What to Focus On in the Gym to Better Your Running

January 11, 2024

There are hundreds of various workouts that people can use in order to better themselves, whether the goal is to improve overall strength, power, speed, agility or just overall performance. Let’s discuss some bodyweight exercises for some of the key muscle groups in the body which will aid in improving your running. Most of these exercises can be made more difficult by adding weights as one progresses but can still prove challenging without them. Strength training can improve running performance by around 5-10% which seems minimal but can be the difference of a matter of seconds in races which can be huge.

Core – First and foremost core. It really is the centre to everything. If you have a weak core, you really aren’t reaching your max potential. It’s important in every single movement you do for stability. It will aid in reducing back pain, improving posture and reduce your risk of injury. 5 simple but very effective core exercises which I like to include; front and side planks, ensuring the buttocks is clenched and core is braced to ensure the belly muscles are properly engaged. Russian twists are a great way of hitting those obliques. Leg raises are great as they incorporate hip flexors while focusing on pelvic and core control and stability. Finally crunches. The reason I prefer crunches to sit ups is because they solely target your abs. Example: You can perform these exercises in circuits (3 rounds, 30s on each, 3 minute rest between rounds) or perform 3-4 sets for 30s on, 10-20s off for each exercise.

Hip flexors & Extensors – The 5 key hip flexors include the iliacus, psoas, pectineus, rectus femoris and sartorius. The key hip extensors include the gluteus maximus, the hamstring muscles and the head of adductor magnus. Do I expect every athlete to know these muscles? Absolutely not, but it is important to know to incorporate hip flexion and extension exercises into their workout plans. Hip flexors play a massive role in runners. The stronger your hip flexors are, the better your running is, particularly speed. 4 simple exercises for your hip flexors include mountain climbers, lunges (reverse lunges with a forward knee drive and single leg stance are brilliant and challenging for more advanced athletes), resisted hip flexion with a resistance band and finally knee tucks while lying down is an easier option for those starting off. In terms of hip extension exercises, glute bridges and single leg glute bridges focusing on proper breathing and pelvic control are good for beginners. Donkey kicks are another great exercise and can be made more difficult by using a resistance band. In terms of hamstring training, people like to use compound lifts such as deadlifts however, I would not recommend trying deadlifts without adequate form and professional advice before commencing as you are likely to do more harm than good. Instead, performing split squats and progressing them to pushing back into a standing position more explosively is a great form of extensor training. Single leg RDLs are also brilliant for hamstring strength, single leg balance and joint stability. Glute bridge marches are another great exercise. For the more advanced gym goers, Bulgarian split squats are brilliant and challenging as they target nearly all of the aforementioned muscle groups and incorporate single leg balance, core stability & aid in strengthening the ankle, knee and hip joints.

Hip adductors & abductors – The hip abductors include the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus muscles and tensor fascia latae. Exercises to improve these include side-lying hip abduction, side lunges and controlled leg swings. The adductor muscles (the groin area) include the pectineus, adductor longus, gracilis, adductor brevis and adductor magnus. Side lying hip adductions and copenhagens are two of the best exercises to strengthen the muscles in the groin.

Knee flexors & extensors – The knee flexors primarily involve the hamstrings which we have already mentioned along with the sartorius, popliteus and gastrocnemius (calf muscle). Knee extension is achieved primarily by the quadriceps muscles. Squats, lunges and resisted seated knee flexion and extensions are simple but yet very effective exercises for beginners before weights are applied.

Ankle plantarflexors & dorsiflexors – Plantarflexors include the gastrocnemius, soleus and the plantaris muscle. Performing calf raises and progressing to single leg calf raises when able to target the gastrocnemius. Then performing the same with a bent knee to target the soleus. Forward lunges incorporating calf raises are a much more challenging way of hitting that soleus also. The three muscles that are involved in ankle dorsiflexion include the tibialis anterior, extensor digitorum longus and extensor hallucis longus. These muscles groups are commonly unknown and many people don’t actually work on them in the gym. Leaning back against a wall and pulling your toes up or even pulling your toes up against a resistance band are adequate ways of training these muscle groups.

Other forms of training which should be included in your plan would include stretching and flexibility work, mobility work and some upper limb strengthening. Upper limb work can include some push and pull exercises to target your upper back, shoulders and chest. Resisted shoulder external rotation is important to achieving a good upright posture. Flexibility involves muscle lengthening and “how far can you go” while mobility focuses on the ability to achieve full joint range of motion while having strength through this range. Hip mobility is extremely important for runners and should be implemented into plans. 90/90s, controlled hip internal and external rotations and the hip CAR exercises are good examples for this.

NOTE: As mentioned earlier in this article, it is vital in any weight training that you are using proper body form & technique. All exercises incorporating weights should be mastered initially using only your own body weight with weights introduced only when correct form & technique is achieved on a consistent basis. For this reason it is extremely important that you consult with a qualified practitioner in advance of implementing any weight training to your programme.

Gavin Smith 
BSc. Health & Performance Science, University College Dublin 
4th Year Physiotherapy student, University College Dublin

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