The 4 Best Ways to Build Leg Strength for Runners
When we talk about improving leg strength for distance runners we have to understand this isn’t about making our distance runners look like shot putters, bodybuilders, or hulking individuals. Not at all. We want to talk about improving general strength.
We know those distance runners who are extremely strong and extremely explosive carry over really, really well to the track and running distance. It gives a tremendous kick. It makes runners extremely fast when they have good, solid strength.
For strength training for distance runners, we have to think about pairing the distance runners into their event groups. It means there might be benchmark lifts we need to see for specific movements for an 800-1500 meter runner. That weight might change for 5k or 10k runners. This will help us as coaches to see how to guide our distance running athletes.
1. Banded Spanish Squat
This exercise will help with knee issues, lower back stress, and improve ankle mobility, which should help prevent shin splints.
The banded Spanish squat is performed with a band wrapped around the knees attached to an unmovable object. The main goal is to push back at the knees into the band at the top of the squat. Use a kettlebell, it doesn’t need to be super heavy and hold it in a goblet position. From there, squat nice and deep and stand up. Remember at the top to extend back to strengthen the quads.
As the band pulls the knees forward, we want to keep the heels grounded to try and improve our ankle mobility. We recommend doing this movement in socks. In addition, holding the kettlebell in a goblet position forces a focus on trunk stability which will carry over to dynamic trunk control.
We just want to say it again: squeeze the quads at the top. It will help with the VMO. Do this movement for three sets of ten reps.
We like to super-set the banded Spanish squat with the crouching crawl.
2. Crouching Crawl
Start this movement without any weight at all. As the movement becomes easier, it can be performed holding kettlebells in a farmer’s carry position.
Get into a quarter squat position with the ankles in plantar flexion the whole time (stand on the balls of the feet constantly). From there just slowly walk forward, crawling through plantar flexion the entire way. Holding the kettlebells will help the movement with a loaded position.
Hold the hip and knee positions effectively walking forward and backward. Focus on the trunk coordinating effectively as well. This movement will really improve the strength of the calves and the entire shin area to help prevent shin splints. Do this movement for three sets of ten meters
So use Spanish squats to mobilize the ankle joins and strengthen the knee, then use the crawl to strengthen the ankle joint and be able to grab the ground effectively with the toes and foot.
3. Single-Leg Squat
We believe this is one of the best movements any athlete can do, especially distance runners. It will smash the posterior chain, improve hip mobility, knee stability, having a co-contraction between the hip and the knee, and doing it barefooted will improve stability and proprioception.
We can position the squatting leg to address the distance runner’s needs. For instance, if we have a runner with short legs, we can move their squatting leg farther forward. If we have a runner with longer legs, we can move their squatting leg closer to hit the quads a little more. It matters what the runner needs. We can also position the squatting leg farther forward to improve their stride length.
We recommend putting a pad down on the ground for a target. The non-squatting leg is behind the body, raised off the ground, supported by a bench or raised roller. Make sure to squat nice and deep while thinking about grabbing the ground with the toes and feel the glute median come into play.
As we get better at the movement, we can increase the load by holding a kettlebell in the goblet position. This allows us to enhance balance more and create more training for dynamic trunk control. Better trunk control allows more stability when striding and more capability to utilize energy effectively.
Do this movement once or twice a week for three sets of ten to fifteen reps on each leg. It will give distance runners greater posterior chain strength and mobility.
4. Glute-Ham Isometric Rows
This movement targets from a few perspectives. Namely, it targets anti-rotation, isometric, and throughout the posterior chain.
Get on a GHD with the chest facing the floor. Push the heels and goes up, almost like having dorsiflexion, and hold the torso parallel to the floor in an isometric muscular action. From there, we will add in a row holding the position the whole time through the posterior chain. We want to do ten reps on one side and then ten with the other arm while holding the upper body in line with the hips.
What this movement does is light up the lower back on the opposing side. So rowing with the left arm, the right lower back, as well as the hamstring, gets more active. That helps with anti-rotation throughout the trunk in conjunction with the posterior chain.
We believe isometric actions with distance runners can get their lower backs incredibly strong without putting a ton of load on the back. Doing an isometric hold for a minute can lead to a lot of time under tension, as well as help with intramuscular coordination. For instance, we can row for thirty seconds of rowing with each arm. In this manner, it will improve overall coordination and lower back strength.
Do this movement for three sets of ten rows with each arm to begin. As the body adapts we can begin to perform the movement for timed durations instead of specific reps.
Distance runners benefit greatly from being explosive and strong. It allows them to have a great kick and strong, powerful strides. We also know that being a hulking individual is not the goal of training the lower body with distance runners. Still, we want distance runners to have strong legs that maintain that strength, speed, and explosiveness over the distances they are running. Utilizing movements like the banded Spanish squat, crouching crawl, single-leg squat, and glute-ham isometric row will contribute greatly to strengthen the lower body, adding mobility, and enhancing the body’s ability to coordinate muscles to generate more speed for faster run times.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.