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Develop stronger legs for faster times.
To get good at an activity, practice is important. That's why you see runners running and running and running and rarely hitting the weight room. Runners sometimes complain that strength training makes them too sore to run, so they even purposefully avoid it.
To run faster, you do need to run more, but skip strength training and you miss an important component of speed development. Strength training, especially when it comes to the lower body, is imperative for strengthening your muscles and joints. This improves race times and can decrease your risk of injury.
Research published in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reviewed a number of studies that explored the effects of strength training on running efficiency. The meta-analysis found that a strength-training program performed two to three times per week for eight to 12 weeks improved the performance of middle- and long-distance runners. These exercises can be of low and high intensity and also include plyometrics, or jump action, to build strength.
Why Improve Lower Body Strength
Every step you take while running requires you to produce force. This force propels you forward so you cover distance efficiently and effectively. Strong lower body muscles allow you to produce great force without expending too much energy, meaning you can run faster.
Plus, strength work improves your ability to use oxygen during your running workout. Known as your VO2 max, efficient oxygen usage fuels your muscles and allows you to run faster for longer. A 40-week strength training program helped distance runners improve their VO2 max, as well as enhance their running efficiency, reported a 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Do you think strength training will make you too bulky, so you have to carry more weight down the track or trail? Don't worry, it won't. That same 2017 study showed that the 40-week strength-training protocol did not significantly increase muscle size.
How to Build Lower Body Strength
As a runner, you build lower body strength differently than you would if you were a body builder. Traditional lower-body exercises, such as squats and lunges, benefit a runner. But you can use moderately heavy weights and a higher rep load, so you're not as sore the next day. Aim for three sets of 12 to 15 reps of these standard exercises. And if you're worried a weight workout will leave you sore, do your weights on the same day as a tough run workout and rest the next day to recover from both.
Exercises to Add
Add in a few specific functional movements to get runner strong. Hamstring push-ups, for example, have you lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels resting on a stability ball. Lift your hips up and then raise one foot off the ball. Squeeze your butt cheeks and hamstrings to raise and lower your hips up and down to use the hamstring of the leg on the ball. Work up to three sets of 12 reps for each leg.
Single leg squats work each leg independently and can train the muscles of the outer hip, which stabilizes your pelvis as you walk and run. A stable pelvis means you expend less energy and are at less risk of injury when you're putting in the miles. To do a single leg squat, stand with your feet hip distance apart and raise the right leg up off the floor so it hovers in front of you. Slowly bend your left knee and hip, working your thigh toward parallel. Push through the heel of the left leg to straighten back up and complete one rep. Work your way up to 10 to 12 on each leg for three sets.
Box jumps help train your muscles and joints to endure the pounding of running. Stand behind a sturdy box that is one to two feet tall. Crouch down with bent knees and hips, and then propel yourself upward to land on the box. Land with softness in your joints. Step or jump down and repeat up to 10 times.
Don't neglect your upper body either. Push-ups, rows, shoulder presses, curls and dips create a balanced look and body function. Include these movements at least two times per week on nonconsecutive days. Since you're not trying to add notable muscle mass, just one set of each exercise containing 10 to 12 reps is plenty.