How Leg Workouts for Runners Work

Just because your legs get exercise when you're running doesn't mean you don't still owe those muscles some time at the gym.
Just because your legs get exercise when you're running doesn't mean you don't still owe those muscles some time at the gym.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Why doesn't just running farther or faster give you enough of a workout to build leg strength? Running builds endurance, but it's an inefficient way to increase muscular strength. What's needed are workouts that target specific muscle groups in your legs. Runners often fear that weight lifting and other workouts will slow them down, but this isn't something you have to be concerned about if you pursue a balanced exercise regime. Today, both professional and amateur runners use strength workouts to achieve a number of running goals.

Workouts can improve running skills, since well-developed muscles enable the body to use oxygen more efficiently and are slower to fatigue. This allows you to run faster on the flats and to power more easily up hills. Workouts also can help you to lengthen your stride, which allows you to run faster over distance. For sprinters, exercises that build strength aid a more explosive start and faster times. Developing leg muscles improves running form by reinforcing your alignment and helping you to maintain an upright posture. Stronger muscles also provide stability to joints, which means less wear and tear on ligaments and tendons.

Probably the most important reason for runners to build leg strength is to head off injuries. When muscles are weak, or when one group of muscles is less developed than others, the result is poor alignment. "Runners are notorious for their muscle imbalances, particularly through the hips," Maki Riddington, a strength and conditioning specialist, told the Houston Chronicle in 2008 [source: MacInnis]

For example, weak hip muscles can allow the legs to angle inward or outward instead of keeping each stride in line. Underdeveloped gluteal muscles might cause the runner to lean his or her trunk forward. An imbalance between opposing muscles, particularly, is a major cause of the repetitive stress injuries that plague runners [source: Everett]. Knees, hips and feet all suffer.

Strengthening your legs can be the most valuable time you spend during training. A running workout generally takes an hour or more, but you can perform a valuable strength workout in as few as 15 or 20 minutes. And the results soon will be apparent in your running and overall fitness level.

On the next page, you'll find out exactly which muscle groups you should be targeting in your workouts.

Leg Muscles Used in Running

To understand how leg workouts can benefit runners, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the muscles in your legs and how they work together. Nearly all the leg muscles are used in running. By strengthening each group, you will improve your running form and balance.

As you move your leg forward, you use mainly the quadricep muscles at the front of your thigh. They bend your hip and straighten your knee. The quads also stabilize the knee and help absorb the shock of impact as you land.

As your body moves forward, the action switches to your hamstrings, the muscles at the back of your thigh, which straighten your hip and begin to bend your knee. The hamstrings also work to help you lift your knee behind you.

At the same time, the muscles of your lower leg, the soleus (inner calf) and gastrocnemius (outer calf) extend and flex each foot as you land and push off. These muscles also help absorb impact and give your stride spring.

In addition to these primary running muscles, several other muscle groups play a role in running form and are important to include in your leg workouts. The gluteal muscles form the buttocks. They help extend the hip, straightening it beneath you. Just as important, they stabilize the trunk and keep you upright. Strong glutes contribute to good running form and alignment.

The hip muscles are also important. Because they lie deeper than hamstrings and quads, they are often neglected in workouts. Hip flexors and extenders work with the quads and hamstrings to move the legs forward and back. The hip rotator muscles stabilize the hip joint and contribute to good running form.

Your leg workouts should be aimed at strengthening all these muscles and achieving overall development, especially where opposing groups are concerned. Exercises aimed at the quadriceps, for example, should be balanced by a hamstring workout.

Read on to learn how some simple exercises that you can do at home can strengthen the muscles and improve your running form.

Leg Workouts for Runners at Home

Your home workout to strengthen your legs should begin with basic calisthenics. Here are five easy exercises that work the legs:

  • Calf raise. Great for the muscles of the lower leg. Stand on your toes on the edge of a step or a block that will not overturn. Start with your heels hanging off so that they're lower than your toes. Lift yourself as high as you can onto your toes. Hold for a few seconds and lower slowly. You can make the exercise harder by using one leg at a time.
  • One-legged squat. With your right leg forward, rest the toes of your left foot on the floor a stride behind you. Bend your right leg until your knee makes a 90-degree angle. Return to the starting position and repeat. This is good for the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
  • Hamstring push-up. Lie on your back with your feet on a chair that's braced against a wall (you can also use an exercise ball). Lift your butt. Then lift one leg off the chair. Lower yourself slowly back down to the floor, using the strength of the hamstrings of the leg remaining on the chair. Do sets with each leg.
  • Bench step-up. This is a simple, valuable exercise for runners. Start with your right foot on a bench knee-high or lower. Step up until your knee is almost straight, but not locked (fully extending the knee takes the stress off the muscle and puts it onto the joint). Lower to the starting position in a controlled manner. Repeat as you alternate legs.
  • The bridge. This is a great way to build your glutes. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart. Lift your hips, squeezing your butt muscles. Bring your knees, hips and lower torso into a line, leaving your shoulder blades on the floor. Hold for thirty seconds and lower yourself back down.

Plyometrics is another convenient and effective form of leg workout. These exercises, which involve jumping and bounding, work the often-ignored deeper muscles and help develop explosive power. Start by simply hopping back and forth over a line. Next, try hopping forward onto a step or low box. Alternate legs. Skipping exercises -- in which you both jump off from and land on the same foot before doing the same with the other foot -- is another great plyometric workout.

A final convenient home workout is hill running. "Hill running is resistance training for runners," Dallas-based running coach Chris Phelan told Runner's World in 2004 [source: Cooper: Upward Mobility]. Choose a 5 to 10 percent grade -- not too steep. Then, run up and jog down while lifting your knees and pumping your arms. Aim for five to eight charges up the slope.

While these exercises can conveniently be done most anywhere, training at the gym can let you focus on more precise exercises that target your leg muscles. Read on to learn how.

Leg Workouts for Runners at the Gym

Most of the exercises you do at home aren't as focused as the ones you can perform in the gym. The equipment there isolates specific leg muscle groups and lets you add resistance as your strength increases. You can plan a varied workout, moving from one machine or weight station to another to work different muscles and keep your development balanced. And simply getting out of the house and going to the gym can be enough to boost your motivation to work hard.

One often-posed question is: Should runners stick to light weights in order to avoid bulked-up muscles, which might slow them down? The question has been debated for years, but many coaches now advise that using heavier weights with fewer repetitions is best for strengthening muscles and ligaments. For any given exercise, you should choose a resistance that makes you fatigued after 12-15 reps. Plan to do two or three sets before moving on [source: Hanc].

Resistance machines are a good place to start in the gym. They isolate particular muscle groups for strengthening and make it easier to maintain good form and to move through the entire range of motion with close to uniform resistance. Quadriceps extensions, hamstring curls and leg presses are the three basic ways to work your legs on these machines. In general, you should keep movements slow and controlled, and, once again, avoid locking your knees by stopping just before they're entirely straight.

While machines are good for working specific muscles, free-weight workouts are good for building leg muscles overall and for improving the balance and alignment you need to run well. Here are three beneficial leg exercises that you can do in the gym.

  • Lunge: Holding a dumbbell in each hand (either at your sides or over your head), stride forward with your right leg and lower yourself down until your right knee reaches a 90-degree angle. Keep your torso straight. Step back to your original position and repeat using the other leg. Or you can do walking lunges by moving the trailing leg forward and then stepping forward.
  • Wall squat: Place an inflated exercise ball between you and the wall. Lean your back against it and move your feet slightly forward. Lower until your knees are bent 90 degrees. Return to standing. Don't allow your knees to move in front of your toes.
  • Hip strengtheners: You can use either ankle weights or weights hanging from your ankle by a strap. Lie on your left side on a bench with the weight attached to your right ankle. Raise your right leg, keeping it straight. Slowly lower it back down. Perform the same movement on your left side, then do a similar lift lying on your back.

Some of the exercises you did at home, like the calf raise and the one-legged squat, can also be done in the gym using weights. You can take advantage of the gym's treadmill to build strength. Raising the angle of the platform will provide the equivalent of hill running.

These basic exercises should get you started. Read on for more tips about leg workouts.

Leg Workout Tips for Runners

Runners who incorporate strength workouts usually do them twice a week, sometimes three times. Don't do strength training on the same day as a hard run. Similarly, you should also avoid working out the day before a race because your body needs time to recover. Strength training is great for the off-season and for times when weather limits your running.

Vary your strength workout routine, and try to work several major muscle groups in each session. Always warm up and stretch before you begin your workout. Some light jogging is a good way to prepare.

Don't focus only on building muscles. Workouts should also improve your alignment and coordination. Exercises which require balance, for example, train the muscles that make small adjustments in your posture. Make sure you maintain good form and alignment throughout the movement. Never sacrifice form in order to lift heavier weights or do a few more repetitions.

When you can, it's useful to include one-legged variations of exercises. These movements better mimic the actual motion of running, in which each leg moves independently. One-legged exercises can work each leg harder than two-legged varieties and build more strength. They are also good for strengthening your non-dominant leg.

You also can use strength workouts to help repair or prevent common running injuries. Shin splints, for example, are helped by calf raises. Leaning your back against a wall and raising your toes, keeping the heels on the ground, is another good shin splint preventive. Exercises that build hamstring and quadricep strength are good for recovering from runner's knee.

Here are some additional things to keep in mind when you work your legs:

  • Move through your entire range of motion.
  • Keep movements slow and controlled. Don't bounce.
  • Breathe out as you perform the main exertion. Never hold your breath.
  • Don't go to extremes. Stop before your joint is fully extended, and use weights or resistance that you are comfortable with.
  • Once a month, take a week off from strength workouts to give yourself some extra recovery time.
  • Do some stretching after your workout.
  • If you run and do strength training on the same day, always complete your running before you move on to your strength workout.

One final point to keep in mind: Strength workouts should be fun. Vary your routine, try new exercises, work out to music -- whatever it takes to keep the session enjoyable. That way, you'll look forward to the workouts instead of viewing them as a chore.

Read on for more information about leg workouts for runners.

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