Best Workouts For Building Leg Muscles

Running is a full-body workout that millions of people have used to get in shape and stay that way. But runners cannot get by on running alone. The best runners know that strength training is key, especially when it comes to improving their speed, endurance, and overall health. And despite what newcomers might think, a good run does not count as “leg day”, no matter how far you go.

Building strong leg muscles means having the power and ability to go the distance, whether that is a jog around the block or a 10k. Stronger leg muscles are also more economic leg muscles, meaning they carry oxygen more efficiently and carry the runner further, faster. It’s a win-win situation that every runner should find themselves in. Strength training doesn’t have to be an all-day power session to yield results, either. Just a few sessions a week will make a runner faster, more stable, and ready to face the next big challenge.

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash.

Benefits of Strength Training

It’s hard to put rankings on the benefits of strength training. It is, however, easy to say that strength training lays a solid foundation on which runners can build. That is to say, it promotes injury-prevention and it does so for a couple of reasons. The most obvious reason is that strong muscles are less likely to take on damage when they are put under strain. Naturally, strength training a runner’s legs is the best way to maximize this resiliency. But that is not all it does. Most of the motions necessary for strength training are different from the motions that the legs are put through while on a run. Once the muscles become accustomed to this new style and range of motion they are more adaptable and are less likely to react poorly when a footfall goes wrong or the runner’s gait slips off-rhythm. It’s a winning combination that helps keep runners on their feet.

Strength training also boosts a runner’s “economy”, which is the way their muscles use oxygen to increase speed and the distance they can cover. One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that runners who went from no strength training to a three-day-a-week routine saw an increased endurance without any marked increase in body mass. The body mass impact might seem unimportant but many runners avoid the weight room because of a long-standing myth that strength training bulks a person up and slows them down. But it is just that: a myth. It should not keep anyone from the weight room.

When To Strength Train The Legs

Jason Fitzgerald, the running coach mentioned earlier, has some very specific suggestions on when runners should work strength training their legs into their schedule. He suggests that runners spend ten to twenty minutes after every run on exercises that specifically target the muscles used in running. Squats, jumps, and lunges are a few good options though there are other options listed further down in this article.

In addition to these short post-run strength sessions, Fitzgerald recommends that runners hit the gym or strength train in their own home twice a week. Runners can mix runner-specific movements with more generalized and varied exercises.

The Best Leg Workouts for Runners

Calf Raises

Start with working on those lower leg muscles. Space your feet a few inches apart (some variations call for a wider stance) and ground your weight through your whole foot. Slowly shift your weight towards the balls of your feet as you go up on tip-toe. Hold the raised position for a few seconds, then slowly lower back to your original position.

Squats

Squats work the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. If you’re up for a little more full-body impact, grab some hand weights or a barbell (with a spotter) to get your core and shoulders involved.

There several variations on the basic squat, a few of which are covered in the video below. The most well-known version begins with the feet space chest-width apart with the person’s weight grounded through the whole foot. The person then squats down, their straight and their upper body shifting behind their heels as their knees stay over their ankles. This position can be held for a short count or the person can move straight back into their starting position, all motions done in a slow and deliberate fashion.

Lunges

Lunges are also great for working on those quads and glutes. There are several variations, as with squats. And, due to the impact of the lunge on a person’s knee, it is important to get the form right before adding additional weights or trying the more complex variations.

Begin with your feet together, eyes fixed on a point straight ahead and core engaged. Step forward with one foot and slowly lower your hips until both knees are bent at about 90-degree angles. Your front knee should be over your ankle while your back knee should not be touching the ground. Some variations require you to hold this position while others allow you to immediately move back into the starting position.

Leg Presses

At the gym, check out the leg press machine. These are basically weighted squats. It does allow for different foot positions so that the runner can focus on other muscles. Make sure to rest in between sets and do each press slowly to make sure the proper muscles – including your core – are engaged.

Back Extension

This exercise mostly targets the back, but it also engages the glutes and helps encourage core engagement. It requires the use of a stability ball but can otherwise be done at the gym or at home. Lay chest-down on the ball with legs extended straight behind and toes planted firmly on the floor. Your feet should be set wide to increase your stability. Lace your fingers behind your bed and engage your back so that your chest raises off the ball and your core engages. Hold for a few seconds, then relax back into the ball.

Stability Ball Leg Curl

The leg curl is a great exercise that targets your hamstrings, glutes, and core. It also makes a great follow-up to the back extension, since you will already have the stability ball out! Lay flat on your back on the floor, arms rooted in the floor for stability. Lift your feet onto the stability ball with your legs fully extended. Engage your core and use your heels to roll the ball as close to your hips as you can, then roll it back to the starting position. If that is a little too easy, use one leg to roll the ball back and forth while the other is straight up in the air.

Whole-body strength training is the only way to get the most bang for your buck as a runner, but the legs are a great place to start. Not only are they some of the largest muscle groups in the human body but they’re the ones runners most rely on and, by default, are the ones that need the most protection from damage. Strength training is not a limited-time activity, either. Runners who want to get in peak shape and stay there have to incorporate regular strength training into their routines. With a solid foundation, their own determination is the only thing setting their limits.

Sources

  1. How Leg Workouts for Runners Work, John Kelly, How Stuff Works
  2. 10 Essential Strength Training Exercises for Runners, Runner’s World
  3. 3 Reasons Strength Training Will Benefit Your Run, Leslie Goldman, Active
  4. Legs Exercises With Resistance Exercise Bands, Bodylastics
  5. A 10-Move Resistance Band Butt Workout You Can Do Anywhere, Meg Lappe, C.P.T., , Self
  6. These Are the 6 Best Strength Exercises for Runners Ashley Mateo, Health
  7. How Strength Training Can Prevent Running Injuries Amanda Loudin, NBC News
  8. Know Your Basics: How to Do a Lunge Shape

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