Best leg strengthening exercises for runners that can be done at home
Strength training for runners is one of the most important training components to prevent injuries and improve performance. Recent studies have shown that heavy resistance, explosive resistance and plyometric training should be considered to be part of a training program for endurance runners as well as traditional weight lifting which also seems to improve running economy and neuromuscular coordination.
Researchers have found that on average 65-75% of runners get injured each year and most of the injuries are related to overuse, bodily imbalances and poor technique. Strength training has a positive effect in reducing injuries, strengthening muscles and connective tissues and preventing muscle imbalances.
Nevertheless, there are some misconceptions most runners have about strength training, such as:
Many runners still believe in the myth that lifting weights will make them heavier, compromising their running performance. Muscle strength gains are not necessarily related to an increase of muscle size, but an increase in neuromuscular adaptation. Even though you might gain some extra pounds by increasing your muscle size, the increased power and efficiency will support the additional bodyweight without negatively affecting your running performance.
Strength training will not make runners slower. Studies have found significant improvements in muscle strength, power output and running economy in elite long-distance runners during a strength training program that included lower-body resistance exercises combined with plyometrics. When you build muscle strength, you improve muscle coordination which helps you to run more fluidly with better form. A compromised running form wastes energy due to inefficient stride and that can make you run slower. An increase in muscle power improves the ability to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible for running, delaying fatigue.
Running more economically equals wasting less energy equals running faster.
Soreness after weight lifting will not compromise your training. Delayed onset muscle soreness occurs when you experience a great amount of muscle soreness after a hard workout. It can happen after a demanding running session and it also can happen after strength training. One of the main concerns when training strength and endurance at the same time is the risk of one of these abilities starting to impair the other. It is crucial to find the right balance when training both simultaneously to avoid injuries caused by muscle fatigue and overuse. The day after you perform your strength routine, do an easy recovery run to give time for your muscles to heal. Save the hard running workouts for those days when you feel your muscles are ready to do so.
For those runners who do not like the idea of going to the gym, we have good news: you can do strength exercises at home without using expensive equipment. If you are a beginner in strength training, working using just your bodyweight should be enough for a start. As you progress, dumbbells and therabands are excellent tools to increase resistance and muscle strength.
The best routine is the one that incorporates mobility, stability, strength and power exercises, working on multiple planes of motion. Although running is a very linear movement (sagittal/forward and back plane), the constituent movements of the joints involved in running gait happen in all three planes of motion which means you should also do lateral/frontal plane and rotational/transverse plane movements.
Running is a cyclical and asymmetrical repetition of movements as you go from stride to stride, therefore, training your body asymmetrically will give you the opportunity to identify more clearly imbalances in muscle strength from both sides. Choose a few exercises that train legs separately instead of both working simultaneously.
Plyometrics exercises can also be very effective in improving running economy. The repeated and rapid stretching and shortening of the muscles increases the power of muscular contractions. However, if you are a beginner, you must be conservative when starting to perform this type of training due to its high-impact nature. You should build a reasonable level of muscle strength before adding explosive workouts into your training program. Starting a plyometric routine without experiencing two or three months of weight lifting or bodyweight exercises will eventually lead to injuries.
We have collected some of the best legs exercises that can be done at home to help you start your strength training routine.
Start in standing position with feet hip-width apart, toes pointing slightly outward. Squat down, lowering your hips until your thighs are parallel to the floor, activating quads, hamstrings and glutes. Make sure your knees are aligned with your feet (toes behind the knees), your back is straight, chest and shoulders up.
Start in standing position. In the first phase of the exercise, you will step back with one leg, lowering your hips until you bend both knees at 90 degrees angle. Keep your spine straight and look forward. In the second phase, you will work on knee and ankle stability as well as quads and hamstring strength to bring your feet together, moving back to starting position.
Start in standing position with your feet parallel and hip-width apart. Take a big step to the side, keeping the other leg extended and your back straight up. Focus on lowering your hips until you bend your knee at 90 degrees angle. Return to the starting position. In this exercise, you work quads and glutes and add an extra attention to your inner an outer thigh muscles.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Raise your heels until you are standing on your toes, keeping your knees straight, but not locked. Then lower slowly back to the starting point. You can also work one leg at a time to increase resistance.
Although it seems a very simple exercise, it is very effective to strengthen lower legs to support the stress on your Achilles tendon and shins when you are running.
Standing with your feet hip-width apart, lift one leg off the floor and raise this leg behind you, keeping your knee straight and don’t let your hip shift to the side. Lower your body until your lifted leg is parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight and fully engaged as you lower your body. Slowly return to the starting position. As you progress, you can hold dumbbells to increase the training effect.
It is a great exercise to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings as well as core region and provides hip and ankle stability.
Lying on your back, both feet on the floor, bring your heels closer to your buttocks and rest your arms on the floor alongside your body with palms facing down. Lift one foot off the ground and keep the lifted knee slightly bent. Push down the foot that is on the floor as you raise your hips as high as you can to create a straight line from your knees to your shoulder. Try not to rest your hips on the floor when you bring them to the starting position.
This exercise activates glutes and hamstrings and it is also great to improve hip mobility.
Starting in standing position, lower your hips in squat position and then jump off the ground as high as you can. Land on the floor softly, trying to bring your feet parallel to each other in squat position and immediately go for another rep.
This plyometric exercise is ideal to work on power, activating glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves.
It follows the same principle of execution of squat jumps, however, it is more explosive.
Start in a low squat position and keep your arms extended behind you. Jump off the ground, using your arms to help you get high enough to land softly with both feet on the box. The ideal landing position is when you have your hips and knees slightly bent. Do not let your hips below your knee line when landing on the box. Step down - not jump - from the box and start again. Landing on the ground after jumping from the box is much more forceful and, therefore, potentially harmful as it puts a lot of stress on your knees and Achilles tendon. Make sure your starting position is stable and your movements are controlled.
It is very important to get a proper-sized box and focus on your landing mechanics in every repetition. If you land with your knees too bent or only with the balls of your feet on the box or your feet hit the edge of the box, it is too high for you.
Progress for a higher box only when you have mastered jumping up a lower height.
Make sure that you engage your core muscles and build full body awareness to perform strength exercises with proper execution, choosing form instead of speed.
When performing single leg exercises, do the reps with one leg and then switch sides.
In conclusion, try to include some stretching sessions in your weekly routine to release the tension and stiffness of the muscles and to work on joint flexibility.
Doing a strength training program with resistance exercises and plyometrics 2 times a week seems to be an interesting and appropriate strategy to improve running economy, significantly increasing your performance, especially if you are a long-distance runner.