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Strength training: 6 lower body exercises to make you a better runner

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Getting better at running is about so much more than jogging every day. Here’s how building stronger muscles in strength training can help your pace, power and keep you injury free.

Practice makes perfect, or so the saying goes. While that might be true for nailing a recipe or learning a new language, when it comes to running we need to do more than just hit the road every day. 

That’s because running requires so much more than just learning how to put one foot in front of the other, from developing better cardiovascular fitness to being able to breathe correctly. But it also needs strength, as without building muscle we can’t expect to be able to push further forwards.

Amongst other things, regular strength training—especially for your legs—can help to correct muscle imbalances and weaknesses that are common in modern life.

“Whether you’re someone like me who runs over short distances or somebody that runs long distances, you need the control and strength that comes from weight training,” explains Ashleigh Nelson, Team GB sprinter and founder of The Athlete Method. “If you’re asking your body to continually support you then you need to build it to do that.”

But it’s about more than just having the power to propel you forward, too. Weight training can also prevent injury by strengthening the bones and joints needed to support running. When we run, we put around four times our body weight through the muscles and joints in our lower body – that’s no mean feat. “As soon as we add a bounce or jump into our steps, we put pressure through the body. You need strong feet, ankles, knees and hips to stabilise all of that weight,” says Ashleigh. 

Strength training
Strength training: Ashleigh Nelson explains the benefits of strength training for runners

An injury is a sure fire way to set yourself back on your running journey, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. But if a faster or safer run is your goal, we need to consider how we strength train for optimum results. “For sprinters, we need to focus on power, so someone like me racks up a heavy barbell and squats for five powerful reps. For someone who is a middle or long-distance runner, they should focus on muscular and joint endurance training rather than pure strength, so training at around 12 reps,” Ashleigh says. 

As for what to train, “your glutes are your engine, so you need to strengthen them first and foremost” says Ashleigh. “Our hip flexors also do a lot of lifting, and strengthening the vastus medialis, on the inside of you knee, is really important in order to keep the knees safe.”

Strengthening your calves, feet and core are also important. While that sounds like a lot of muscles to target, there are some key compound moves that will work through a lot muscles to build these areas, as well as small intricate exercises that help you become efficient. 

The best strength-building moves for runners

Squats

Squats work pretty much the entire lower body. While the focus may be on your quads and glutes that are needed to power you through your runs, it will also work through the hips, calves and the joints in the ankles and knees. 

Leg press

Leg presses targets all the large muscles in your lower body. If you want to engage the glutes more during this exercise, try adding a short loop resistance band just above your knees.

Leg extension

A seated leg extension is the best way to target the all-important vastus medialis. Remember to work through this move slowly to really work on control and stability.

Calf raises

You can do these as a bodyweight exercise, holding dumbbells or using the seated calf raise machine in the gym. Again, it’s about control and stability through the muscles, so go slow to increase time under tension. 

Feet sliders

“Everyone forgets about the feet, but we need them to take the weight of our bodies during the run,” reminds Ashleigh. Place a towel under one foot and pull it forwards and backwards by gripping through the toes. 

Incline row

While strengthening your lower body is crucial, working on your upper body, particularly the upper thoracic spine, is a good way to perfect your posture. An incline row will work the rear delts and back to help your shoulders stay open, rather than rounding forwards when you run. 

How to balance strength training and running

There’s no prescription for how often you should run versus how often you should work on your strength. That has to come down to you, your goals and your preferences. For example, if you tend to get delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after leg day, it’s probably best not to plan a run for the day after. 

“You also need to consider which session is more important to you. If you want to do a 5K time trial and really nail your time, you probably shouldn’t do a huge gym session the day before. If you want to get a squat PB, you might want to rest the day before so as to not have tight hips and ankles for your session,” says Ashleigh. “Think about your priorities and do what feels right for you.” 

TRY OUR STRENGTH TRAINING FOR RUNNERS PLAN AT THE STRONG WOMEN TRAINING CLUB

Attention all runners, joggers and plodders: start your 14-day free trial at the Strong Women Training Club and join us for four weeks of Strength Training for Runners! Over the course of the plan, you’ll strengthen key running muscles, improve core control and work on any imbalances that may be causing injuries. It’s all bodyweight focused, so don’t worry about having to buy any equipment. If you decide it’s not for you, you can cancel after 14 days without spending a penny. Get ready to run stronger! 

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Images: Getty / Nick Rix (Rix Media)

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).