Firstly, a disclaimer. The ‘best’ of anything is always contextual. A strength programme needs to consider training status, age, injury history, physical limitations to performance and many, many other things. However, to provide some sort of structure for runners also has value, and therefore this list is designed to be an overview of the most impactful exercises that might form a general strength training programme. Notice that it is not ‘specific’ in the sense of relevance for any one individual (we would need to understand your individual capabilities to provide that), but these will provide a runner with robustness in tissues and structures that face the biggest demand during running performance.
Let’s start with what ‘demand’ really means. In my article Strength Training for Runners I provided some insights into the demand vs capacity concept, and its relevance to injury in runners. What we mean here is that the stresses applied to the body during running place a demand on its tissues and structures, whilst our physical capabilities provide the ‘supply’ to meet this demand. With this in mind, it is super important to ensure that we have the necessary physical attributes to meet the demands placed on our body to minimize injury risk and keep us running strong.
The demands are the forces experienced by our tissues, and we can define the stress that this creates as force divided by the cross-sectional area over which it is applied. In other words, the greater the force over a small area (e.g. the ankle joint), the greater the stress that we experience. Some joints experience more stress than others, and it becomes vital to provide these structures with the necessary capabilities to meet the demands experienced during running.
The most common injuries in runners are: ankle sprains, patellofemoral stress syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and hamstring injuries. We also know that 80% of these are chronic in nature, meaning that they occur over prolonged exposure to load, rather than acute trauma. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but it provides some useful insights once more.
With these things in mind, devising a programme to support these structures and offset injury risk becomes the ‘specific’ component to the strength training programme of a runner. With all these considerations in mind, here are 10 strength exercises that may provide the best return on investment as a runner.
Please always seek medical clearance before attempting any physical training programme.
1. Single Leg Drop Landing
Being able to stabilize quickly on contact with the ground (i.e. having stiff structures) enables less energy loss and a more efficient running action. It is very difficult to replicate the forces experienced in the body during running, with forces reaching up to 8 times bodyweight at the soleus, but we can get closer to it to help increase our supply to mitigate demand. Aim to stabilize as quickly as possible on each repetition, completing 3 sets of 5-8 repetitions on each leg. Please use a small step when completing this exercise.
2. Single Leg Squat
The quadriceps produce around 4-6 times bodyweight during stance in running, and this becomes more demanding during downhill running. Squatting on one leg can be helpful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it means we can add more relative load to it. Alex Natera and colleagues (2015) completed segmental analysis and found that we experience more total load on 1 leg with no additional load, compared with 2 legs with an additional bodyweight load!
To put this into context, that means that a 70kg runner will experience more load if they single leg squat with just their own bodyweight, than if they back squatted on two legs with an additional 70kg on the bar. This also helps when access to a gym is limited, and when we have to complete strength exercises when travelling or at home. This becomes even more impactful when we begin adding external load to the movement.
Some progressions are outlined below, but aim to complete 4-5 sets of 5-8 repetitions per leg.
3. High Box Step Ups
The adductor magnus, quadriceps and glutes can be trained simultaneously using this effective strength exercise. All of these are major force producers of the lower body, and have high demands placed on them during running. This exercise is also effective at training load through positions of deep hip flexion, which can support a holistic programme aiming to develop appropriate ranges of motion for overall health and performance.
4. Single Leg RDL
The hamstring is a common injury area, and therefore needs to be trained effectively to mitigate risk. The single leg RDL is a great ‘bang for your buck’ exercise as it provides a stimulus for many different qualities necessary to running performance. It loads the hamstring eccentrically in stance position, provides a proprioceptive stimulus for the ankle joint meaning it needs to stabilize under load, and it also provides a stimulus for the glute med in stance position, a major force producer which resists hip internal rotation on contact with the ground.5. Hip Thrusts
The glutes act as a major force producer in the body, whilst providing propulsion through hip extension. Owing to the mechanics of the hip, it has an advantage over other muscles and so acts as the main force producer at the hip and contributes 1.5-2.8 times bodyweight of force during running.
The glute max is best trained in positions of hip extension, with an emphasis on maximal tension at the point of greatest stretch (i.e. the top position of a hip thrust). This is supported by EMG studies in the area. Aim to complete 3-4 sets of 5-8 repetitions, adding additional load if appropriate. Resistance bands can be a fantastic way to overload the top portion of the movement where tension is highest on the glutes.
For groin health and injury prevention, the Copenhagen exercise is an excellent option owing to its scalability from basic to more complex and low to high load. This can be completed at home, on the road, or from a hotel room and only requires a chair or bench. Aim to complete 3-4 sets of 30-45 seconds per side.
7. Straight Leg Calf Raise
The calf (gastrocnemius) contributes significantly to running propulsion, as well as resisting excessive deformation during impact with the ground. It has a high force potential and is slow twitch by design, and therefore needs plenty of volume, delivered through plantar flexion with a straight leg.
A straight leg calf raise is a great exercise to develop robustness in these tissues, aiming to complete 3-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions at a time. Ideally this is on a single leg, however this can be built up over time from a double leg calf raise. As a useful extension of this, please see below for normative values for max single leg calf raises for healthy demographics outlined by Herbert-Losier et al (2017), which should be attempted using a 60pm metronome to standardize tempo (1 second up, 1 second down).8. Seated Calf Raise
The soleus is a major force producer in the lower leg, producing up to 8 times bodyweight of force during stance. I have gone into more detail here in my article Training the Soleus to Run Faster. The main considerations are training the soleus in positions of knee flexion to maximise its contribution to plantar flexion, and its need for volume owing to a high slow twitch fibre type predominantly.
A seated calf raise is an excellent option here, with loading parameters typically looking like 3-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions.
9. Banded Eversions
One of the most common injuries in runners is ankle ligament sprains, which is typically caused by an inversion (rolling) mechanism. The peroneals (evertors) act as resistors to this action, which can be very important in mitigating ankle injury risk. Aim to complete 3-4 sets of 20 repetitions on each leg.
10. Trunk Variations
The trunk contributes to prevent extension, lateral flexion and rotation during running. It also plays a vital role in spinal stiffening to maintain effective postures, whilst minimizing energy loss. Leg lowers are a great way to develop capacity of the anterior trunk, with a high volume and frequency required to stimulate this muscle group. Aim to complete a circuit of variations with a target of 150-250 reps per circuit. Good options include: plank variations, leg lowers variations, side plank variations, walkouts, rollouts and isometric holds.
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