I can say with 100% certainty, this is the longest I have ever gone in my adult life without going to a gym. (I’m pretty sure we hit that record after day 5 of gym closures.) But as a runner, we all know that our shoes are always waiting for us to pound the pavement.
But have you thought about the other half of the equation? Here’s a clue: it starts with an S and ends with -trength. Strength. Ugh, I know. The dreaded S word that makes so many runners cringe. But the reality is, just like milk, it does the body good. And let’s be honest, we runners will find any excuse to avoid ANY of the extra curriculars that go hand in hand with running (including but not limited to: strength, flexibility, balance, mobility, soft tissue recovery, and technique) and the most popular excuse will always be TIME. We would rather spend our time running that extra mile than setting aside time to do anything but. Yet look at us now, stuck at home with nothing BUT time.
I recently met up with Denise Smith, owner of Smith Physical Therapy & Running Academy in Crystal Lake. She has quite the resume including Physical Therapist, Certified Manual Physical Therapist, and Certified Running Technique Specialist. (Wowza, sounds like someone who knows her stuff). She explained to me just how important it is to focus on strength work as a runner.
“Strength training is to help build your muscles to support body weight. Your muscles and bones have to support 2-3 times your body weight so improving their ability to do this is important for injury prevention and performance,” says Denise. Another bonus? Strength training doesn’t really require much equipment, if any at all. It’s that easy. And honestly, who doesn’t want to get faster, run longer, and prevent injury? Because that’s exactly what a few body weight exercises can do for you. It can make you faster, help you run longer, and prevent injury. WIN WIN WIN.
As a runner, she recommends strengthening your hips, glutes, shoulders, lower back, and abs. She was kind enough to give us 10 different strength exercises that can be done AT HOME with minimal to no equipment, all meant to keep you and your run legs healthy and STRONG!
How To: With both hands and feet on the ground, drive your hips up in the air, then bring them down just below plank-height. Perform 3 sets of 15.
Why: This exercise can be used as a strengthening exercise (focus on slow, controlled movements) but it can also be used as a technique drills (focus on perception of how things feel and then follow with a run)
Single Leg Squat
How To: Stand on one leg and SLOWLY bend your knee to allow your hips to move backward (as if aiming for a chair/bench behind you). To make this harder, slowly lower your body in a count of 4 and then return to the starting position in 1. Perform 3 sets of 15.
Why: Squats do not require a lot of equipment and there are a lot of varieties to keep this interesting. But this single leg squat mimics how the quad works during running. The quad’s role during running is to control the knee landing and works eccentrically to keep the leg from collapsing when the foot first hits the ground.
How To: With a resistance band wrapped above both knees, standing on one leg and bend the other knee into the running pose. Then bring that bent knee out to the side (count of 1) and SLOWLY return it to the starting position (count of 4). Perform 3 sets of 15.
Why: Every physical therapist loves standard clamshells, which are typically done laying on your side. However, no runner performs this sport laying on their side so the standing version makes this more functional for a runner. This exercise trains both your quadratus lumborum and your gluteus medius, two very important muscles in maintaining pelvic/hip control and position during running with one leg up and one leg down.
Split Hand Pushups
How To: Perform a push-up with one hand at shoulder height and the other hand at the bottom of your rib cage. Perform 3 sets of 15.
Why: Most runners forget about their shoulders. The shoulders are very important in helping to move efficiently because they help unweigh the lower body. An important connector muscle is the lats, which connect the upper and lower body and push-ups help target the lats. By strengthening the shoulders, a runner gains a powerful ally in training the body to work together. Performing the pushup in this position mimics the position of your hands and shoulders while running. You can make the exercise harder by SLOWLY lowering your body down to the ground in a count of 4.
How To: Lie on the ground and then lift both hands and feet off the ground. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times.
Why: How many runners think about strengthening their low back? The low back muscles are another important connector group between the upper and lower body and include the lats, which start in the low back region and end in the shoulder region. This exercise also moves us into extension which is opposite of how we sit in chairs all day.
Side Lunge Into Running Pose
How to: Slowly lunge to the side (in a count of 4), then pull your leg that is bending up into the running pose (in a count of 1). Some important things to note: when you lunge, make sure you are moving your buttock/hips back (like trying to touch a chair behind you). It is also important to make sure you PULL your lunge foot off the ground versus PUSHING your foot off the ground.
Why: The slow, controlled lunge to the side helps train the quad as it is supposed to work during running. By focusing on pulling your foot off the ground (versus pushing) it also helps train the hamstring to learn to pull the foot off the ground as it should during running.
Deadlift into Running Pose
How to: Begin standing on your right leg and then SLOWLY lean forward (in a count of 4) as you begin to drive your left foot back keeping your leg straight. Simultaneously, you will be tipping your torso forward until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Then return to the running pose (in a count of 1).
Why: You can make this exercise more challenging by adding a kettlebell or dumbbell. This exercise allows you to strengthen the all-important hamstring muscles as well as challenging your balance and core.
Leg Up Bridge
How to: Lie on your back with one knee up in the air and the other leg with your foot on the ground. Lift your hips up in the air (in a count of 1) and then slowly return to the starting position (in a count of 4). Why: This exercise allows runners to train in the running pose (one foot in the air and one foot on the ground). This exercise also allows for variations with the use of a chair or exercise ball for the grounded foot. The focus of this exercise is hamstring strengthening, but it also allows for perception training by mimicking the running pose with one foot up and one foot down, thus secondarily training the glute medius and quadratus lumborum at the same time to help maintain hip/pelvic position.
Ball Pass Back
How To: With a ball/pillow placed in between your feet, raise both feet and both hands in the air. Pass the ball back toward your hands, then slowly lower your hands above your head and your feet back down to the ground (in a count of 4). Pass the ball/pillow back to your feet and repeat the process of slowly lowering both hands and feet to the ground as you continue to pass the ball/pillow back and forth (in a count of 4 with the lowering).
Why: Umm . . . let us know after your abs BURN! In all seriousness, runners often forget about abdominal strengthening as a way to help connect their upper and lower body. The stronger the abs, the more stable your midsection is and this area must be strong because this is where the majority of our body weight is located (hint – because your organs are housed in your abdominal region!). If you can control this region, you will be a faster runner because you will be able to control your body weight moving forward
How to: Lie on one side with your elbow underneath your shoulder. Lift your body up so only your feet and elbow are on the ground.
Why: This evidence-based exercise targets the glute medius, one of the most important muscles in running because it helps stabilize your hip in the running pose. So while this exercise is not the most functional, it is one of the most efficient in training some key muscle groups. This exercise can be made more challenging by lifting the top arm and top leg up into the air.
See the video below for further explanation on all the exercises. Special thank you to Denise Smith at Smith Physical Therapy & Running Academy for sharing her knowledge with the Chicago Athlete community!
“Let’s change the conversation about what it takes to be a runner. The end game is that we can continue to do this great sport for our entire lifetime and not get hurt.” – Denise Smith, PT, CMPT, Running Technique Specialist.