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Strength Training for Runners

By Owen Anderson Ph.D. - Running Research News
and Walt Reynolds - certified strength and conditioning specialist


Strength training for running can improve power, reduce risk of injury and increase your speed. Check out this program designed especially for runners. We've put together the 10 best strengthening exercises in a program that will specifically enhance your running performance. They can be done in a gym or at home. For two of these exercises, you'll need a piece of resistive tubing, available from pharmacies with extensive home-therapy sections or from companies that sell sports-medicine products

You should be able to complete all 10 exercises in 20 to 25 minutes or less.

For maximum benefit, do them before you run. These exercises will not tire you so much that you can't run well afterward. In fact, they may "wake up" your muscular and nervous systems and lead to higher-quality training.

If you practice these 10 exercises faithfully, within a few weeks you'll notice improved coordination during running and more explosive push-offs whenever your feet strike the ground. As your muscles become more powerful, risk of injury should decrease, and your running speed will improve significantly. Best of all, you'll have some PRs to show for your efforts.

1. Hip Hikers

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Buttocks and muscles that control the hip joint

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The buttocks and hip muscles control and stabilize the pelvis and hip joint during the touchdown and takeoff phases of the running stride. Hip hikers strengthen these muscles and ultimately prevent unnecessary hip motion, improving your running economy.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Stand sideways on a step or low bench with your weight on your left leg and your right leg unsupported over the edge of the step. Keep both knees locked so that your legs are perfectly straight throughout the exercise. Lower your right heel toward the floor by tilting your right hip down. Don't bend your left leg at the knee! Then raise or "hike" your right hip as high as it will go. Lower and raise the right hip 12 times before switching to the left hip. Perform two sets with each hip twice weekly, on nonconsecutive days.

2. Resisted Leg Swing

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Hamstrings

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The hamstrings stabilize the hip and knee joints when the foot is in contact with the ground, provide propulsive force during push-off and control the forward swing of the leg as the knee drives forward. Resisted leg swings will strengthen the hamstrings.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Anchor one end of a piece of resistive tubing to an immovable object. For best results, the attachment point of the tubing should be at hip height. Place the other end of the tubing around your left ankle and stand about 4 feet from the attachment point (facing it) so that the tubing is stretched. Shift all of your body weight to the right leg and stand on your right foot only. Raise your left thigh so that it is parallel to the floor.
While keeping your left knee flexed, move your left leg through what feels like a normal running motion for a set of 10 repetitions. Your left foot should not touch the floor at any point during the cycle, and you should maintain full weight on the right foot. Perform two sets per leg, two days each week on nonconsecutive days.

3. Toe Presses

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Muscles of the calf and Achilles tendon

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The calf muscles absorb shock during footstrike and stabilize both the ankle and knee during the ground-contact phase of running. The calf muscles and Achilles tendon also help to rock the foot forward just prior to toe-off. Toe presses build up this whole area of the leg.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Stand on a step or low bench with your weight on the ball of your right foot and your right heel hanging down below the edge of the step. Your left leg should be bent and unsupported. Hold onto a handrail or wall to maintain balance, and rise up on the toes of your right foot as high as you can, keeping the right leg straight. Then lower your right heel below the level of the step until you feel a stretch in your right calf. Repeat the exercise 15 times before switching to the left leg. Do two sets of toe presses per leg, three days a week on nonconsecutive days.

4. Toe Pulls

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Muscles of the feet and toes

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The muscles of the feet and toes maintain the strength and resiliency of the arch and provide a strong base of support during the ground-contact phase of running. Doing toe pulls regularly should lower the risk of plantar fasciitis and decrease your ground-contact time during footstrike, boosting your stride rate.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Stand barefoot or in socks with your feet about 2 inches apart. Shift your weight slightly onto your left foot while flexing the toes of your left foot upward and pulling the toes of your right foot downward and back. Your right foot should slide forward 1 to 2 inches as you pull strongly with your right toes. Next, shift your weight slightly to your right foot, and flex your right toes upward while pulling down with your left toes, causing your left foot to creep forward. Starting slowly and gradually increasing the tempo of movement, repeat this right-left cycle until each foot has pulled you forward 30 times. Complete two sets of toe pulls, three times a week on nonconsecutive days.

5. Bench Sit-Ups

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Buttocks and hamstrings

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The buttocks muscles and hamstrings stabilize the hip and knee joints and help to propel the body forward during running. Performing bench step-ups intensifies this propulsive action.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Begin from a standing position on top of a bench of about knee height, with full body weight on the left foot and weight shifted toward the heel. Let your right foot hang freely, slightly behind your body. Lower your body in a controlled manner until the toes of the right foot touch the ground, maintaining all of your weight on your left foot at all times. Return to the starting position by driving downward with the left heel and straightening the left leg. Maintain an upright posture throughout this exercise, and keep your hands at your sides. Repeat 10 times before switching to the right leg.

Do three sets with each leg twice a week on nonconsecutive days.

6. One-Leg Squats

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Quadriceps muscles, or "quads"

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The quads stabilize the knees, help to swing the leg forward during running and are especially active during hill running.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Stand with your right foot forward and your left foot back, with your feet one shin-length apart from front to back and hip-width apart from side to side. Place the toes of the left foot on a block or step that is 6 to 8 inches high, and keep most of your weight on the heel of the right foot. Bend the right leg, and lower your body until the right knee makes an angle of 90 degrees between the thigh and lower leg. Return to the starting position, keeping your trunk upright and your hands at your sides. Repeat the exercise 10 times before switching to your left leg. Complete three sets on each leg twice weekly on nonconsecutive days. Compared to traditional two-leg squats, this exercise is much better for runners because only one leg is weight-bearing at any one timethe same as during running.

7. One-Leg Hops

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Muscles of the hip, thigh, lower part of the leg and foot

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: These muscles stabilize the body and push it forward during running. Performing one-leg hops will make you a more explosive runner and increase your stride length.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Start from the same position used for one-leg squats, with the toes of the left foot supported on a 6- to 8-inch block or step. Hop rapidly on the right foot at a rate of 2 to 3 hops per second (25 to 30 foot contacts every 10 seconds). Force the right foot to strike the ground in the midfoot region and then spring upward rapidlyas though your foot were touching a red-hot stove. The right knee should rise 4 to 6 inches as the left leg and foot remain stationary throughout the exercise, and your hips remain level and virtually motionless, with very little vertical displacement. The motion should come from your right leg. Perform 30 hops on the right leg before switching to the left. Begin with one set of hops on each leg twice a week on nonconsecutive days. After three weeks, increase to two sets per leg.

8. Abdominal Stabilizers

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Abdominal and oblique trunk muscles

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The abdominal muscles stabilize the trunk during running. Abdominal stabilizers will eliminate energy-wasteful movements of the upper body and may reduce the incidence of side stitches.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Sit on a bench or chair with your legs extended in front of you and your knees slightly bent. Recline your upper body from the hips about 45 degrees, keeping your chest up and your shoulders back. Raise your right arm to an overhead position while lowering your left arm, and alternate back and forth until each arm has been raised 30 times. Maintain a rigid position with your upper torso and legs at all times. Only your arms should move during this exercise. Do three sets two times a week on nonconsecutive days.

9. Glute-Lumbar Stabilizers

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Lower-back and buttocks muscles

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The lower-back and buttocks muscles maintain proper trunk position during running, prevent excessive forward lean and limit unnecessary rocking movements of the trunk. Glute-lumbar stabilizers will strengthen these key muscles and make you a more efficient runner.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Lie face down on a bench, padded table or bed. Extend your legs straight behind you and position yourself so your hip bones are at the edge of the table and your upper body extends beyond the table. Brace your feet under an immovable object or ask someone to hold your ankles while you do this exercise. With your upper body extending straight out beyond the table, raise your right arm while lowering your left arm. Alternate back and forth until you've raised each arm 30 times while keeping your legs and upper body in a rigid position. Do three sets of glute-lumbar stabilizers two to three times a week on nonconsecutive days.

10. Resisted Ankle Pulls

MUSCLES EXERCISED: Shin muscles (front of the lower leg)

IMPORTANCE TO RUNNERS: The shin muscles stabilize the lower leg, ankle and foot during both the swing and ground-contact phases of the running stride. Strengthening these muscles with resisted ankle pulls will produce a more powerful toe-off. It should also minimize the occurrence of shinsplints and decrease the risk of stress fractures in the lower part of the leg.

TO DO THE EXERCISE: Anchor one end of a piece of resistive tubing to an immovable object, and attach the other end to your left foot just above the toes. Sit with your left leg extended in front of you (on a line with the tubing) and your left foot about 4 feet away from the attachment point of the tubing. The tubing should be stretched at all times during the exercise.

Alternately flex and extend your left ankle 20 times while keeping your left leg straight. Repeat the exercise with your right leg. Do three sets of ankle pulls for each leg, three to four times a week on nonconsecutive days.

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