Top 5 Strength Exercises to Improve Your Running

endurance running strength Feb 24, 2021

This covers a lot of questions I get asked regularly when it comes tom supplementary training to running. 

How can I improve my running efficiency?

How can I get better at running uphill?

Should I lift weights to get better at running?

I want to share with you the top 5 exercises that are proven to help you improve your running and what I have used time and time again through periodized training for running the Glen Coe Skyrace to running 16 marathons in 16 days.

It is important to note at this point that strength training is supplementary to your running training, there is a lot to be said for just running, especially when it comes to starting out running and trying to build an aerobic base.  However, strength training plays an important part to our progression, performance and efficiency.

Each of the following exercise are explained and then presented in a typical strength and conditioning session below.  If you would like to see instructional videos of each exercise, please visit the members area of 21st Century Body.

1. Back Squat.  The humble squat is a compound exercise, meaning that it recruits multiple muscle groups in order to complete the movement. A squat works the entire body and does not target a muscle in isolation (like a bicep curl), this means that you get maximum benefit for the time training 'under the bar'.

With weighted squats we are training similar muscle groups to that of running.  The calves, hamstrings, glutes and quads are all working in unison to lower and raise a weighted bar.  

Squatting heavy weight for running is less about the building of muscle mass, but more for the recruitment of muscle fibres.  Your muscles are made up of fibres, groups of these fibres are held together by nerve cells that form 'packets', called motor units.  motor unit recruitment is the ability for the body to use multiple muscles at any one time efficiently and effectively, which is difficult to practice without putting them under the load of external weight.

Recommended exercise:  3 sets of 6 reps at ~80-90% one rep max.  This will allow for functional motor unit recruitment without too much muscle damage and subsequent dips in performance from muscle soreness (which comes with excessive reps).

Remember: Control your decent and try to fire up quickly, this will increase your muscle efficiency.

2. Bulgarian Split Squat. The Bulgarian split squat takes the squat and makes the movement focussed on running technique.  By making this move unilateral (one leg at a time), we are adding specificity into the exercise and increases the training benefit if we are short of time.  The Bulgarian split squat can be performed as well as the squat in a strength and conditioning session, but I recommend that this is done under little to no external weight.

Recommended exercise: 3 sets of 6-8 reps on each side using bodyweight only until you are comfortable completing the exercise.

Remember: Control your decent and try to fire up quickly, this will increase your muscle efficiency.

3. Calf Raise.  The calf raise can be dine unilaterally or with both feet together.  I recommend that a mixture of both is used as you seldom run with both feet together, but single leg calf raises can result in fatigue relatively quickly.  

There is no weight required here as your body weight in enough for adequate stimulus.  Find a step or a box and stand on the edge keeping the balls of your feet on the box (just inwards from the edge).  Keep your leg straight (but not locked at the knee), lower your bodyweight on to your leg and slowly lower the heal until you feel a pull in the calf, then fire through the calf to raise you body up until the foot has passed above the horizontal and you feel a squeeze at the top, lower under control and repeat.

Recommended exercise: 2 sets of 8-10 reps on each side followed by 1 set of 10 reps with both feet together, using bodyweight .

Remember: Control your decent and try to fire up quickly, this will increase your muscle efficiency.

4. Glute Bridge.  The glute bridge is an exercise that specifically targets, you guessed it, the glutes.  This is a great exercise for warming up the glutes before a run and before a strength training exercise, to make sure that they are firing and ready to work at optimal performance.

There is no requirement of weight with this exercise when used as a precursor to other strength exercises or as a warm up to a running workout.  Weight can be added though to make a hip thrust, however I recommend keeping the hip thrust unweighted and using time under tension and singe leg variants for a great addition to a strength training regime.  ultimately, the aim of a strength training session is not to exhaust the musculature, but to make it more efficient at recruiting muscle fibres, moving at full range of motion and increase specific strength.  Less is more when paired with adequate running and cross training.

To complete a glute bridge, lie on your back and bring both heels towards the glutes with about 6-8 inches between the heel and the glutes.  From here, tense the core and push your hips upwards from the heel until your torso and knees are in a straight line.  You should have your entire body off the ground between your shoulder blades and soles of your feet.

As an alternative to increase muscular stress, you can complete this exercise using one leg, starting from the same position but with one leg fully straightened parallel to the ground.  this will increase the force going through the opposite glute and make this exercise harder.

Recommended exercise: 3 sets of 8-10 reps on each side using bodyweight.

Remember: Control your decent and try to fire up quickly, this will increase your muscle efficiency.

5. Rear Lunge.  the rear lunge matches the uphill running movement and is something that is important to drill and practice in a strength and conditioning exercise set.  The rear lunge is superior to the forward lunge as it reduces stress through the knee, but also mimics the movement of uphill running.  The front lunge has its place and helps stress the quads, similar to that of down hill running.  however in the top 5 exercises, the rear lunge takes precedence.

The rear lunge can be performed with weighted and unweighted.  I recommend that this is one weighted, carrying something in each hand to maintain balance.  A barbell on the shoulders can be used, but if combining this with a squat, the upper body can fatigue and result in reduction in optimal form.  Kettlebells, dumbbells or a weighted vest work perfectly for this exercise.

Starting from a standing position with your feet together, tense your core to maintain a straight spine and step one foot backwards.  Lower your body until your knee is 1-2 inches from the ground and drive through the legs to a standing position again.  Repeat on the other side, alternating legs.

Recommended exercise: 3 sets of 6-8 weighted reps on each side.  

Remember: Control your decent and try to fire up quickly, this will increase your muscle efficiency.  In addition, I recommended recorded your first few sets so that you can see the movement of your rear foot and ankle.  As you fatigue it is easy to allow the foot and ankle to cave inwards or outwards when stepped back wards.  When you step backwards, mindfully apply farce through the big toe and feel for the big toe bending, this will help reduce the rotation in the ankle and subsequent Achilles pain.

Putting it all together.

An example of putting these exercises together into a typical strength and conditioning session could look similar to this.  I should note here that there is no one size fits all approach and weights, rep ranges and movements can vary between people.  Should you need assistance here, you can reach out and work under guidance to get you started.  As with nutrition, its best to have a personalised approach instead of being fitted into a cookie cutter program. 

NOTE:  With strength training, there is a tendency to rush through the session dies to time restraints or impatience.  You want to aim for 3-5 minutes rest between SETS of exercise.  This may seem like a long time but is proven to aid in the management of muscle damage, recovery and optimal performance.  Active recovery, mobility and stability work is a great time filler between sets and allows you to maximise time.

3x 8 - Glute bridge - 1 min rest between EACH SET
3x 8 - Back squat with 80% one rep max - 3-5 minutes rest between EACH SET
2x 10 each side - Single leg calf raise - 3-5 minutes rest between EACH SET
3x 6 each side - Bulgarian split squat - 3-5 minutes rest between EACH SET
2x 8 each side - Rear lunge with 10kg in each hand - 3-5 minutes rest between EACH SET