Legs are important to runners for obvious reasons. Strong legs improve speed, help prevent injuries and provide the power needed for a finishing kick at the end of a race. Still, all power is ultimately derived from the core, so remember to give priority to strengthening your core muscles by following our basic core strengthening routine for runners.
The following is a similar routine geared toward strengthening your legs. All of the exercises require nothing other than your own body weight. They should be performed about three times per week on non-consecutive days. It’s probably easiest to do this routine on the same day as your core routine. This routine will provide you with a good base of leg strength that will allow you to progress up to more advanced routines which we will share in the coming months.
Most of these exercises will be conducted on a single leg at a time. Running is essentially a single leg sport. The runner never uses both legs at the same time while running. Strengthening both legs at the same time allows the stronger leg to compensate for the weaker one. By strengthening each leg individually, you can correct muscle imbalances you may have.
Single Leg Squats
Single leg squats primarily train the gluteus (butt) muscles and the thighs (primarily the quadriceps but also the hamstrings to a lesser extent). Start off with a split squat, primarily using the forward leg to raise your body, while using the rear leg for stability:
Once you’ve mastered 2 sets of 12 repetitions on each leg in the split squat stance, you can try moving to the significantly more difficult pistol squat. In this case, a single leg will be doing all of the work in lifting your body and keeping you balanced. You’ll be engaging your hips, your calves and your abdominal muscles as well as your glutes and your quads.
Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift primarily trains the glutes (butt), the hips and the hamstrings. It’s a great exercise for runners who are prone to IT band syndrome.
The toe raise, also called the calf raise, primarily works the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles of the calf and to a small extent, the tibialis anterior (the muscle on the outside of your shin). It’s a simple exercise that is easily performed on a step. Lightly hold onto a rail or some other stable object to keep from falling over, but try to let your calves do all the work.
Reverse Toe Raise
The reverse toe raise is a simple exercise that primarily works the tibialis anterior. This is one of the best exercises you can do to prevent shin splints. Stand with your back to the wall and keep your heels one foot length from the wall. Slowly raise your toes toward the ceiling 8-10 times, then rapidly do the same 10-15 times. Do two sets.
The external hip rotators are six small muscles that attach to your hip and your thigh bone. Their primary purpose is to rotate your leg laterally (to the outside). Although they’re small, they play a crucial role in the angle at which your foot strikes the ground relative to your hips when you run. The clamshell exercise is a simple way to work them.
Scissor kicks will work your inner thighs (the muscles responsible for rotating your leg inward) as well as your abdominal muscles. Start out by doing scissor kicks for 10 seconds at a time. Do 2-3 sets, and increase your time to 20, 30 or 40 seconds as you get better.