Becoming a better runner requires more than just increasing your mileage every week. Building core stability, increasing whole body strength, and improving your running form are all things you should focus on if you’re going to get faster while staying injury free.
The average runner often neglects strength training in favor of tackling more mileage, and this is a mistake. You don’t have to spend countless hours every week lifting weights or putting on a massive amount of muscle, but you should include at least two days of whole body strength training that compliments your specific running goals.
Strength training will allow you to develop greater force output capabilities, higher levels of power production, and ultimately prevent injury.
Here are 10 of my favorite strength training exercises for runners. This is by no means an exhaustive list, these are just some good ones to get you started.
1. Ipsilateral Dead Bug
I have included this exercise in my workouts for the last several weeks, and it’s helped relieve nagging low back pain I’ve had for the last few months. I prefer the ipsilateral (same side), straight limb version simply because it feels better. There are a variety of Dead Bug exercises, so experiment with different ones to figure out what works best for you.
The Dead Bug exercise looks deceptively easy, but it’s actually a challenging core movement if performed correctly. I highly recommend that if you’re a runner, you include several core stability movements in your training plan.
HOW TO: For the Ipsilateral Dead Bug, position yourself on your back with both arms and legs straight up in the air. Rotate your arms so your palms are facing one another. Take a deep breath, gently press your low back into the floor, and on the exhale slowly lower your right arm back behind you, and your right leg down to the floor. Pause for 2 seconds in the bottom position just an inch above the floor, inhale, and return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.
2. Half-Kneeling Row with Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press
I like any exercise that puts you in a half-kneeling position because of the challenge it presents to the core. Now, add a simultaneous cable row to work the Lats, and a bottoms up Kettlebell press to challenge the shoulder and grip unilaterally, and I’m in love! I tend to stay away from fancy exercises with too much going on, but this one captured my heart.
The half-kneeling cable row with bottoms up kettlebell press works your posterior oblique sling (a cross body pattern comprised of the gluteus maximus, thoracolumbar fascia, and contralateral latissimus dorsi, which connects the shoulder with the opposite hip to facilitate locomotion). Training this area of the body will allow you to become a faster, stronger, and all around more efficient runner.
Because of the complexity and coordination involved, it’s important to use light weight and focus on maintaining proper form throughout. After performing several sets, you’ll get the hang of it and will be able to increase your weight on both the cable row and the bottoms up kettlebell press. Although you may find that one side is stronger than the other, so be mindful of a failing grip- otherwise you could end up with a kettlebell to the dome.
HOW TO: Assume a half-kneeling position facing a cable system. Hold the cable handle on the same side as the kneeling leg, gently pressing your hips forward without arching your low back and squeezing your glute. Pick up the kettlebell in your other hand, and hold it next your head ‘bottoms up.’ Go into a cable row, maintain good core stability and keeping the glute of your trailing leg tight. Keeping your head and chest up, pause the row, and press the kettlebell up, making sure it stays close to your head and that your arm aligns with your ear. Slowly lower the kettlebell, and then return the cable row to the starting position. Repeat for several reps, then switch sides.
The dead hang, overhand grip Pull-up is the quintessential bad ass of all exercises. It’s a whole body movement that everyone should learn to perform safely and effectively. For runners, having a strong and stable core is paramount for speed, stamina and longevity in the sport. If you are currently unable to do an unassisted pull-up, practice with negative reps, bands and different grip positions.
HOW TO: I teach the pull-up with legs extended, together, and positioned slightly forward. Think of a male gymnast on the rings in the iron cross position. Their legs are straight, together and positioned out in front of their body. This adds a nice challenge to the abdominals, while avoiding arching in the low back. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width, and go into a dead hang. Bring your legs together, and maintain tension through your whole body, as you pull yourself up, leading with your chest. Think about pushing your elbows down to the floor. Pause at the top with your chin over the bar, and slowly lower yourself back to the starting position. Tip: The pull-up requires a significant amount of whole body strength, and mobility in your wrists, shoulders and thoracic spine, and consistency is definitely key if you’re going to master this one.
4. Inverted Barbell Row
This exercise is a great alternative to the pull-up, and it is so important for developing back, arm and core strength.
HOW TO: Place a barbell at a low position on a squat rack, and sit on the floor with the barbell directly over your chest (you may need to move around under the bar to get this just right). Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width, and lift yourself up into a hip bridge position with knees bent, or legs straight out in front of you. Keep your glutes tight, and chest and hips lifted as you pull yourself up to the bar, leading with your chest. Pause for a second to demonstrate you have control, then slowly lower yourself to the starting position. If you find at some point that you do not have good body control, lift the bar up higher to make this exercise easier. Lower it to make it more challenging.
5. Cable Face Pull
Since the upper body helps transfer energy down to the lower body which transfers energy into the ground while running, it’s important to have a strong upper back. If you’ve been struggling to hit a PR in a specific distance, consider the fact that your upper body posture may be the problem. While most runners will simply run more in an effort to get faster, it’s a better idea to step back, assess posture, and find ways to fix energy leaks.
If you have a tendency to let your chest fall and your shoulders round forward as you fatigue at the end of a race or a training run, you need to incorporate more strength work. Keep in mind that if you sit at a desk all day, you’re likely in a flexed forward posture that is putting you at a disadvantage, so including several upper back strengthening exercises is important for the entire population.
HOW TO: I prefer doing the cable face pull with the double handle grip. It feels better on my shoulders, and I can feel my trapezius and rear deltoids doing all the work. Position yourself in front of a cable system, and grab the handles in an overhand grip position. Stand tall with feet shoulder width apart, activate your quads and glutes, and keep your chest up without arching through your low back. Pull the handles toward your face allowing your elbows to move up and back, pause, return the cable slowly to the starting position.
6. Ketttlebell Goblet Lateral Lunge with Pulse
We walk, run, lunge and squat in the Sagittal plane. Our brain knows how to function fairly well when we perform familiar movements. Switch to a frontal plane movement and now the brain has to work harder. The exercise might feel awkward at first because you haven’t yet developed the strength and coordination to perform it comfortably. With practice, it will get easier.
The KB Goblet Lateral Lunge works the glutes, quads and hamstrings while helping improve mobility in the hips and giving you the opportunity to train in the frontal plane. When adding the ‘pulse,’ which is simply pushing the kettlebell out in front of you, you’re going to light the muscles of the core on FIRE. That’s always a good thing.
Training in the frontal plane helps prevent the likelihood of getting injured by allowing you to become more familiar with moving side to side. If you’re a trail runner, you’re going to be dealing with unpredictable terrain that will cause you to have to move in unexpected ways. You want to be ready to react quickly and efficiently without having to think too much. If you haven’t spent any time training outside of the sagittal plane, being able to safely navigate unexpected things on a trail (or in real life) is going to be next to impossible. You’ll have to hit the brakes in order to accommodate this lack of preparation. Instead of living with this restriction, train in all planes of motion so you’re ready for anything.
HOW TO: Assume a wide stance position while holding a kettlebell in both hands. Shift your weight to one side, letting your hips move back as you go as low as you can. Pause for a second in the bottom part of the rep while bracing your core and keeping your chest and head up. Push the kettlebell out in front of you, bring it back slowly, and then return to the starting position. You can stay on one leg for a set, or alternate legs. Tip: This is a challenging exercise that can put a lot of stress on the knees. If it’s too difficult to perform while holding the kettlebell, just use bodyweight and push your hands forward as you would if you were holding a kettlebell.
7. Lateral Box Jumps
Jumping in the frontal plane helps develop whole body strength and power. It also improves balance and agility, two important skills a runner should have. If you’re an avid trail runner, you know you will be maneuvering around rocks, roots and through the mud. Preparing your brain and body for anything and everything is key. Include at least one plyometric exercise in your weekly routine, specifically one that takes you out of the sagittal plane.
8. Landmine Single Leg RDL
The Landmine Single Leg Deadlift is an awesome exercise that provides slightly more stability than the dumbbell version, which allows you to stress less about balance and focus more on loading the bar heavier, which will ultimately allow you to get stronger.
It’s important to master the bilateral hip hinge (regular deadlift) before progressing to any single leg variation. Balance is generally the weakest link for most people, so this one will take some practice. Each time we take a step, we’re temporarily balancing on one leg. It only makes sense to include more single leg work in your program if you’re a runner. You’ll be able to improve strength and speed, balance out asymmetries and help prevent injuries when you do so.
HOW TO: Stand perpendicular to a barbell set up in the landmine position. Pick up the very end of the barbell with the hand that is closest to it. For example, if the barbell is on your right side, pick it up with your right hand. Stabilize on your left leg, keeping your knee ‘soft’, extend your right leg back, and go into a single leg hip hinge. Think about rotating your right foot down and into your midline to maintain a squared hip position.
Don’t allow your hips to flare up at any point. Keep a neutral spine, lower the bar slowly, then stand tall with chest and head up. If you can keep your right foot from touching the floor, go for it. This will further challenge your balance. If you’re not yet able to do that, briefly touch your foot down to stabilize before going in to your next repetition. Start light, and progressively load the barbell as you become more confident with this exercise.
9. Single Leg Hip Thrust off bench
Sticking with the single leg theme, next up is the Single Leg Hip Thrust off the bench. Much to our clients’ dismay, this one gets programmed regularly! It’s a unilateral movement that prioritizes the weaker side. It’s easy to cheat on this one, so it’s important to shift your weight to the leg with the foot planted on the floor and avoid trying to generate momentum in the bent leg.
10. Barbell Hip Thrust
Developing strong glutes is important for runners. Not only will a powerful posterior chain help you become faster, you’ll also have less of a chance of getting injured. The barbell hip thrust is a great exercise for targeting the glutes, and it’s easy to execute. Make sure you have a pad on the bar to protect your hips.
Before adding more miles, consider including one or two days in the weight room to build strength. Lifting weights, following a sound nutrition plan, and giving your body adequate time to recover will allow you to continue running for the rest of your life. If you need help designing a strength training plan, send us an email and we’ll get you set up!