We know a great exercise to make you a better runner is…. Running. There is no substitute for hitting the pavement to get you the training you need — but to be a better runner, running is not all you should do! If you only run, you can create a ‘pattern overload’ that leads to a muscle imbalance, and that can lead to injury.
We talked to Will Hayes, Performance Manager for Novant Health Sports Performance, about exercises that can make your legs stronger on your non-running days. Try a few of these at home or in a gym, and you will see the difference.
“These are the best and most simple exercises for leg strength, hitting your quads, hamstrings, and glutes really well,” says Hayes. You’ve probably already done them at some point, but are you doing them right?
Place your feet between shoulder- and hip-width apart, and balance your feet so your weight is evenly distributed between the balls of your feet and your heels. Your toes should point forward or slightly out, while your torso is as vertical as possible — not bending over or hunching — with your head up and your eyes forward. Bring your arms out in front of your body, and squat as low as you can without losing your balance, below parallel to the ground, like you’re sitting in a chair. Start with 10, and build from there.
Think of a lunge, but staying in place instead of walking forward.
“It’s where we start everyone,” says Hayes. “It adds lower body strength, mobility through hip flexors on your last leg, and gets some movement.” It’s also a little more glute intensive, says Hayes.
Like the squats, keep your torso vertical. Your front foot should be flat and your back foot should be up on your toes. Make sure your legs aren’t too far apart. Drop your back knee first, and come back up. Start with 10, and do them slowly until you build up some strength.
Go grab your yoga mat or a towel, and lie down on it. Enjoy the moment of rest, take a deep breath, and then get to work on these core exercises that strengthen your glutes!
Bridges are a great, basic exercise that can add many variations. Start by lying on your back, knees bent so your lower leg is straight up from the floor. Lift your hips up until your back forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Feel that? Hayes says to do this right, 80% of your weight should be on your heels.
“Lift your toes up so the weight is on your heels,” he advises. “Drive your heels into the ground and lift your hips to the sky.” Don’t overextend, though — you don’t want to stress your back out. It’s important to squeeze those glutes — yes, squeeze your buns! — and tighten your abs to support your spine. Start with 15 of these, and then add additional exercises like marching and single leg lifts from the bridge position for more variety.
Oh yessss… I know you can feel this one by just reading those words. A bridge is only as sturdy as its planks, right? And this exercise is a good way to check your overall muscle balance if you mostly work on your legs.
“These are good for your core and posture,” says Hayes. “Holding a static position makes a big difference.” Lie face down on your mat (hey, no napping!), and then raise yourself up on your elbows. Your elbows should be right under your shoulders, and your back should be in a straight line from your head to your heels. Don’t sag (ouch!), and try not to lift your hips too high, either. Both cheats defeat the purpose of a good plank.
Kneeling Quad Stretch
In addition to leg strength, you need mobility and flexibility to get the most out of your running muscles. A kneeling quad stretch can help stretch out and tone your hip flexors and quadriceps on the front of your thighs.
You can start from a kneeling position and pull your back foot up, or lower into it from a standing position. “Put your back foot on something chair height, and kneel down with your other foot in front of you,” says Hayes. “Then stretch up nice and tall.” To hold the perfect pose, squeeze your glutes, and keep your shoulders back and down. Ahhhh.
Let’s Go!… Slowly
If you’re just starting out, do less than you think you should do, says Hayes. “You should not feel like you did a hard workout,” he says. “You shouldn’t be sore.” The best part of these 5 strength exercises is that they can be done easily while you’re at home during your workout time, when it’s too cold and/or wintry for your tastes. Throw in some towel stretches for added flexibility.
You can find more great exercises on the Instagram and YouTube pages for Novant Health Sports Performance, @NHathlete. So grab your mat and feel the power!