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5 Simple Exercises to Improve Leg Strength for Running

improve leg strength for running


Why is leg strength important to runners?

Go to a marathon and watch all those smiling runners sprint off across the starting line right after the starting gun goes off. Now go ahead and watch those same runners come shuffling, trudging, staggering and limping across the finish line hours later.

See anything different about their running form?

Of course you do.

The majority of those marathon runners have shorter strides, choppier steps and a lot more side-to-side movement. This change in running stride is primarily due to a lack of muscular endurance and muscular fatigue. I know what you’re thinking, “Well duh, they just ran a marathon”

But if you get to the finish line in time to watch the elite runners cross the finish line, you’ll see a much different image – their running gait looks almost the same crossing the finish line as it did when they started the marathon.

Getting stronger legs is also one of the secrets to staying injury-free as a runner.

But won’t I put on too much muscle?

We hear this concern a lot and the reality is even with heavy weights, runners gain muscle strength without gaining muscle bulk. Its a win-win. Pound for pound, your leg muscles will be stronger and take longer to fatigue and tire.

The Five Exercises for Better Running and Leg Strength 

Bodyweight Squats

Bodyweight squats, and goblet squats if you want to add some weight, are one of our favorite exercises for building leg strength in runners. It’s important to do the squats correctly (and we see a lot of runners that don’t do them correctly) in order to get the full benefits of the exercise.

The three mistakes we commonly see when runners are trying to do bodyweight squats are

  • Legs not are enough apart
  • Not going down into a full squat
  • Leaning forward and/or lifting heels off the ground

Squat Problem #1 – Legs not far enough apart

Dropping into a full squat position requires that you can drop your pelvis and not have your thighs block the downward movement of the pelvis. This “full squat” position requires opening up the hip joints and moving the thigh bone (femur) out of the way. 

The best way to practice is starting with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and practice dropping into a deep squat like a baseball catcher or small child would.

Squat problem #2 – Not dropping deep enough into the squat

Quarter-squats and half-squats are not going to get you the results you need in order to improve your leg strength for running. Its important to take the squat movement thru its full range of motion. This full-squat movement means the thighs should be at least parallel to the ground when you reach the full squat position.

Squat problem #3 – Leaning too far forward when squatting

Another common mistake we see when runners try to learn how to use the bodyweight squat is that they either lean too far forward as they squat down or they don’t have enough mobility in their ankles and they have to come up on their toes and lift up their heels in order to squat.


Single-leg Pelvic Bridges

Single-leg Pelvic Bridges are an effect exercise for developing posterior chain strength in the glutes and hamstrings.

The one trick with the Single-leg Pelvic Bridge is to focus on activation of the glutes instead of the hamstrings. The one tip to make this exercise focus on the glutes is once you’re in the single leg position to lift the toes of the foot on the floor off the ground so you’re only on your heel. When the foot is flat on the ground, you’ll feel the focus of the contraction in the hamstrings. When you change the exercise so you’re only on the heel, you’ll feel the focus of the contract in the glutes instead. Its also important to also keep the hip and pelvis level as you hold the position.


Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell swings are another great leg strengthening exercise that focuses on the posterior chain. The crux of the exercise is to focus on the hip hinge movement of the swing and not turn the exercise into a swinging squat.

The kettlebell swing helps runners learn how to activate their gluts and hamstrings as they come back up with a strong hip extension.

The trick to a proper kettlebell swing is that the entire movement originates from the hips. This means the arms and upper body actually do very little work to move the kettelbell.

Reverse Step Lunges

Step lunges can help develop both the anterior and posterior chain. We usually recommend reverse step-lunges instead of the forward step lunge since the reverse step lunge allows a more stable stance. The reverse step lunge also prevents increased stress across the front of the knee that happens if you push the knee too forward in the forward step lunge.

The other advantage with the reserve lunge is that movement for the forward leg stays in a closed kinetic chain position since the front foot stays on the ground throughout the entire movement. 


Single Leg Box Step-ups

The Single Leg Box Step Up exercise focuses on the quads on the upward phase and the glutes and hamstrings on the downward or eccentric phase. 

Two mistakes that runners often make with these box step-ups are:

They don’t stand close enough to the box where they can start the movement from the front leg and instead have to push off with the back leg and use their momement to rasie themselves up.

They also neglect to control and slowly lower themselves back to the starting position and miss out on working the glutes and hamstrings.

Looking for more exercises or dealing with a nagging injury?

Check out our Runner’s Mobility Clinic programs

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