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Leg days in the gym are important for everyone. Our legs carry us around, so we need them to be strong and sturdy. Strong legs help us move more efficiently and faster, and they prevent injury.
For runners, the importance of strong legs is even greater. Resist the urge to skimp in the weight room and simply run more. The best runners put in the miles but also spend time in the gym, strength training every week.
Yes, running itself strengthens leg muscles, but it isn’t enough. There are a few very important reasons for runners to take the time to add leg days to their cross-training:
Running involves a lot of muscle groups, from your feet through your core. Even your upper body puts some effort in, but what truly carries you in a run is your legs. If you spend some time strengthening your leg muscles, you will see the benefits in your speed and pace. This is especially true if you run shorter distances. Strong muscles provide an explosive start for sprinting.
Try these targeted workouts designed to improve your running speed.
Stronger leg muscles also improve endurance. The stronger your legs, the longer you can run. One study of runners compared their performances before and after starting a strength training routine three days a week. They had previously done no strength training.
All of the runners saw improvements in endurance in their running. They did not have any significant increases in weight. There is a myth that strength training always bulks the body. Distance runners need to stay lean, and this unfounded myth has kept many out of the weight room.
If you have been a runner for any amount of time, you know how common injuries are. Many runners get sidelined by knee pain, hip pain, hamstring issues, IT band problems, shin splints, and other injuries. Increasing mileage too quickly is a big reason runners get hurt, but it’s not the only one.
Poor form and weak muscles also contribute to injuries. One way to prevent these two problems from taking you out of running with an injury is to strength train. Stronger muscles are better able to absorb the force of the foot hitting the ground, protecting joints and muscles.
Weak muscles compromise form. When your muscles are weak, every stride you take is inconsistent. How your foot hits the ground, how your hips hinge, how your knees wobble, all vary. Stronger muscles lead to more consistent, safer form.
Don’t forget your core on gym day. Runners need a strong core to stay upright and stable. Here’s how to build a core strength program just for runners.
Add a leg workout to your regular routine as a runner for all the above reasons. It’s important to be consistent and to hit all muscle groups. A muscle imbalance, when one muscle or group is stronger than another, can cause just as much trouble as weak muscles all over.
Run through this list of the best leg exercises for runners, starting with low rep numbers if new to strength training. One set of each move is adequate, but you can always increase both reps and sets to progress or based on how much time you have to work out. You can also start with body weight and add weights to these moves as your leg muscle gets stronger.
Big, compound moves like lunges will hit several muscles at once. Compound exercises allow you to be efficient in the gym and focus on more functional movements as compared to isolating muscles. Forward lunges work the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
Side lunges do the same but also help you target the smaller glute muscles, especially the gluteus medius. This is especially important for runners because a strong gluteus medius stabilizes the hips and knees, preventing injury and pain.
When doing lunges, focus on keeping your back and chest upright. Don’t let your knees track out over your toes. For the side lunge, put your weight into your heel as you push your hips back. Sink into the hip and focus on activating the glutes as you stand again.
Another essential compound movement is the squat. More than perhaps any other exercise, a squat hits a lot of lower body muscles, including the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and even the calves to some extent. When doing squats, shift the hips back, as if sitting down in a chair, and watch your knees. Don’t let them go over the toes. Keep your chest and back upright. Squeeze the glutes as you stand.
A pistol squat, or single-leg squat, targets the same muscles more intensely by putting all your weight on one leg. They also force you to work on balance. If you haven’t done these before, start in front of a bench, so you can sit rather than fall if necessary. Start with a small range of motion. As you build strength and balance, sink more deeply into each squat.
A useful variation on the squat is the sumo squat. They work the adductors on the outside of the legs and hips. Strengthening these muscles will improve your hip alignment and form. To do a sumo squat, perform a standard squat with your legs farther apart and the toes turned out.
As with lunges and squats, this move will strengthen your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Split squats also work the calves and improve balance. To do a split squat, rest the toes of the back foot on a box or bench. The front foot should be a couple of feet in front. Drop your hips down, keeping your chest and back upright. The front knee will bend like in a lunge, while the back knee drops toward the ground.
Single leg exercises can be beneficial if the client has an imbalance between opposing sides of their body. This leg exercise is a great move for targeting the hamstrings. It will also strengthen your core, including the lower back, and the glutes. Keep your back long and straight as you hinge at the hips for this move. Focus on using the hamstring to lift your upper body back to standing. Add weights to your hands to progress.
Don’t forget your lower legs. Many people neglect their calves, but they play a role in propelling you up and forward as you run. This move will work your calves and also strengthen your feet and ankles. Stand on your toes on a low step. Raise your heels up and then drop them down below the step for the eccentric move. Make sure you have something to hold onto for balance if you need it.
Aim for two workouts per week focused on legs. If you can add in glutes and core along with legs, that’s great. Just make sure you put enough time, about 30 minutes, into leg-focused exercises. One workout per week is better than nothing, but two to three will get you much better results. Any more than that is not necessary and may cut into your valuable running time.
Strength training is important for everyone. If you are a runner, or have running clients, and are hesitant to put on too much muscle bulk, rest assured this won’t happen. Maintain a healthy diet, strengthen the legs a couple of times a week, and you’ll only see improvements in your running and fewer injuries.
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Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. (2016). Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 30(8), 2361-2368. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001316
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