If you’re a dedicated runner, adding some functional strength training to your routine will be incredibly valuable. From helping prevent injury to improving stride and power, it’s important to weave in at least semi-regular resistance training. In this post, you’ll find three leg exercises that are incredibly beneficial for runners and triathletes.
I’ve brought on a special guest today to help break down these exercises. Eric Carey has a degree in exercise science and is also a dietetics student. He’s got a great way of explaining how and why to do these exercises, so I’ll let him take it away!
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as individual advice. Consult a doctor prior to beginning any exercise program. If you are unsure of proper form even with the descriptions below, work with a trainer to help you master form first.
You know the saying…
Suns out? Guns Out.
But when Fall and Winter are here – it’s time for some serious leg training for the win.
But really, let’s talk about this. Because regardless of what sport you play or partake in… resistance training always has its place in a well thought out, well planned training program even if your goals aren’t related to hypertrophy (<– the fancy word for building muscle mass).
Oh yes, you heard me right.
Why incorporate strength training?
When it comes to getting better in any sport that you play (endurance focused or not) – then breaking out the weights and building those muscles to some extent will almost always have some carry over to your athletic performance and structural foundation.
As an endurance athlete, you may find it helpful to know that strength training can…
- Strengthen the bones
- Improve the health of connective tissues
- Reduce injury risk by rounding out your training program
- Improve stride and power output
- Increase muscle mass leading to a small but relevant increase in daily calorie burn
- Improve endurance time trial performance and improve exercise economy (aka how efficient you are at a certain type of exercise) as shown in this exercise study
It’s pretty clear that weight training is the bees knees and a must do if you want to stay in tip top shape and prepared for more challenges.
Strength Training Specifically for Runners
Not every weight training exercise out there will get the job done – especially for you runners. Why? Well, let’s think about it – if you want to train for any specific sport or activity, then a concept called specificity comes into play in order for you to determine what exercises are worth your time.
What does this mean? If exercise “A” has more carry over to your sport or activity than exercise “B”, then the former needs to take priority over the later when you strength train.
And when it comes to running and the biomechanics of the sport itself… then choosing the right exercises can make all the difference between seeing those mile times drop… and not.
Today, let’s take a look specifically at leg exercises for runners that can help you become a stronger, more efficient athlete.
Because here on the Snacking In Sneakers blog? Skipping leg day just isn’t an option. 😉
3 Awesome Leg Exercises for Runners
Exercise #1: The Step Up
The step up is a great exercise for you to perform and one that has some huge carry over to the sport of running (and many others). It’s on our list because it closely mimics the same motion that you use to accelerate forward during your run.
This is great because not only can you train your legs in a way that makes them stronger, but you can also incorporate the range of motion required for the sport of running – both of which may help you get faster as well.
Talk about a double whammy!
And aside from all this, the movement itself is classified as a unilateral exercise which gives you the chance to work, build, and strengthen your weaker leg and any other leg imbalance that you might have.
So, simply step and feel the burn!
Here’s How To Perform The Step Up:
- As a beginner, find a step height where your knee is slightly below your hip when you place one leg on top of the step.
- Now start from a standing position. Place your stepping leg up on the platform while bringing your back leg as close to the platform as possible.
- Using the leg that’s on the platform, engage the quads, hamstrings, and glutes (while keeping an upright posture) and step up using no momentum from the leg that’s on the floor. It’s okay to use your back foot to start the movement, i.e. coming up onto your toe like in a calf raise – but pushing off, jumping, and leaping up with that back leg are all no-nos when doing the exercise
- Keeping your posture nice and upright, drive that hip up and forward as you step so that your end position closely mimics that of a regular, military standing position.
- Finally, bring your ground leg back down to the floor, keeping that posture nice and strong, all while being sure that you control the motion the entire time. This is key. Otherwise, you miss out on the neural benefits of better motor control which will massively carry over to you as a running athlete.
This video gives a good overview of the basic step up form along with some other advanced variations:
Master the step up and you’ll be one hot cookie in the home stretch of your next race!
Exercise #2: The Glute Ham Raise
Now, a list of leg exercises for runners wouldn’t be complete without one that emphasizes the posterior chain – which is science talk for a group of muscles along the backside of the body. Those glutes and hamstrings? Those are your bread and butter as runner, and definitely a crucial component for you to work on during the off season.
If you look at the sport of running and the muscle actions required of the sport itself – you can see a huge need for both glute and hamstring development since your primary motion is to go forward.
This means that in order to accelerate faster, transition your stride more effectively, and become a better endured and stable running athlete – strengthening your glutes and hamstrings are working is key to your progress over time.
By incorporating a movement like the glute ham raise into your training program, you not only get the benefit of building up your hamstrings, glutes and entire posterior chain… but you also train in a type of movement that will help expose any weak links as well. And, as a little bonus – you are performing a movement that is great for your connective tissues and structural foundation for more intense training later on. A must have.
Here’s How to Perform the Glute Ham Raise:
- So for this exercise, a little equipment is needed on your end. First, find the glute ham raise machine at your local gym and rest your quadriceps on pads in front of you.
- Being sure that your chest is facing toward the floor, fix your heels into the second set of pads directly behind you so that you become suspended on the device itself. Think “bent-knee-superman-like” (but with better glute and hamstring development about to happen).
- Now that you are suspended on the device, focus all of your attention on the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, lowering your upper torso down toward the floor. It’s crucial to think of yourself as a teeter-totter here (keeping your upper body nice and straight) in order to engage the proper muscles you’re trying to work. This is a great exercise to incorporate a slow eccentric (lowering) tempo too in order to better enhance your efficiency of the movement over time.
- Descend your upper body down as far as your range of motion will safely allow being sure to keep your form nice and tight.
- Once at the bottom, begin your concentric action back up to the top, imagining a string attached to your upper back as you do so. Think of this string as a pulling force drawing you back up to where you initially started.
- Once back up at the top, repeat the movement for reps.
Here’s a great video that explains the do’s and don’ts of the glute ham raise and shows you proper form:
Side note: If you’re already experienced in this movement or have access to a CPT or strength and conditioning coach, place this movement as an accessory exercise in your program with the meat and potatoes of your glute and hamstring work coming from a romanian deadlift or other hamstring dominant movement that is easy to overload.
Exercise #3: Reverse Lunge
Because no leg day would be complete without some lunge action happening, am I right?
But wait… what’s the deal with the reverse going on here?
A reverse lunge helps you to better train your balance as well as that upward knee drive. Incorporating a lunge that has your non-weighted leg going back will definitely serve you well in terms of your athleticism.
The reverse lunge is somewhat similar to the step up, yet slightly different in terms of the stretch on your hip flexors as well as the position of your front leg. This leg exercise for runners is a total winner and one that will help develop strength throughout several muscle groups.
Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, the whole sh’bang is targeting throughout this movement — with an added benefit of not being able to “cheat” as much while doing this exercise (try it and you’ll see).
Since it’s a unilateral exercise – aka one where you’re working one side of your body at a time – you can’t overcompensate with your stronger side. This helps isolate weaknesses and allows you to improve both sides of the body. It has fantastic carry over to you as a distance runner.
How to Perform a Reverse Lunge:
- Frist, pick your choice of resistance. If you’re brand new to strength training, you can focus simply on body weight lunges for now to master the form. When you’re comfortable with those – or if you’ve already been strength training for a while – grab some dumbbells.
- Next, find a focus point in front of you in order to enhance your balance before stepping back.
- Then, choose the leg that you want to step back with and slightly begin to shift your weight to the leg that’ll stay in place.
- After this, while focusing your attention on the quads of your static leg, begin your reverse lunge by stepping your “step” leg back, being sure that you keep your posture in line. You may find that your hip flexors, calves, and hamstrings are a little tight here (especially as a runner) so always be sure to adjust the weight used here accordingly.
- Then, as you step back in a controlled fashion, flex at the knee (on the leg that’s staying in place) while engaging your leg to control the movement back.
- Step back to the point of achieving a slight bend in your stepping leg, while allowing for a only very slight knee movement in your static leg’s structure.
- Finally, after achieving this stepping position, use the power in your front leg to drive your stepping leg back up to the starting position.
- Repeat the movement for reps with the same leg stepping back.
Practice this movement frequently! The balance component of the reverse lunge really ups the ante’ in terms of difficulty, so remember – practice makes perfect.
Here’s a video showing how to do a reverse lunge:
Leg Exercise Reminders
And with that? Your legs are ready for some serious challenges to make you a better runner!
But of course, remember to always train smart. Don’t challenge yourself too much at the start. And always learn the movement pattern at hand before you start increasing the resistance to your exercises.
If your tendons, joints, and other parts of your body are feeling rough throughout these movements, it’s always best to stop and consult a professional. A little challenge to the muscles is normal, but pain in these other parts or movements that are causing severe strain are not normal.
Remember, resistance training needs to add to your progress/quality of life… not take from it. The risk of injury should always be minimized.
So train hard, train smart, and hey… we’ll see you at the finish line come next spring!
Share: Do you have any other leg exercises for runners that you love to do?
About the author: Eric Carey is a motivated student who loves to see the world and the people around him improve. Insanely fascinated by the human body and the way our physiology works, he obtained his degree in exercise science from Western Michigan University and went on in intern as NASA’s Exercise Physiology Assessments of Spaceflight Exercise Countermeasures Intern. Inspired by this experience and other life events, he is pursuing his RD license while continuing to coach, learn, and be resource to those that need my help in this field. You can find Eric on his website as well as LinkedIn.
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