Sunday 22 January 2012

Strength training for runners; strong is the new skinny!

I mean how good does Jessica Ennis look? Enough said.

Yorkshire Track and Field Championships-Jess Ennis
I mean she even looks good after landing in a pile of sand for god's sake!

Okay, so I figure my legs should be pretty damn toned with all this ultra and even non-ultra running malarky...but they are not! So how do runners tone and strengthen their legs? What exercises are good for runners and what are not?

At the gym the other week a personal trainer came over to me, just as I was pulling a puny weight on the lat pull machine, asking me what I was training for. And there was the moment of clarity. What on earth was I doing pulling on a resistance machine for my arms and back, with no idea how many reps or weights I should have it on, and why I was doing it.

I have little time and plenty of other core areas to work on including my POOR, NEGLECTED, UNTONED LEGS! So with a bit of googling, some chat with the other 'alf and some thought about my problematic areas, and what endurance runners should focus on to improve their strength, I came up with my own plan.

1) Quads (particularly VMO - vastus medialus oblique)
Squats, squats, and more squats. It was a fair revelation to me that doing a one legged squat is near on impossible for my right leg at the moment.

The key in this exercise is to keep your pelvis aligned squarely, and your knee aligned over your foot. You do not want your knee shifting left or right during the movement, nor do you want the knee to fall over the toes.

Start with double legged squats and build up to one legged squats, followed with holding a weight. Even better, use a swiss ball against a wall, and roll down. This means you are also challenging your balance and core muscles also, making the exercise even more dynamic. To help target the right muscle, give it some feedback by tapping the muscle, on the inside of your knee.

Once you have this exercise nailed, try a jumping squat, for added weight. Or do squats on a flat balance ball, for an extra challenge.

2) Hip abductors - gluteus medius
I try to think of the VMO working in unison with the glut med - one of the primary stabilising abductor muscles of the hip.

Glut med is often neglected, along with the VMO, as other muscles - the glut max and vastus lateralis (the other part of the quadricep muscle) - are usually stronger and more dominant. This can result in poor alignment of the hip and knee joint, which can lead to knee and hip pain in runners.

For glut med, I lie on one side with my knees bent and hips rolled slightly forward. Then, keeping the heels together, lift the top knee upwards. Hold at the top and slowly lower. This exercise is a killer for me too so I know it's a goodun!

3) Quads/gluts
Lunges, lunges and more lunges! Another key exercise is the lunge. Do the exercise slowly. The key is to keep alignment as well as feeling the burn in the muscles. This exercise will also help maintain and strengthen the crucial quad/abductor balance.

A similar approach can be taken by adding weights, jumping, or lunging onto a flat exercise ball.

4) Hip flexors
Another reason why people suffer from hip pain is their deep hip flexors (ilio psoas) are often inactive or weak. The bigger quad muscle often takes over the role of hip flexor, so it's key to make sure you are correctly isolating the ilio psoas and letting it shine in it's role as hip stabiliser.

Lie on your back with your knees and hips bent. If possible try and palpate your deep hip flexors to hep you feel the movement. Slowly lower one leg to an extended position, keeping your lower back as straight as possible. Return to the starting position and change legs. When confident in this, do with both legs at the same time.

5) Hamstrings
Lie on your back with your feet up on an exercise ball. Lift your behind from the floor, and hold. Slowly lower. Progress to one legged raises.

Again I generally don't have a problem with my hamstrings (other than they are tight, but that's another blog post!) but it's important to strengthen all key areas of the leg.

6) Calves
Now luckily this is one area I don't have a problem with, but it's still important to challenge all the leg muscles. Plus this exercise is great for balance and stability too.

Stand on a low platform with your hell hanging off. Lift slowly, keeping your balance, and lower. Start with both legs, progress to one legs, then add weights. Finally do the same on a flat balance ball for extra stability challenge. This exercise is also amazingly good for trail and off road runners who need strong, flexible ankles to run on changing and difficult terrain.

7) A note on resistance machines
Now apparently there is lots of evidence that using these machines are not the best for runners as they are done in a static position, not a dynamic (like running). However I do find them useful for judging how strong your legs are to start with. For example, I found that my adductors are super strong. I can manage 15kg 3x15 fairly easily, yet 15kg on the quads machine is a killer for me.


  1. I'm doing the transalpine event come this September - I am actually a personal trainer with my focus on strength and conditioning and also running coaching. There are a lot more factors with conditioning runners that I will gladly chat to you about if you have a chance. I would even go out for a London plod as well. Take a read am writing up all my strength work on my blog.
    I'm based in Wapping (Tower Hill)

  2. Thanks Nick - I need all the help I can get! I will take a look at your blog for sure!


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