A lot of runners believe that they have little need for strength and conditioning, they believe that lifting weights will hinder rather than help their running progression. Often you’ll see people training for marathons who avoid the weights room completely. This is understandable, having your legs ache after a heavy legs workout could prevent you from running the next day. Which means that you will have less miles under your belt when it comes to race day.
But when it comes to training for a race, it’s about quality rather than quantity. Okay, maybe it’s about quantity too! But the fact is that there are many leg exercises that can massively improve your running performance and help to reduce your risk of injury. Training with weights once or twice per week is a good compromise that will allow you enough time to get your miles in each week.
Many people avoid weight training because they are afraid of injuring themselves. They see people squatting and deadlifting heavy weights and are scared that if they were to do the exercise themselves they’d injure their back or knees. But weight lifting when performed properly, very rarely leads to injury. In fact, weight training is a lot safer than running! It has a much lower injury rate per 1,000 participants.
That doesn’t mean that running is dangerous, nor does it mean that weight lifting is risk-free. It just means that you should treat all forms of exercise with respect and that you should not be put off from lifting weights due to preconceptions of safety.
Most injuries can be split into either chronic or acute. An acute injury is one that usually happens due to an accident. Tripping over the pavement while running and fracturing an ankle is an acute injury. Chronic injuries are ones that are often caused by poor posture, poor technique, or muscle imbalances.
While you can’t avoid accidents, you can improve how your body reacts to them. A young, fit and healthy footballer will probably survive a fall better than a 90 year old who hasn’t exercised in decades. Strength training can reduce injury risk by strengthening muscle, strengthening bone, and improving joint health. Certain exercises can help to improve posture, and improve muscle flexibility.
One of the most common injuries in running is a hamstring strain or tear. This often occurs due to one (or a combination) of three causes:
1) Bad running technique
2) tight and inflexible hamstrings
3) poor posture.
Performing certain leg exercises can improve your hamstring flexibility, improve your posture, and therefore improve your running technique – which can therefore reduce injury risk.
Running is mostly a lower body exercise, it works the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps. It also works the muscles of your core and lower back (abdominals, obliques, erector spinae). Strengthening these muscles, improving their flexibility and power, and improving the way they integrate with each other will help to improve your running performance.
Stronger glutes and hamstrings will help to increase power, stronger muscles in the lower back and core will help you to “run tall” with improved posture. Stronger calf muscles will help you to run better across uneven terrain or up hills. Reduced injury risk (as mentioned above) will allow you to run more often and at a higher intensity.
Exercises such as deadlifts, squats, lunges, and resistance machines (leg press, extension, curl etc) also have another benefit. They can help you to burn calories and improve body composition, when they are combined with a calorie controlled diet (i.e. eat less and burn more calories for reduced body fat). Carrying less body fat can massively improve your running performance, and reduce injury risk.
Top 5 Leg Exercises for Improved Running Performance
The following leg exercises are all fantastic in their own right, and should be part of any training program. But they are particularly effective for people looking to improve their strength, power, and flexibility so as to improve their running performance. When performing these exercises make sure that your technique is excellent, that you are using an appropriate weight, and that you are sufficiently warmed up.
Exercise #1 Squats
This entry was going to be a bit more specific – the barbell back squat. But the truth is that there are many squat variations out there and they can all help runners. If you are starting out learning how to perform a bodyweight squat is going to really help improve your lower back, glute, and hamstring strength. Then you can upgrade it to a goblet squat, barbell back squat, sumo squat, hack squat, or any of the other variations out there.
Everyone should be squatting more, and this exercise is incredibly versatile. When squatting you should always be wearing flat shoes (no heel), ensure that your heels are touching the ground (if they aren’t then either your technique needs work or you’re using too much weight), and that you have a straight back.
Exercise #2 Romanian Deadlifts
The Romanian deadlift is one of the best hamstring exercises out there and is very good at improving your flexibility as well as developing very strong hamstrings. This will help improve your power generation and reduce injury risk. You can either use a barbell or a pair of dumbbells, the exercise is the same either way. Make sure that you bend at the hip and keep your back straight throughout, only go as far as your hamstrings allow you to – don’t try and push them further.
Exercise #3 Nordic Curls
This is another hamstring dominant exercise that also works the glutes, all you need equipment-wise is something to place your feet under while performing the exercise (the pad from a leg press machine is often the perfect choice). Alternatively you can get someone to hold your ankles down for you (as you can see in the video).
Exercise #4 Walking Lunges
The lunge is a fantastic exercise for the quadriceps and glutes, they also help to improve posture, balance, and coordination. All of these factors are important for improving your running performance. You can perform bodyweight lunges for high reps, or lower the rep count and increase the load by holding a dumbbell or resting a barbell on your shoulders.
Exercise #5 Box Jumps
The last exercise on this list is the box jump which is a plyometric movement. Plyometrics (also known as jump training) is often used in sports to improve explosive power, it’s very popular with sprinters who require huge amounts of power during a race – but even long distance runners can benefit from improved power generation during a race.
Box jumps are an advanced exercise – as are all plyometric movements. So please ensure that 1) you are performing them correctly, and 2) you have at least a year’s training experience under your belt before attempting them. The following video from Eric Bach demonstrates the perfect box jump technique.
The five exercises mentioned above will help contribute to faster running times, improved running economy, reduced risk of injury, and better running technique/posture. This will help prolong your running career and help you perform better in races, or just help you enjoy your daily run around the park more.