The best way to get better at something is to do it. That holds true across all categories, from learning a new skill to playing a sport. And, it means that if you want to improve your running, you need to run. But, in the margins, there are plenty of other exercises that you can do to help your cause. From upper body exercises to boost your propulsion to core exercises that help to maintain your posture and form, it’s important to think beyond just logging miles. That’s where these leg exercises come into play.
Whether you’re interested in lifting weights or enlisting your body as resistance, there are countless ways to strengthen your legs. Here, we’ve got six trainer-approved favorites. Try adding these exercises to your workout regimen, and see how your running improves.
Straight Leg Deadlifts
“Running is about forward propulsion,” says Pedersen, “and, therefore, you need to push the ground backward and away from you. This relies on the muscles of the posterior chain—the hamstrings and glutes.”
With your feet shoulder width apart, grab a barbell or kettlebell and hold it at your thighs with your arms straight. Keeping just a slight bend in your knees, hinge at the hips to lower the weight to the ground while keeping your back flat. At the bottom, push through your glutes and hamstrings to raise back to the starting position.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Pedersen notes that running takes place one step—and one foot—at a time. Because of this, he stresses the importance of being able to handle your bodyweight (and more) on one leg. “Bulgarian split squats are great because they are a single-leg strength exercise that you can add weight to easily with dumbbells or a barbell.”
Running takes place one step—and one foot—at a time, so it’s important to be able to handle your bodyweight (and more) on one leg.
Stagger your stance so that your front foot is placed firmly on the floor, and the top of your rear foot is on a bench. Your feet should be roughly three feet apart. Lower down into a squat, so that your rear knee approaches the floor. At the bottom, drive through your front heel to return to the starting position.
Side Plank Leg Raises
What begins as a core and oblique move gets the lower body treatment by adding in a leg raise. “This activates the gluteus medius muscle, which lies underneath your glute max, and is responsible for keeping your lower kinetic chain (hips/knee/ankle) aligned with each step you take,” says Pedersen. “Simply put, this is an exercise that keeps your knees healthy.”
Start in a side plank on your hand or forearm, maintaining a straight line from your shoulders to your feet. As you hold this position, slowly raise your top leg. Pause at the top, then return to the starting position.
“Mobility is essential for proper running form,” says Thornhill, “especially if you’re looking to improve your running speed and increase your longevity as a runner.”
Start on your hands and knees, with your shoulders directly above your hands and your legs bent at 90 degrees. With minimal hip movement, lift your right leg to the side, keeping your knee bent, flexing your glute, and stabilizing your core. Bring it back to starting position. Do this slowly five to seven times, then switch legs. Optionally, you can add rotations by moving your leg clockwise and counterclockwise while it’s lifted, suggests Thornhill. “These movements will open up your hips, strengthen your muscles, and increase your range of motion.”
This joint-friendly exercise builds muscle in your glutes and hamstrings to make you a more powerful runner. “For added resistance, use a band wrapped around the tops of your knees and focus on keeping the tension in the band,” says Thornhill.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes and lift your hips off the ground, flexing your hamstrings and glutes while keeping your head and shoulder blades on the floor. Make a straight line with your body, then hold at the top for a second before slowly lowering back to the starting position. Do 12 to 15 reps.
Plyometrics, sometimes called “jump training,” involve explosive movements in which your muscles exert maximum force for short periods of time. “[Box jumps] are a great warm-up for strength training on leg days,” says Thornhill. “They increase your power and speed as a runner.”
Find a stable box or bench to jump on, and stand eight to 12 inches away from the object. Bend your knees and send your hips back into a half squat position, bringing your hands beside your pockets. With explosive energy, jump onto the box, and land in the same half squat with your feet fully on the box. Then engage your glutes to rise up to a standing position.