It is estimated that up to 79% of runners become injured in a given year. Research has pointed to multiple causes of strain and injury with running including decreased strength of the gluteus muscles, quadriceps, and core.
Strength training has now become a standard part of training for runners. A while back, most runners felt that the best way to train and improve performance was just to run more miles, harder, and faster. Still today, some runners feel that they don’t belong in the gym pumping weights alongside bulky weightlifters. True, runners should not be training to add muscle mass such as in hypertrophy training by doing many sets to “feel the pump”. Additionally, runners will be wasting their time by doing low weight exercises with high repetitions.
The two most beneficial strengthening goals for runners are neuromuscular training to improve form and explosive training to improve running efficiency.
A large body of research now exists showing that runners benefit greatly from adding a strengthening component to their weekly training. By adding a diverse strengthening program consisting of upper body, lower body, core, plyometrics, and power drills a runner can improve running efficiency and performance. Specific strengthening performed for the core, feet, and especially the hips will decrease the risk of injury. The key for runners is that the strengthening has to be running specific to have the best results. Hip strengthening in particular has been widely shown to decrease the risk of knee pain with running but only when the strengthening is running specific. As a physical therapist at Competitive EDGE in San Jose, I frequently work with runners of all levels from the recreational runner to marathoners, to Ironman triathletes. After working with these runners to improve their biomechanics and lower extremity strength, they all ask the same question.
"So, what are the best strengthening exercises I should be doing on a regular basis to improve my running and limit injuries?"
The truth is that thousands of exercises exist and there is no “best” exercise plan that fits every runner. Research studies have demonstrated that certain types of exercises yield a greater return in relation to performance or form correction. Specificity of training is also an important element to designing a training program. The more specific the training is to the sport or skill the more benefit it will produce. For instance, it is of little benefit for a cyclist to due bicep curls since they do not need to lift or pull for their sport.
How can we make strengthening exercises specific to runners?
By taking a closer look at the biomechanics of the running stride we can pinpoint movements specific to running. Running can be broken down into 3 general phases.
1. Float: Neither leg is in contact with the ground
2. Shock Absorption (initial contact to mid-stance): Starts the moment the front foot touches the ground and ends when the knee is bent to the maximal degree
3. Power Generation (mid-stance to terminal stance): Starts at peak knee bend and ends when the stance foot leaves the ground The most amount of strength is needed during the shock absorption phase and power generation phase. We can view running like doing a single leg plyometric squat over and over again.
During shock absorption, the hip, knee, and ankle need to bend in order for the quadriceps, hip, and lower leg muscles to help control the decent of the body. This allows for a soft landing and the ability to “store” energy for the next phase. A hard landing with limited joint bending puts increased pressure on the bony anatomy which leads to injury and pain.
During power generation, the hip, knee, and ankle joints need to extend which requires a quick and powerful action from the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and calf. A decrease in speed or power during this phase puts increased work load on the muscles and tendons leading to overuse injuries such as patellar tendonitis and achilles tendonitis.
Combining the phases of running and muscle actions during these phases we can summarize the needs for a running specific strengthening program.
- Running is an alternating single leg activity.
- Running requires shock absorption
- Running requires power generation
- Running requires hip, quadriceps, and calf strength
With these findings in mind and without further ado……
The 5 Essential Leg Strengthening Exercises for Runners
1. Bulgarian Split Squat (with jump)
Keys for maximum benefit:
- Start with your knee behind your toes, pointing forward
- Your pelvis (waistline) should be level at takeoff and landing
- To jump correctly “drive your hips forward” first before straightening your knee
- Press strongly off your forefoot to activate your calf muscles
- Land softly by flexion your hip and knee together with knee behind toes always.
2. Step up with band resistance (speed)
Keys for maximum benefit
- Start with your torso inclined forward, hinged at the hips, pelvis level, knee behind toes
- Quickly and powerfully drive your back leg straight forward and end with your knee up at 90 degrees
- Mimic the running stride with your hands so your opposite hand and knee move forward together
- Pause at the top of the movement for 2 seconds for hip, pelvis, and knee control training
- Return to the starting positions quickly by leading the motion with a hip hinge and torso lean forward.
3. Standing Fire Hydrant (hip activation)
Keys for maximum benefit
- With a resistance band around your knees stand on one leg with you knee and hip bent
- Keep your stance knee behind your toes
- Lean forward so that your trunk is almost parallel to the floor
- Lift you opposite leg backwards, outwards, and rotate your knee towards the ceiling
- Keep your abdominal muscles braced and voice rotating the pelvis
- This is an activation exercise so you should hold the position for 60 seconds
- Progress resistance as able with good form
4. Single leg Squat with Runner Pull (Speed, form)
Keys for maximum benefit
- Start in a single leg squat with hips back, torso forward, knee pointing over toes and behind toes
- Start the motion by driving your hips forward and driving your back leg straight forward quickly
- Pull the band simultaneously as your leg comes forward
- End the pull fully upright with quadriceps and gluteal muscles tight
- Return to starting position quickly using a hip hinge and torso lean forward
5. Squat jumps with band (speed descent)
Keys for maximum benefit
- Start in a double leg squat with resistance band around your knees
- Knees start and stay behind the toes, pointing straight, with a torso lean forward
- Powerfully thrust your hips forward while pressing outwards into the band and jump
- Land softly with a hip hinge by bending at the waist and knees
The single leg Romanian deadlift
Keys to maximum benefit
- Start holding a 10-20 lb kettle bell or weight in 1 hand and stand on the opposite leg
- Bend forward at the hips with a slight knee bend keeping your knee behind your toes
- Keep a straight spine with abdominal muscles braced
- Refrain from tilting at the pelvis
- Stick your straight out behind you flexing the gluteal muscles
- Avoid letting your knee cave in towards the opposite leg.
This is an excellent strengthening routine for the everyday runner and marathoner alike. It is specific to running and involves power, speed, and motor control. Use this routine 2-3 times per week. Train smarter, train harder, perform better!
Additional Resources and Information
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Kevin Vandi, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Dr. Vandi is the founder of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy — with his background in physical therapy, orthopedics, and biomechanics, he is a highly educated, compassionate specialist. Using state-of-the-art motion analysis technology and data-driven methodologies, Kevin has assisted a wide range of clients, from post-surgery patients to youth and professional athletes. When he isn’t busy working or reading research, he spends his time with his wife Chrissy and their five wonderful children, often enjoying the outdoors and staying committed to an active lifestyle.