sprinting, use loads as low as 2-4% of your body weight so you can sprint with good sprinting technique, adding a small but noticeable load to your body. Increase loads as much as you are comfortable with, but avoid using so much load that it dramatically alters your ability to sprint. If you do not feel like you are sprinting, or video shows that your technique is being disrupted substantially, you need to lower the load.
On exercises with a low horizontal velocity, such as drills, hopping exercises, jumping exercises, or other explosive movements, you can use heavier weight vest loads than what you use in sprinting. Once again, only use enough load to feel an overload, not so much to dramatically alter the movement, ground contact characteristics, etc.
Within the workout, athletes can use weight vests in different ways. One approach is to wear a weight vest during the warm up, taking it off when it is time to sprint. This might give a general potentiation effect, or a “hypergravity effect” if done over a long period of time.
Alternatively, athletes can wear weight vests during some sprints, taking them off for others, creating a contrast between the weighted vest sprints and the unloaded sprints. This can create post activation potentiation, as well as forcing the brain to adjust to slightly different situations and avoid feeling stale.
Lastly, weighted vests can be useful tools for making your general strength exercises and circuits more effective. Say that you’ve been performing bodyweight circuits for a long time as part of your program, and they are beginning to feel too easy. Adding a weight vest is a simple way to progress your general preparatory exercises without needing much equipment.
Resisted Sprint Training: Different Tools For Different Goals
There are various tools and modalities of resisted sprint training, and what tool we choose to use will depend on what our goals are, what we want to get out of our training, what equipment we have, and what facilities we have access to.
As I’ve talked about before, we can use running sleds or tools like the Exer-Genie to overload the athlete horizontally, and this is typically used for improving acceleration. Horizontal force production is high in acceleration, and the demands for horizontal force production can be increased through sled towing, parachute sprints, and Exer-Genie type tools.
In contrast, the ability to produce horizontal force decreases as we reach maximal velocity, where we see very high vertical force outputs and high demands for vertical stiffness. Vertical force demands are high in upright sprinting and at maximal velocity, and these demands for vertical force can be increased through the use of weighted vests and other wearable resistance like the Exogen system.
Overall, I think it would be wise for athletes and others to at least experiment with using running with weighted vests in their training. You can use them to make your drills and general preparatory exercises more challenging, as a way to potentiate our sprints, or to overload the sprints themselves.
Make sure that you manage your loading safely, using light loads when doing anything at high velocities or that are otherwise very intense exercises. If you are sprinting, start with less than 5% body weight and see how that feels.
Also consider trying the hypergravity approach, where you wear a weight vest throughout the day, such as when at home doing chores. This is a low risk way to experiment and see if you can get similar effects to what the athletes did in the Bosco study.
- Barnes KR, Hopkins WG, McGuigan MR, Kilding AE. Warm-up with a weighted vest improves running performance via leg stiffness and running economy. J Sci Med Sport. 2015 Jan;18(1):103-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2013.12.005. Epub 2014 Jan 2. PMID: 24462560.
Macadam P, Cronin JB, Feser EH. Acute and longitudinal effects of weighted vest training on sprint-running performance: a systematic review. Sports Biomech. 2022 Mar;21(3):239-254. doi: 10.1080/14763141.2019.1607542. Epub 2019 May 9. PMID: 31070108.
- Rusko H, Bosco CC. Metabolic response of endurance athletes to training with added load. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1987;56(4):412-8. doi: 10.1007/BF00417768. PMID: 3622484.