THE BIG 10 FOR RUNNERS: 10 strength exercises every runner should be doing

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If you’ve made it past the title and currently reading this, I’m going to make a wild guess that you’re a runner. As an endurance athlete, I’m also going to make a bet that you love being outdoors with sceneries similar to the ones below.

On the other hand, getting under a heavy barbell in the gym, sitting around bored for 2-5 minutes rest between each set and being amongst the gym ‘bros’ and ‘fit chicks’ who look at themselves in the mirror more than actually training… Isn’t so much your thing.

Not AS much your thing

However, if you’ve been following me for a while now, you will know how important strength training really is for your development as a running athlete. As a runner, the loads that go through the calves, quads and glutes are 6-8x bodyweight, 4-6x bodyweight and 1.5-3.5x bodyweight respectively (Dorn, 2014). Overuse injuries occur when the capacity of one’s body is not coping with these external loads, and the only way to improve running economy and to prevent these injuries… Is to increase the body’s capacity through strength training!

A post on Instagram from September 2018

Plenty of studies have supported the addition of 2-3 strength training sessions to running training, without any detrimental effects to performance. Some knowns stats have shown that strength adaptations improve:
– Running performance by 3%,
– Running economy by 5%
– Time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed (MAS) by 21.3%
(Ronnestad 2014; Storen 2008, Yamamoto 2008)

A post on Instagram from October 2018

The question is… What exercises should runners be doing? Runners are often already running most days of the week, if not every day, so what strength exercises are most bang for their buck without having to slave away in the gym 5x a week?

Through my years of working with runners, and analysing muscular demands in long-distance runners, I have found that there are 10 main exercises that are most effective for runners from a performance AND injury prevention standpoint. These exercises effectively target the four main muscle groups required for running (The glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves), and in combination with each other, develop the runner’s strength AND stability to take their running performance to the next level, as well as prevent the common overuse injuries (Runner’s knee, achilles tendinopathy, ITB syndrome, shin splints, plantarfasciitis etc).

So let’s have a look at the big 10 and how they are categorised to make it more meaningful and easier to apply to your training as a runner.

The big 10 can be visualised through the pyramid above:

  • The 3 big rocks are the big full-body lifts and develop absolute foundation strength. These are best performed 1-2x weekly.
  • The 4 accessory rocks are the unilateral (single leg) variations of the big rocks, and develop more isolated strength whilst challenging coordination and stability – Remember that as a runner, you’re ever only on one leg at a time for the entire duration of your sport – This is often where weak links in the chain are revealed. These are best performed 1-3x weekly.
  • The 3 small rocks are purely foot intrinsic exercises, which are least impactful for overall performance of all 10, but make ALL the difference for foot and arch health. This may not be noticeable immediately, but is a big preventative/rehab tool for foot problems such as plantarfasciitis, shin splints and even Achilles tendinopathy. These are best performed sporadically each day at home when you have your shoes off.

THE 3 BIG ROCKS

Barbell Squats- Probably the most common exercise you’ll see in a gym setting. Not only do squats target the quads and glutes, it also develops core and back strength that is all relevant for athletic development as a runner. Aim to work up to at least bodyweight for working sets and up to 1.5x bodyweight for 1RM.

Barbell Squats

Barbell Deadlifts- The other King exercise of the gym alongside Barbell Squats. There’s pretty much no muscle in the body that isn’t worked during deadlifts, and the main target is the posterior chain and core, which are powerful propulsion muscles for running. Work up to at least bodyweight for working sets  and up to 2x bodyweight for a 1RM.

Barbell deadlifts

Barbell hip thrusts- Barbell hip thrusts are a powerful developer of the glutes and hamstrings. Since the glutes take up to 3.5x bodyweight of forces during running and are the primary muscle group in driving forward movement, it would make sense that you want to develop strength that exceeds your bodyweight for this exercise.  

Barbell hip thrusts

THE 4 ACCESSORY ROCKS

Step downs-These are essentially single leg squats performed off the side of a box/step/bench. This allows you to specifically measure your depth each week, and forces you to maintain control throughout range.  Steps downs are incredibly challenging for not only your single leg strength, but for additional balance and stability, which is highly important for running technique.

Step downs

Single leg deadlifts– Similarly to step downs, single leg deadlifts are completely valuable for the isolated single leg strength, and proportionately more work for your stabilising muscles through the legs AND core.

Single leg deadlifts

Single leg hip thrusts- Once again, great for the isolated strength plus stability and coordination that you don’t get from double leg hip thrusts.

Single leg hip thrusts

Single leg calf raises- In a way, these are slightly out of place because they don’t have a double leg variation, but are probably the most important of all the accessory rocks since the calves take up to 6-8x your bodyweight in loads when running.

Single leg calf raises

When doing calf raises, it’s only the ONE muscle group that is worked, unlike the squats, deadlifts and hip thrusts that are full-body exercises. For this reason, as well as since running is only ever single leg push-offs from the ground, it’s less relevant and effective to do double leg calf raises. Instead, all you need to do is single leg calf raises off the edge of a step, starting with bodyweight then increasing to 15kg in external weight. These are crucial for running economy and injury prevention for almost every common running injury.

THE 3 SMALL ROCKS

Toe splays- The muscles that control the individual toes are the muscles that form the arches of the feet. As a result of wearing shoes our whole lives, a lot of people lose the ability to spread and move each of their toes, therefore having poor plantar foot strength. Given you hit pavement over tens of thousands of steps each run, it’s critical the foot has high levels of strength for shock absorption and propulsion.

Toe splays

Toe grabs- Toe grabs is similar to toe splays, but targets the plantar foot and plantarfascia more specifically. Improvement in this ability allows the foot to grab onto the ground and create a stable base for the rest of the body during each running step. It’s also the main strength deficit in those with plantarfasciitis.

Toe grabs

Big to extensions- Big toe extension is the critical mechanism for effective propulsion of the foot during each step. It allows the arches to tighten up to create a rigid and powerful foot to push-off the ground. A lot of people find they are unable to actively lift their big toe and with this deficit present over hundreds of running kilometers, risk compensatory changes and injuries down the track.

Big toe extensions

So there it is! the big 10 for runners. The great thing about the big 10 is that they are the foundational exercises for athletic strength and movement. You’ll see my beginner clients doing the big 10, and you’ll also see my clients with years of experience still doing big 10; With the main difference being the level of resistance/weight on the exercises. Although there are 92387349 other exercises out there, nothing beats the old school, tried and tested, functional movements for athletic development.

Want more?

  • To find out more about the big 10, keep an eye on my podcast ‘The Athlete’s Garage’, where I will be releasing an episode soon on the intricate execution of each of the big 10.
  • In March-April, I will be launching The Motion Mechanic’s ELITE small-group training, where you will receive programming and be able to train in small groups of 3-6. This will be perfect for those of you runners who have some background in gym training, but want to take your athletic development to the next level with proper programming whilst training with your mates. Because runners are social creatures by nature aren’t they? I’ll be posting more information about that in the coming weeks on my website and social medias so stay tuned!