When runners hear the words “strength training,” they usually shrug it off, imagining lifting weights to build muscle, and they then return to their usual stretch routines.
Stretching has long since been proven to have little benefit for runners. The reality is, strength training—that is running-specific exercises—can greatly benefit endurance training, improving form, helping to prevent injury, and allowing runners to handle the fatigue of distance running with greater resilience.
There are far too many running-specific strengthening exercises to cover in one blog, but let’s focus on four essentials:
Planks (two to three sets): You’ve probably heard this push-up sounding exercise mentioned quite a bit. That’s because it’s widely considered one of the best exercises for your core. Planks target your abs, as well as engage your back, quads, and hamstrings—an ideal exercise for runners. Start in the raised position of a push-up, palms on the floor directly under shoulders. Your legs should be extended behind you in straight line from head to heels. You’ll want to hold this for 10 to 30 seconds, remembering to keep your abdominal muscles engaged.
Lunges: There are many variations on lunges; some are more beneficial for runners than others. Here’s one that helps build balance and hip strength without over-stressing your knees. Stand next to a wall or pole so you can help balance yourself if needed. Take a moderate step forward with your right leg, so that your knee is bent. Your left foot is flexed at the toes behind you—you’ll look like you were caught in mid-stride. To perform the exercise, smoothly lower your knee slightly in a “quarter squat,” and do 25 repetitions, focusing on your right hip for strength and balance. Repeat with your left leg.
Ankle rolls: Ankle strength is key for optimal injury-free running. Your ankles need to have both mobility and proper tendon support to function well. Ankles play a crucial role in running, both absorbing the shock from every step, and generating power with each step forward. Strong muscles around the ankle will help this action. To perform the exercise, lie on your back with your left foot flat on the ground, bent at the knee. Raise your right leg as close to a 90-degree angle as is comfortable. Rotate your foot clockwise in circles so that your toes are pointing up followed by your heel pointing up. Do 25 reps and then repeat counterclockwise. Switch legs and repeat the ankle rolls with the left foot. This exercise is also good for your Achilles.
Calf raises: You would think that running goes a long way to strengthen calves. But because of the way your foot is designed to collapse at the arch and then spring forward at the toe, running calls for a great deal of “eccentric” calf strength in this phase of the gait. (Eccentric contractions return the muscle to its starting point). To do the exercise, stand on a stair step holding the bannister and place your weight on your right leg. Allow your left toe to touch the ground just for balance if needed. Do 25-25 calf raises, focusing on the part when you are lowering your heel back down. This ensures that you are developing the “eccentric” contraction, so important for maintaining calf strength. Repeat the calf raise with the left leg. A word of caution: this exercise can tighten up your calves initially if you are new to it, so ease into the exercise.
All runners have their “weak links.” Ultimately, you should tailor your strength-specific exercises to address yours.