For most runners, the thought of spending a lot of time in the gym lifting weights can be wholly unappealing. After all, runners tend to love nothing more than hitting the roads or trails and actually running rather than strength training.
However, there are many benefits of strength training for runners, including decreasing your risk of injuries, helping prevent and correct muscle imbalances, and improving performance.
In this article, we will review ten of the best exercises for running faster, and cover some of the many benefits of strength training for runners.
Why Should a Runner Do Strength Exercises?
There are a number of excellent benefits of strength training for runners, including the following:
- Reducing the risk of injuries by strengthening the muscles, connective tissues, bones, and joints to handle heavier loads.
- Improving running economy and efficiency.1
- Improving your running form and gait by improving mobility, and strength, and correcting muscle imbalances.
- Improving aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and submaximal endurance.2
- Increasing bone density, which can protect against stress fractures.3
- Improving overall health, such as lowering blood pressure, decreasing triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, and improving blood sugar control.
You can learn more about the science of strength training for runners here.
How to Do Strength Training Exercises to Run Faster
Because running is a cardiorespiratory endurance exercise and requires excellent muscular endurance as well, many runners make the mistake of doing their strength training workouts as endurance workouts as well.
This typically means that a runner will opt for performing more reps with lighter weights rather than fewer reps with heavy weights.
However, running is already a muscular endurance exercise, so training muscular endurance in your strength training workouts is not optimizing the goals of strength training for distance runners.
Here are some tips for strength training for runners:
- Focus on training to build muscle and increase muscular strength. This involves lifting heavier weights for fewer reps than most runners tend to use.
- To build muscle and strength, aim to use a weight that you can manage for no more than 8 to 12 reps with proper form. This should correspond to roughly 65 to 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for an exercise.
- Once you can perform a set of at least 12 repetitions of any of these running exercises without hitting a failure point, you should increase the weight that you are using by 5 to 10%. Our free workout log is great for keeping track of the weight you used last time.
- Running is a unilateral (one-sided) exercise because each leg works individually in a reciprocal pattern as you run. Because the magnitude of the impact forces when you run is upwards of three times your body weight, it is extremely important to have adequate single-leg strength to handle these loads safely. For this reason, the best strength training workouts for runners should include some unilateral exercises with heavy weights.
Here are ten of the best strength training exercises for runners.
The barbell squat is one of the most widely used and studied strength exercises in sports.
How to Squat with Proper Form
- Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
- Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
- Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
- With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
- Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
- Inhale and repeat for reps.
2. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
The single-leg Romanian deadlift is one of the best posterior chain strengthening exercises.
The posterior chain includes all the muscles on the backside of your body, such as your erector spinae and lower back, your glutes in your butt, your hamstrings at the back of your thighs, and the calf muscles in your lower legs.
As you will notice, these are all key muscles for runners and ones that are often overlooked in favor of the muscles we can readily see in the mirror, such as the quads, abs, and chest.
Having a strong posterior chain will give you powerful hip extension when you run and will aid in uphill running strength.
If you prefer, you can perform the Romanian deadlift standing on two legs. It will allow you to use heavier weights, but you won’t get the unilateral training effects.
How to Do Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts
- Stand upright and hold the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Brace your core, and lift one leg off the ground.
- Keep the back straight and start to lean forward by hinging at the hips. Lower until you feel a stretch in the standing leg’s hamstring. Make sure to keep your hips still; you don’t want the side with your lifted leg to start rotating upwards.
- Return to the starting position. Finish all your reps on one side first, and then repeat on the other leg.
Step-ups are one of the best strength training exercises for runners because the movement pattern mimics the unilateral nature of running.
Moreover, the step-up exercise targets the same muscle groups used when you run, particularly when you are running uphill.
The muscles worked by step-ups include the quads, glutes, hip flexors, hamstrings, calves, and core muscles.
The key here is to use heavy weights and to press fully through your foot as you step up onto the box to engage in all of your muscle fibers for a stronger and more coordinated muscle contraction.
This will not only help increase strength but will also improve neuromuscular coordination, which can translate to a more powerful and efficient running stride.
How to Do Step-Ups
- Stand in front of a box, chair, or something else that you can step up on.
- Place your foot on the box.
- Lightly brace your core, and step up until your leg is straight.
- Lower yourself in a controlled motion.
- You can keep your foot on the box, and repeat for reps.
4. Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian split squat is another great exercise for strengthening your running muscles. Like the two previous exercises, it is also unilateral, meaning that you work one leg at a time – just like when running.
While any variation of a lunge can be a great exercise for running faster, the Bulgarian split squat is an especially effective strength training exercise for runners. This is because elevating your foot in the back helps isolate the workload onto the quad and glute of the front leg.
How to Do Bulgarian Split Squats
- Stand with your back turned against a bench, which should be at about knee height. Stand about one long step in front of the bench.
- Place one foot on the bench behind you.
- Inhale, look forward, and squat down with control until right before the knee of the back leg touches the floor.
- Reverse the movement and extend your front leg again, while exhaling.
- Inhale at the top and repeat for reps.
5. Kettlebell Swings
Plenty of strength training routines for runners focus solely on relatively static, low-intensity strength exercises, but if you want to do strength training exercises to run faster, you should incorporate full body, dynamic, power exercises such as kettlebell swings.
This type of movement helps fire up your fast-twitch (type IIa) muscle fibers and build explosive strength in your hips, glutes, and posterior chain muscles. Long-distance running primarily targets the slow twitch, or type I muscle fibers, which are primarily responsible for endurance activities. However, it is important to strengthen your fast-twitch muscle fibers to run faster, too.
How to Do Kettlebell Swings
- Place a kettlebell on the ground, about one or two feet in front of you.
- Take a wide stance, lean forward and grip the kettlebell.
- Brace your core slightly, and swing the kettlebell back between your legs, while inhaling.
- Swing the kettlebell forward by extending your hip, while exhaling.
- Try to swing the kettlebell to about chest height.
- Repeat for reps and put the kettlebell back on the ground when you’re finished.
6. Inverted Rows
The inverted row helps strengthen the muscles in your back, such as the lats, traps, and posterior deltoids. As a pulling movement, you will also work your biceps, forearm flexors, and abs.
How to Do Inverted Rows
- Place a barbell in a rack, high enough for you to be able to hang below it in straight arms, with your heels on the floor.
- Grip the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Inhale, and pull yourself up as high as you can, or until your chest touches the bar.
- Exhale, while lowering yourself back to the starting position with control.
If you have access to TRX suspension straps, you can increase the difficulty of this exercise by using the straps instead of the barbell. The suspension straps are unstable, so it requires more core control and unilateral strength in each side of your upper back and each arm to control the movement.
Furthermore, TRX straps allow you to use a neutral grip, which is more comfortable for the shoulders and elbows.
7. Side Plank with Rotation
Runners often hear the advice to strengthen the core muscles. Although we tend to think of running as a lower body exercise, the core plays an essential role in providing a stable base of support upon which your legs and arms can move.
If you do not have good core strength, it can reduce your running economy because energy will not be transferred as efficiently from the pelvis to the legs and from the shoulder girdle to the arms for a powerful and coordinated running stride.
The side plank exercise strengthens the internal and external obliques on the side of your torso, which can help prevent excessive trunk rotation when you swing your arms in opposition to your legs when you run. Having a nice strong, stable, steady torso will help you run faster at a lower energy cost, which will also help you run further without fatigue.
Adding in a thoracic rotation further challenges the rest of the core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, deep transversus abdominis, lower back extensors, glutes, and pelvic floor muscles. This is because you are adding a dynamic movement layered upon a static isometric hold with the rest of your core.
This type of combination replicates the demands on the core when you run—the need to stabilize the spine and torso in an upright position while the arms are pumping back and forth alongside your trunk.
How to Do Side Planks With Rotation
- Lie on your right side with your legs stacked on top of each other and your right elbow and forearm under your right shoulder.
- Hold a relatively light dumbbell in your left hand (hand on top).
- Push up so that your hips come off the ground. Your legs should be straight and your feet should be stacked one on top of the other. Keep your hips in line with your body and bear weight through your right elbow.
- Reach the dumbbell underneath your hips so that it comes close to the floor and then rotate your thoracic spine to lift the arm all the way up to the ceiling. Follow the path of the weight with your gaze.
- Hold the top position for 2–3 seconds.
- Slowly rotate the weight back down and under your hips.
- Perform 10–12 rotations and then switch sides.
One of the problems with running is that the movement occurs almost exclusively in the sagittal plane, which means that your arms and legs are moving forward and back. This can create muscle imbalances and weakness in the hips in the frontal plane (side-to-side motion).
The problem here is that when you land on one leg during the running gait cycle, the leg that is supporting your body has to stabilize your pelvis in the frontal plane. If your hip abductors, such as gluteus medius, are weak, you may notice that the hip on the supporting leg drops down when you land. This is known as the Trendelenburg sign.
If your hip abductors are weak, it can place excess torque on the hip joint and can increase the risk of running-related injuries that are due to alignment issues and the improper distribution of forces, such as iliotibial band syndrome and runner’s knee.
The clamshell exercise is not necessarily a strength training exercise that will help you run faster, but it can help prevent injuries by strengthening the muscles that get weak and underused when you run. For this reason, it’s a great exercise to add to a running strength training program.
How to Do Clamshells
- Lie on your side, with your legs bent at about a 90-degree angle.
- Tuck your pelvis in to properly activate your glutes.
- Lightly brace your core and lift the upper leg by using your glutes. Lift as high as you can while maintaining contact with the glute muscles.
- Lower the leg in a slow and controlled motion, and repeat for reps.
9. Standing Calf Raises
Calf raises earn a spot on our list of the best exercises for running faster because strengthening your calves will enable you to run more on the midfoot and push off explosively from the ball of your foot when you run. This can improve your gait and running speed.
How to Do Standing Calf Raises
- Place your toes and the ball of your feet on the foot support. Place the shoulder pads against your shoulders and stand upright in the starting position.
- Lower yourself down by bending your ankles in a controlled movement.
- Push yourself up by extending your ankles.
If you don’t have access to a standing calf raise machine, you can perform the exercise by holding a dumbbell and standing with the balls of your foot at the end of a step or plyometric box.
10. Hip Thrust
The hip thrust is a great bilateral strength exercise for runners because it builds glute strength. The glutes are crucial for a powerful hip extension when you run, particularly when running uphill or running fast. Furthermore, strong glutes help prevent your hamstrings from overworking, which can reduce the risk of hamstring injuries.
How to Do Hip Thrusts
- Sit on the floor with your back against a sturdy bench.
- Roll the barbell up over your thighs, until it is placed over your hips.
- Place your feet on the floor, about shoulder-width apart, with bent knees.
- Place your hands on the bar to stabilize it.
- Push the bar towards the ceiling by extending your hips. Your knees should form a ~90 degree angle at the top.
- Lower the weight and repeat for reps.
11. Inch Worms
Yup, you got a bonus exercise! The inchworm gets an honorable mention as one of the best exercises for runners because it is as much of a full-body mobility exercise as it is a strength training exercise.
Runners tend to get particularly tight hips, calves, ankles, glutes, and shoulders, yet the motivation to do standalone mobility work can be difficult to muster amidst high-mileage training weeks.
Adding this exercise will not only build upper body strength and core strength with the push-up component, but will also help stretch your entire posterior chain (lower back muscles, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and Achilles’ tendons) and will improve the mobility in your shoulders, upper back muscles, hips, and ankles.
This is a great dynamic warm-up exercise for runners before you head out the door for your run, or you can use it at the beginning of your strength training workouts to prepare your body for the exercises ahead.
How to Do Inch Worms
- Stand with your arms extended straight overhead.
- Hinge from your hips and reach your fingertips to the ground in front of your feet.
- Slowly walk your fingertips out away from your body, dropping your hips until your hands are stacked under your shoulders in a push-up position.
- Bend your elbows to complete one full push-up.
- Reverse the walkout by hiking your hips up into the air as you walk your hands back towards your feet until you can stand up straight and bring your arms all the way overhead.
- Complete 10–15 reps.
Strength Training Workout Routine for Running Faster
Once you have mastered the technique for each of the exercises, it can be helpful to have some guided strength training workout routines for runners.
The StrengthLog workout app includes a great strength training program for runners. And best of all, it’s completely free.
To download our app and check out the strength training workout for runners, use the links below.
I hope you enjoyed this list of exercises for running faster!
To learn more about how strength training can help you run faster, further, and stay injury free, consider reading our guide on strength training for runners.
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