The most important fitness principle is specificity. The principle of specificity means you are fit for the type of training or activity you do. So, if you want to get stronger, you need to lift progressively heavier weights, usually focusing on compound exercises for low reps, with a range of between 1-5 being the norm.
Similarly, if you want to build bigger muscles, you need to choose training methods that cause muscle overload and breakdown. That way, your muscles will grow back bigger and stronger.
So, according to the fitness principle of specificity, if you are a runner, you need to do lots of running. And while that’s true, there are other types of workouts that will enhance your running performance.
For starters, runners should stretch regularly to prevent the adaptive shortening effect of running that can have a detrimental impact on flexibility, range of motion, and even joint health. A lot of running-related injuries are caused by tight muscles. The couch stretch is an especially useful exercise for runners.
Similarly, runners should also do strength training. Studies show that strength training can have a measurable impact on running speed and duration (1).
Strength training has several benefits for runners, including:
- Increased power output for more speed
- Greater endurance and delayed fatigue
- Better joint stability for improved efficiency and reduced risk of injury
- Better posture
There is no denying that the best exercise for runners is running. But, if you want to be the best runner you can be, strength training can help too. So, here are 12 of the best exercises for runners and a sample workout to try.
The 12 Best Strength Training Exercises for Runners
When it comes to the best strength training exercises for runners, a lot of people think that they only need to work their legs. This is a mistake! Running is a full-body activity, and strengthening your lower body, core, and upper body will have a profound effect on your running performance.
Here are 12 of the best exercises for runners, and while we have included several useful leg exercises, there are also movements for your upper body and midsection.
1. Medicine ball lunges with a twist
This is one of the most running-specific exercises you can do. It works one leg at a time and also involves your midsection and upper body. It’s a good movement for improving your balance and coordination too.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet together and a medicine ball in your hands. Lift the ball up and overhead. Brace your core.
- Take a long step forward, bend your legs, and lower your rearmost knee down to within an inch of the floor. Simultaneously lower the medicine ball down and to the outside of your leading leg, twisting your torso to that side.
- Push off your front leg and return to the starting position, lifting the medicine ball back up as you do.
- Step out with the opposite leg and repeat on the other side.
2. Side to side bench jumps
Successful running involves a lot of lateral stability. Taking off and then landing on one leg means you need to work really hard to stop your knees and hips from collapsing inward or outward. This exercise works your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and inner and outer thighs, making it very running specific.
How to do it:
- Stand sideways onto a knee-high bench or step. Place your nearest foot on the top of the bench.
- Drive your foot down into the bench and leap up and over. Extend your leg fully and try and generate lots of height. Use your arms for extra momentum.
- Land with your opposite foot on the top of the platform.
- Without pausing, jump back over the bench.
This running exercise works your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. It’s also good for lower back and hip mobility. If you find this exercise difficult, you may need to work on your general flexibility and mobility. A lot of runners have tight muscles and struggle with exercises that involve large ranges of motion.
How to do it:
- Lie on your front with your legs straight and your arms out to the side to form a T-shape. Look straight down at the floor.
- Bend your left knee, lift your leg, and try and touch your outstretched right arm with your foot. Don’t worry if you can’t reach – just go as far as you can.
- Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side.
4. Goblet squat
All types of squats are useful for runners, but goblet squats could be the best option. With goblet squats, you hold the weight in your hands, rather than rest it on your shoulders, and must also keep your torso in a more upright position.
This means your upper body and core gets a good workout too. Plus, as you only need a single dumbbell or kettlebell, goblet squats are ideal for runners who work out in a home or garage gym.
Read more about goblet squat leg gains.
5. Single-leg Romanian deadlift
There is nothing inherently wrong with bilateral or two-limbed exercises, but running is a unilateral activity, which means only one foot is in contact with the floor at a time. Because of this, runners should include one leg exercises in their workouts. Single-leg Romanian deadlifts work your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back and are also useful for improving your balance.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Stand with your feet together. Shift your weight over onto one leg. Bend your supporting knee slightly for balance.
- Without rounding your lower back, hinge from your hips and lean forward, lowering the weights down the front of your leg. Extend your non-weight-bearing leg out behind you for balance. Do not round your lower back.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- Make this exercise harder by using just one weight. This will make it harder to balance.
- If you find it too challenging to maintain your balance, do this exercise next to a wall and use your free hand to brace yourself. Move away from the wall as your balance improves.
6. Medicine ball push-ups
We love regular push-ups, and while they are an excellent way for runners to work their arms, chest, and shoulders, they may not be the best exercise to boost your running performance. This variation increases core activation and balance, which makes them more running-specific. However, you’ll also find medicine ball push-ups much more challenging than the standard version.
How to do it:
- Place a medicine ball on the floor. Squat down and place your hands on either side of the top, with your fingers pointing downward. Walk your feet back, so your legs and body are straight.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest down to within an inch of your hands. Keep your core braced and work hard to stop the ball from wobbling.
- Push yourself back up and repeat.
- The wider your feet are, the more stable you’ll be, and the easier this exercise becomes.
- Bend your legs and rest your knees on the floor to make this exercise less demanding.
7. Pull-ups & chin-ups
Pull-ups and chin-ups are effective exercises for your back and biceps. Not only that, they’re an excellent indicator of bodyweight. If you find this exercise hard, you may be carrying too much body fat. Losing that fat will not only make pull-ups and chin-ups easier, it will also improve your running performance. After all, excess fat is just dead weight that you need to carry. It will sap your energy, especially when running uphill.
Read more about pull ups vs chin ups.
8. Renegade rows and push-ups
This exercise is an all-in-one movement that works your chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and core at the same time. It’s also a unilateral exercise. This all adds up to a VERY useful and time-efficient running exercise.
How to do it:
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, squat down and place them on the floor, roughly shoulder-width apart. Keeping your hands on the weights, walk your feet back until your legs and body are straight. Brace your abs.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest down toward the floor. Push yourself back up again.
- Next, keeping your core tight and your body straight, bend one arm and row the dumbbell up into your ribs. Extend your arm, place the weight back on the floor, and then repeat this rowing movement on the other side.
- Descend into another push-up and repeat.
9. Dumbbell thrusters
Thrusters work your lower, middle, and upper body all at the same time, making them both time-efficient and running-specific. You can do this exercise with a barbell, a medicine ball, or two dumbbells. Using two dumbbells involves more balance and stability and is more demanding, which is why we’ve selected that version for our list!
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and raise them to shoulder level with your palms turned inward. Step out and into a shoulder-width stance, toes turned slightly outward.
- Bend your knees and squat down. Descend as far as your flexibility and knee health allows, and do not round your lower back.
- Stand up and then press the weights up and overhead.
- Lower the weights back to your shoulders and repeat.
10. Ab wheel rollouts
Ab wheel rollouts work your core and hip flexors. Both of these muscle groups are important for runners. The core stabilizes your spine and pelvis, while your hip flexors swing your legs forward and into your next stride. A stronger midsection will have a noticeable impact on your running performance (2).
You can do lots of different exercises for your core, but ab wheel rollouts are one of the most challenging and time-efficient. No ab wheel roller? No problem! You can also do rollouts using a barbell, a stability ball, or even a towel on a smooth floor.
Read more about wheel rollouts.
Chinnies are a traditional abs exercise that is popular with athletes from all sports as well as runners. It works your rectus abdominis, obliques, and hip flexors, which are the same muscles you need to develop for faster, longer runs. It even looks a bit like running when you are doing it, albeit while lying on your back!
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with your legs straight and your arms by your side.
- Sit up and bend and lift one leg, pulling your knee in toward your chest.
- Touch your opposite elbow to your knee.
- Lie back down and repeat.
- Unlike a lot of abs exercises, this one is meant to be performed dynamically rather than slowly.
12. Two-point push-up planks
Planks are useful for developing core strength and endurance. But, once you can do 60 seconds or so, it is no longer challenging enough to be beneficial and is not very time-efficient either.
The two-point push-up plank is much more demanding and increases the workload on your obliques too. As an added benefit, it also works your glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, and upper back. All in all, this is a very running specific core exercise.
How to do it:
- Adopt the push-up position, with your arms, body, and legs straight. Brace your core as tight as you can, but do not hold your breath.
- Keeping your body straight, lift one arm and your opposite leg until they are roughly parallel to the floor.
- Hold this position for a predetermined time, e.g., 20 seconds, or do this exercise for reps, i.e., 10 per side. Both options work well, so try them both and use the one you prefer.
Strength Training Programming for Runners
It would be a mistake for runners to train like bodybuilders or powerlifters. Building and then carrying lots of muscle mass could reduce running performance. Muscle is heavy and also uses a lot of energy. That’s why runners are invariably slim and carry as little unnecessary weight as possible – both excess fat or muscle.
Runners don’t need to be powerlifter strong either. As impressive as a 300-pound bench press or a 400-pound deadlift are, runners just don’t need to be that strong. And again, the muscle mass required to perform such feats of strength would weigh you down.
Instead, runners need strength endurance. That means they shouldn’t train for pure size or strength. They need to develop the ability to generate force for extended periods of time. Because of this, most runners should focus on training in the 12-20 rep range using light to moderate weights and short rests.
As running is a whole-body activity, it also makes sense for runners to follow a full-body workout routine rather than using a split. This means you’ll have more time to spend on your main training focus – pounding the pavement, hitting the hills, or tearing up the trails.
Using full-body workouts, you should be able to build all the strength and muscular endurance you need in just 2-3 sessions per week.
Not sure where to start? Try this running-specific workout using some of the exercises outlined above.
|1||Medicine ball lunges with a twist||2-4||8-10 per side||30-60 seconds|
|2||Renegade rows and push-ups||2-4||8-10 per side||30-60 seconds|
|3||Scorpion||2-4||4-6 per side||30-60 seconds|
|4||Single-leg Romanian deadlifts||2-4||10-12 per side||30-60 seconds|
|5||Two-point push-up plank||2-4||6-8 per side||30-60 seconds|
|6||Side to side bench jumps||2-4||10-12 per side||30-60 seconds|
|7||Chinnies||2-4||10-12 per side||30-60 seconds|
|8||Goblet squats||2-4||12-20||30-60 seconds|
Of course, before you start this workout, prepare your muscles and joints for what you are about to do with a few minutes of light cardio and some easy dynamic joint and mobility exercises. Alternatively, you could do your strength training after an easy run when you’ve still got plenty of energy left in the tank.
Runners LOVE to run, and some even make the mistake of avoiding all other types of training just so they can get more miles in the bank. While that level of enthusiasm and dedication is to be applauded, it may also hinder your performance and could even lead to injury.
Strength training helps plug the fitness gaps that doing nothing but running can create. It increases joint and core stability, and by building your strength reserves, it can help delay fatigue.
Runners SHOULD spend most of their time running, but even two 30 to 40-minute strength training workouts per week can be very beneficial. And no, done correctly, strength training will not make you muscle-bound or slow you down. In fact, it should have the exact opposite effect!
1 – PubMed: Effect of Strength Training on Biomechanical and Neuromuscular Variables in Distance Runners: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31541409/
2 – PubMed: Does core strength training influence running kinetics, lower-extremity stability, and 5000-M performance in runners? https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19077735/