For runners at their peak, their bodies are like well-oiled machines. Everything works in sync, resulting in a smooth, efficient run. However, one “kink” in the system can throw off a runner’s performance and potentially lead to injury. One common area for runners to experience trouble is with their hamstrings.
Hamstring exercises for runners that target these muscles are essential to any strength training program. Not only do they help improve performance, but they can also prevent injury and aid in recovery when paired with appropriate hamstring stretching (according to research).
Disclaimer: This post was written by JayDee Vykoukal, Doctor of Physical Therapy. It has been reviewed by Chrissy Carroll, MPH, USAT Level I Triathlon Coach, RRCA Running Coach. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute personal training advice. Consult a doctor prior to starting any new exercise routine.
Why Hamstring Strength is Important for Runners
The hamstrings are a large group of muscles that run along the backside of your thigh, from your hips down to your knees. The hamstrings are comprised of three main muscles: the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
As a muscle group, the hamstrings play double duty in the legs. They primarily help bend the knee (flexion) but also assist the glutes in extending the hips. They also provide secondary stability to the lower body and core. The health of these large powerhouse muscles is crucial for runners, as they help propel the body forward and absorb shock with each stride.
10 Hamstring Exercises for Runners
Adding one or more of the following exercises can help promote blood flow, balance, and strength within the hamstrings. Try different positions to work the hamstrings in a variety of positions for the best results. When ready, focus on standing and explosive exercises that provide the best carry-over to your running form.
1. Double leg glute bridge
This exercise targets the glutes and hamstrings.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
- Push through your heels to lift your hips off the ground as far you can comfortably. You should feel your abs, glutes, and hamstrings all tightening.
- Slowly lower back down and repeat for 10-12 reps for three sets.
- When ready to progress, you can hold for longer (10+ seconds) at the top of your lift, hold weight at your hips with your hands, or do more reps.
Note: The more bent your knees are, the less the hamstrings are activated and the more the glutes are activated, according to this study and this study. It can be beneficial to experiment with different positions because of this depending on which muscles you’re trying to target.
2. Single-leg bridge
This exercise is similar to the double-leg bridge, but the single-leg bridges target one side of your body at a time for an extra challenge to the core. This is a more functional move than the double-leg version since running technically involves one leg moving at a time (in an alternating sequence).
- Start in the same position as the double-leg bridge.
- Extend one leg straight ahead and keep it hovering above the ground while pushing through the heel of your other foot to lift your hips off the ground.
- Complete 10 to 15 reps on one side before switching and repeating on the other leg.
- Build to three sets per side. Focus on keeping the hips level and not rotating with each lift.
3. Stability ball hamstring curls
This exercise can help build stability and strength in the hamstrings, core, and glutes. You’ll need a stability ball for this exercise.
- Lying on your back, place your feet flat on the ball near the top. The goal is to be in the same position as a bridge.
- Push through your heels and lift your butt off the ground as high as possible.
- If you feel stable, roll the ball away from your body until your knees are straight (if tolerated; otherwise, modify the range.)
- Then, reverse directions and roll the ball back in towards your body, bringing the heels as close to your butt as possible.
- Repeat this sequence for ten reps for three sets. For an added challenge, hold a weight or lift one leg at a time during the exercise.
If this exercise is too strenuous, you can try a heel slide instead. While lying down, place a towel on a slick surface (hardwood or tile) and slide the heels in and out.
4. Seated hamstring curl
This exercise is a variation on the stability ball hamstring curl that you can do with a resistance band or gym equipment.
- Sit on an elevated surface, such as a high bench, sturdy table, or counter, with your knees bent and feet touching or dangling toward the ground.
- Secure a resistance band in front of you or have someone hold it as an anchor. Adjust the level of resistance to fit your needs.
- Wrap the band around your leg just above your ankle, then bend (flex) the knee against the resistance as you pull your heel under the chair or table. You can do one or both legs at the same time.
- Go as far as you can comfortably before slowly returning to the starting position.
- Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for three sets.
Alternatively, you can find a hamstring curl machine at the gym (seated or lying on the belly) and do a double-leg curl like above.
5. Standing butt kicks
This exercise involves a cardio component to build strength and endurance in the hamstrings. Plus, since you’re on your feet and jumping around, this is more functional for carrying over directly to your running strength.
- Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, arms at your sides.
- Raise one leg by bending the knee so that your heel is close to your butt. The other foot should remain flat on the ground.
- Quickly switch legs (jumping), kicking the opposite heel to your butt. Continue to alternate legs at a brisk pace.
- Continue for 30 to 60 seconds for two or three sets, with breaks in between for beginners.
- To modify, take out the jumping and step form side to side.
6. Hands and knees Donkey kicks
This simple exercise can help you build a solid mind-to-muscle connection for muscular balance between the glutes and hamstrings.
- On all fours (hands under shoulders, hips over knees).
- Squeeze your glutes and hamstring muscles as you drive the heel towards the ceiling while straigthening the knee.
- Lower slowly and repeat ten reps per side for three sets.
You can do this exercise without weights, ankle weights, or a band attached to the heel for more resistance.
7. Backward monster walks
This exercise requires a resistance band, preferably a looped mini band that’s thick and harder to stretch. Otherwise, you can tie a knot into a straight band to create your own loop.
- Step your feet inside the band to rest mid-calf.
- Stand with the feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
- Keep a slight bend in the hips and knees as you extend one leg behind you to walk backward.
- Lift the opposite foot behind you and step backward with the other foot so that you are taking mini steps.
- Keep your hips and toes pointed forward.
- Do this across the length of the room and return.
- Repeat for three rounds total.
8. Explosive single-leg lunge jumps
This exercise can increase strength, power, and endurance in the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core through an explosive plyometric movement (similar to running).
- Start by lunging backward with one leg while keeping your torso upright.
- Explode upward through your heel (the one in front) to jump off the ground.
- Land softly and repeat on one leg for 10-15 repetitions.
- Repeat on the opposite side and continue for a total of 3 sets.
9. Prone superman extensions
This exercise targets the entire back, hamstrings, and glutes.
- Begin on your stomach with your arms extended overhead and legs straight.
- Lift both arms and legs off the ground simultaneously.
- Lower all limbs back to the starting position and repeat.
- Continue until you’ve done 10-15 repetitions for 2 to 3 sets.
For alternatives, exercise with a resistance band around the ankles or hold weights in your hands. You can alternate lifting one arm and the opposite leg at a time if all limbs at the same time are too much.
10. Romanian single-leg deadlift
This classic strength training exercise can help you build powerful and resilient hamstrings and other muscles in the body.
- Hold a barbell or two dumbbells at your hips while standing tall with the feet hip-width apart. If you’re new to the exercise, you can simply use body weight for now, like in the video above.
- Hinge forward from the waist (not the back) to lower the weights to just below knee level while extending one leg behind you.
- Keep your back flat as you push through your heel to stand up to return to the starting position.
- Repeat for 10-15 repetitions on one leg, then switch to the other leg.
- Repeat for up to three sets on each leg.
To make this exercise easier, try a double-leg deadlift. To make it harder, stand on an elevated surface to challenge your balance. Just make sure to maintain proper form and control throughout the movement.
Other dynamic exercises to try:
Exercises that challenge the coordination of many muscle groups at once are great for building functional strength in the hamstrings needed for running. Here are a few more exercises to try:
- Squats and variations (e.g., sumo squats, goblet squats, pistol squats)
- Lunges (forward, backward, walking, curtsy)
- Step-ups (elevated surface or weighted)
- Kettlebell swings (similar to deadlifts)
- Box jumps and other plyometric exercises (burpees, tuck jumps)
- Standing balance (standing on a foam pad, bosu ball, or disc with one leg)
In addition to the hamstring exercises for runners mentioned above, here are some general tips to keep in mind when working on strengthening this muscle group:
- Start with bodyweight exercises or lighter weights and gradually increase resistance as you build strength.
- Always prioritize proper form and control over the number of repetitions or weights lifted.
- Incorporate various exercises that target different angles and movements of the hamstring muscles. This can help prevent imbalances or weaknesses in specific areas.
- Don’t neglect other muscle groups that play a role in hamstring strength, such as the glutes, hips, and core.
- Take recovery seriously by stretching, foam rolling, staying hydrated, eating well, and getting enough rest between workouts.
- Listen to your body and modify exercises to fit your fitness level and any pre-existing conditions or injuries.
- Consult with a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist (PT), if you have any concerns or questions. A PT can provide personalized exercise recommendations, injury prevention tips, and help you holistically manage any current injuries or concerns.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to strength training for runners, consistency is key. Aim to do hamstring strengthening exercises (and stretching) at least twice a week. You can alternate between different types of exercises and vary the intensity as needed.
Of course, hamstrings are just one part of the giant puzzle in improving running performance. Don’t forget to incorporate other strength exercises for the legs, core, and upper body to create a balanced and strong foundation for your runs.
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