If you’ve been doing some research on how to become a faster runner, chances are you’ve come across a few articles that suggest strength training. While strength training is an essential element in any runners routine, it’s far too easy to get it wrong and risk injury.
Perfecting your form, doing the right exercises that correlates to improved performance, and doing so using the correct tools and weights can be a difficult field to navigate, especially for newcomers.
In addition, strength training doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hit the heavy weights at the gym. Strength training includes resistance band work, balance exercises, and body weight exercises. Below, I’ll go over some essentials in not only my routine as a semi-professional runner, but also essentials in many other runners’ routines, from the Boston qualifiers to the elite of the elite.
The 3 types of strength training every runner should do and my favorite exercises for each:
1. Resistance bands
Aside from the convenience in size and portability, resistance bands have multiple benefits and are considered a staple in many elite athletes’s routines, both before and after a run. The benefits include:
- Greater range of motion during each exercise, meaning more muscles are being worked and mobility is improved
- Forces you to engage your core and strengthen your stabilizers
- Engages smaller muscle groups otherwise ignored on weight machines
- If done right before a run, it’s an easy and effective way to engage and fire important muscles, which is essential for proper form, running economy, enhanced performance, and reduced risk of injury
So what resistance band exercises can you do to become a better runner? These are exercises that you can do directly prior to or after a run. Feel free to mix up the number of reps, sets, and band strength based on your current fitness level and routines.
Laying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the ground at your hips’ width apart (equal weight dispersed throughout each foot), with a resistance band looped around your legs just above the knee, engage your core and glutes and press your hips up.
Your torso should be in line with your quads, such that a dowel could be placed on your hips and touch your quads, core, and chest. Hold for three seconds, then press down and relax. Repeat three sets of 10 repetitions.
Make it hard: Once you’ve pressed up, extend one leg straight, keeping your foot dorsiflexed. Keep your core engaged and your pelvis parallel to the floor; don’t allow your hips to dip down or tilt to one side as you hold this position. Hold for three seconds, then relax down.
Make it harder: Extend your leg prior to pressing upward, keeping your foot dorsiflexed. Press up, keeping your extended leg straight and lifted with the rest of your body. This becomes effectively a one-legged glute bridge. Keep your core and glutes engaged, and hold for three seconds. Relax down.
- Remember to keep your hips tucked under; i.e., don’t arch your back. This puts a strain on your back and disallows your core from engaging, which is an important element in this exercise.
- Don’t allow your knees to collapse in or bow out as you press up and down.
- Keep tension in the resistance band. If there isn’t enough tension, use a band with a higher resistance.
- Exhale on your way up, inhale as you relax down.
Standing with a resistance band around your ankle where comfortable (the lower the band is on your legs, the more difficult the exercise), bend your knees at a 45 degree angle. Tilt your torso slightly forward but don’t hunch your back– keep your eyes and chest straight forward.
Take wide side steps, keeping your body straight and your knees forward. Do three sets of 12 steps on each side (12 steps to the right, 12 steps to the left).
Make it hard: Put the resistance band around your feet so the band is over your arches for internal hip strengthening and rotation.
Make it harder: With a resistance band already around your feet or ankles, add a resistance band around your knees.
- Keep your knees forward! Don’t let them buckle in or bow outward. We want to land with our knees straight and strong, and that comes from a strong core, glutes, and hips.
- Engage your core throughout the exercise to prevent arching your back, which can lead to back pain, and will not produce the intended benefits of the exercise.
- Don’t lift your leg up so high that your torso shifts position. You should be lifting your leg that is stepping to the side from your core. Watch yourself in the mirror when you do these: if the top of your head is moving up and down a lot (basically, if the steps are not smooth), you’re using the wrong muscles.
Loop a resistance band around your feet. Lie with your back flat on the ground with your arms raised, perpendicular to your body. Raise your legs and bend them at a 90 degree angle, such that your calves are parallel to the ground.
Bring one leg down (keeping it bent) touching your heel to the ground, and bring the opposite arm down to the ground simultaneously. Raise both arms and legs back to the start position simultaneously. That’s one rep. Do three sets of 12 reps (6 on each side).
Make it hard: Grab a longer resistance band and hold on to it with one hand while it’s looped around the opposite foot. Do the exercise as normal. Here, you will not alternate each rep– complete six (or more!) on one side, then repeat on the opposite side.
Make it harder: Holding a resistance band in one hand and looped around the opposite foot, do the exercise as normal, except as you lower the leg, straighten it out and lower it to the ground, keeping your foot dorsiflexed. Raise your arm and leg back up to the start position. Repeat six (or more!) reps on each side for three sets.
- Focus on keeping your whole back flat on the ground. If you no longer feel your lower back on the ground, stop and tuck in your hips and engage your core. An arched back means that you are using your back muscles in lieu of your core to perform the exercise.
- If you find it difficult to lower both your arm and leg at the same time, just keep your arms raised perpendicular to your body throughout the exercise. You can do this while holding the resistance band in your hands and looped around your foot, as well, for an added challenge.
- Exhale as you bring your limbs down, inhale on the way up.
2. Balance exercises
Running is basically one big balancing act— you’re only ever on one foot at a time. If your stabilizers aren’t strong enough, your form will probably be wonky, which can lead to aches and pains later.
Good balance equates to faster running— poor balance means you’re prone to braking, to prevent yourself from falling (and that’s what running is, controlled falling!). Here are three exercises you can do to improve your balance!
Single leg balance
Life one leg slightly off the ground, keeping your raised foot dorsiflexed and underneath you. Stand like this for 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite leg.
Make it hard: Close your eyes. That’s it! This will make the exercise much harder than anticipated.
Make it harder: Perform this exercise on the flat side of a bosu ball, a pillow, or any soft, unstable surface.
- Do all of these exercises barefoot! Even though you will be running with shoes on (although you might be a barefoot runner!), it’s important to strengthen your feet. A strong foot aids a strong landing.
- If you’re brand new to balance exercises, start with these ones. It’s important to ensure you can balance on one leg with ease before you progress to a more challenging exercise!
Single leg deadlifts
Holding a dowel or a broom against the length of your back, with one hand pressing against the back of your neck and the other hand pressing against your lower back, making sure the dowel is touching your entire back (to ensure your back is entirely straight, engaging your core), stand straight up with your two feet together.
Hinge your hips backward while lifting your right leg off the ground behind you, keeping your leg straight and your foot dorsiflexed. Hinge as far as you can go, or until your torso and lifted leg are parallel to the ground. Snap back to standing position. Repeat on the opposite side. Perform three sets of 10 reps.
Make it hard: If you feel confident in your ability to keep your back straight, lift your arms up next to your head, palms facing each other, while you perform the exercise. This will be like coming in and out of Warrior III.
Make it harder: Place a kettlebell in front of you. Hinge forward to pick it up, and then perform the exercise holding the kettlebell.
- Really focus on keeping your core activated and your glutes engaged throughout the entire exercise. You should feel this exercise throughout your entire body, but especially in those areas.
- Keep your hips in alignment! It will be easy to tilt your hips one way or the other. Do these exercises in front of a mirror to watch your form. You might also find it easier to keep your hips in alignment (i.e., not tilting outward from the lifted leg) by tracing your foot along the ground as you hinge forward. You’ll lift your leg once you cannot keep your foot on the ground without overextending your leg.
- Speaking of overextending your leg, don’t do it! If you look at yourself in the mirror when you’re fully hinged forward, and your leg is above your back, it’s overextended. Keep it parallel to the floor and aligned with your body.
Supported Pistol Squats
Holding on to TRX bands or any kind of band attached to a wall in front of you, stand on one leg. Squat down on the leg you’re standing on, keeping your lifted leg out straight in front of you. Go down as far as you can without your heel coming off of the ground. Press back up in a standing position. Do one set of 10 reps on each leg, then one set of 8 reps on each leg.
Make it hard: Lose the support! But be careful doing so— this is an exercise that can lead to injury if you’re not ready. Exercise good judgement and caution!
Make it harder: Stand on a soft surface, like a pillow or a folded yoga mat.
- Keep your extended leg straight and dorsiflexed as you go down into the squat. Ideally, at the bottom of the squat, your leg will be parallel with the ground.
- Watch yourself in the mirror while you perform this exercise, if you can. If not, have a partner watch you. Make sure your back doesn’t hunch when you’re down in the squat. To prevent this, keep your core engaged and imagine there is a dowel along you back— much like in the deadlifts. This will protect your lower back from bearing the load of the squat and strengthen the correct areas— your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core!
3. Body weight exercises
Strength training with only your body weight is a great place to start if you’re new to strength training. It’s also an effective way to get in a workout when you don’t have access to weights. However, the natural progression of these exercises if to include weights, as it’s important to continuously challenge the muscles so as to avoid overuse injuries and to get stronger, faster.
Body weight exercises (and especially balance exercises— see above!) and beyond are not only important in strengthening your muscles, but improving your overall control and body awareness. Each exercise below is one you can add weights to make it more challenging.
Plant your feet on the ground over your hips’ width apart and distribute your weight evenly across each foot. Keep your feet facing forward. Engage your core, tuck your hips underneath you, and squat all the way down, Pressing your knees outward over your feet as you go down and keeping your feet entirely on the ground. Press back up. Repeat three sets of 20 reps.
Make it hard: Perform these on the flat side of a bosu ball.
Make it harder: Make them jump squats (not on a bosu ball!). Once you hit the bottom of the squat, jump up as high as you can. As you land, go into the next squat— don’t land and then squat.
- Keep your back straight and your core engaged as you would in the single leg squat.
- If you’re holding a weight in front of you, like a kettlebell or a dumbbell, keep it as close to your body as possible. The farther away the weight is, the more stress will be on your back to lift yourself up from the squat.
- If you’ve done a few and your form is falling apart, stop and take a break. Don’t try and power through. It’s important that you have good form to get the best out of the exercise and to protect yourself from injury.
Standing tall with your feet at your hips’ width apart and your hips tucked underneath you, step your right leg forward and lunge down. Your forward leg should be bent at a 90 degree angle. Keep your torso upright. Lunge back up into standing position, and repeat on the opposite leg. Do three sets of 15 reps.
Make it hard: Do four-way lunges: Lunge forward, then lunge to the side, then do a backwards lunge, then a curtsy lunge (lunging behind you at a 45 degree angle. Repeat this entire sequence four times on each leg.
Make it harder: Turn them into alternating jumping lunges for some extra cardio. When you jump up from your lunge, land into a lunge on the opposite leg. Stay controlled— don’t relax on the way down!
- Keep your torso upright and perpendicular to the floor. You want to mimic how your posture should be when you run, and a bad posture doesn’t translate well to strong running!
- Focus on what your knees do throughout the lunging movements. Don’t let them bow outward or inward as you lunge down or come up.
Your Questions, Answered
Should I run before or after strength training? It depends on your goals. This article breaks it down properly: If you’re running to build your muscle, do your strength training session and then run. If you’re looking to build your endurance, run and then strength train. If you’re running simply for fitness, it truly doesn’t matter.
Why do runners need a strong core? Your core is like your spring system— it’s where your body will, ideally, hold and transfer the impact of each step. If you’ve ever watched an elite runner race with a crop top or with their core exposed, you’ll notice how their core stretches and expands when their driving their leg forward, then compresses down when they land, and then springs and stretches back up when they drive the opposite leg.
Your core muscles work in sync with your body to help propel you forward and to keep you strong and upright.
Notice how, in each and every exercise listed above, I note to keep your core engaged. While it’s important to incorporate core strengthening exercises into your routine, performing each exercise should also produce a great core workout as well.
I’ve had physical therapists tell and chiropractors tell me that running is the best core exercise you can do, and if you get your form correct and your core strong, you’ll see that difference!
- Nike Training Club App — A personal recommendation from someone who wasn’t able to stand up straight for a day after performing one of the core routines on this app (yep, that’s me).
- Yoga Studio: Mind and Body (not free, but not super expensive for what you get!)– Another personal recommendation, yoga is definitely not as relaxing as one would imagine. There is a lot of control, body awareness, balance, and coordination required to perform these moves, all while breathing easy and keeping your mind relaxed. Sounds a lot like what you need to become a great runner! This has hundreds of classes right at your fingertips, and a whole section dedicated to yoga for runners.
- Zombies, Run! — If you’re struggling to find motivation to get your run in, and you like playing games, this app is for you. It turns your running workouts into a zombie-apocalypse situation, where the goal is to run away from the zombies chasing after you. I personally have not tried it, but I’ve heard it’s fun!
What are some exercises that are staples in your routine? Favorite apps to get you motivated to run or lift weights? Send us a comment, and let us know if you tried any of the exercises or apps for yourself— we’d love to hear from you!
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Emma is a semi-professional runner for the Hoka One One Aggies, based out of beautiful San Luis Obispo, California. She is an NCAA DIII All-American, has made multiple top-10 all-time performance lists for track and field and cross country for her alma mater, Linfield College, and graduated with a degree in creative writing with honors. When she’s not running, working, or in physical therapy, she enjoys going to the beach, fishing, or lazing around watching Netflix with some Ben & Jerry’s chocolate brownie ice cream.