What is leg strength in running?
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A thought hit me about a month ago while running… leg strength is very important for running but not actually written about much.

The type of leg strength I am writing about is obviously not the same type of leg strength that is needed to squat 495X5, but more some similarities than most runners might recognize exist.

One thing that most notice when watching the elites race is that their legs are generally very thin and seem to be mostly sinew. Many women runners have more muscular legs than the men (especially thin are the Kenyan and Nigerian men who can weigh under 120lbs). So we naturally do not think of them as having “strong” legs, fast legs yes but not strong. The truth is that they do have very strong legs, just a unique strength that allows them to break gravity 1000’s (to 10,000s) of times in a race at a very rapid pace. Moving from one foot plant to the next extremely quickly (when going sub 6:00 pace say) requires strength from the lower back, glutes, external rotators, hamstrings, quads, adductors and abductors, all 3 heads of the calf and all of the muscles in the foot (and I haven’t even mentioned the tendon strength necessary to carry and propel the load of the whole body each stride).

It can sometimes be easy to think that it doesn’t take much muscular strength to run, but it becomes indisputable when one has a slight strain. Try to run at even 10:00 pace when you have a calf strain. I have tried it and it forces you to realize from the first 100m that your muscles are propelling your forward and working to break gravity. You feel very weak. The heavier you are (I am currently a Clydesdale runner at 210lbs) the more strength you need to generate that push. The faster you are going the shorter time your foot stays planted and the more force you need to generate to get the follow through to the next stride.

One could say that this the ability to run far while maintaining a specific pace is simply muscular endurance and not strength. I disagree. Muscular endurance is of course an element of effective running, but without adequate strength ones stride won’t be solid, stable and quick. Muscular endurance has been defined as the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions against a resistance for an extended period of time. So why isn’t this definition enough? Because it fails to state “repeated forceful contractions”. You may be able to continue to run late in a marathon or ultra (or sustaining repeated contractions against a resistance) but are doing so at a slower pace or with much greater difficulty and with much greater recruitment of additional fibers if you don’t have adequate leg strength.

By being able to stay strong late into a race (not just have continued endurance late into a race), you will run faster, easier and with better form.

So what will help you develop stronger legs for running? I believe there are basically 3 things and 1 thing not to do.

1) Increase volume of varied running. The emphasis here is on varied. To get stronger I believe in one hilly run a week, one tempo or Interval run a week and one long run a week. The hills especially contribute to added muscular strength as the uphills strengthen the hamstrings, glutes and calves and the downhills strengthen the quads, glutes and shins. The cavaet being that the runs should over time get harder (hillier, faster tempo or longer). Only through this slow continual overload will they continue to get stronger. This technique to building leg strength should not be news to most runners, but this is where most runners stop in their leg strengthening quest and don’t incorporate the other factors listed here.

2) Drills. 4 Drills done twice a week can have a major impact on one’s leg strength and leg stability (stability contributes heavily to leg strength and injury prevention). Of the runners that do perform drills, some like to do them before their runs. I don’t think there is necessarily anything really wrong with this… but for me (and those I coach) there are two reasons to do the drills on your off days (or for me at the beginning of my gym workouts). Those two reasons are for improved recovery and working hard at tough drills before a training run is annoying (and saps some strength from your run). Drills are exercises designed to strengthen your legs and not just general warmups before a run. The Drills that I advocate (and perform) are all higher rep (without weight) going from 20 – 200 reps as one gets stronger and they are (in order of performing them):1) forward lunges 2) side lunges 3) high knees 4) butt kicks. There are others like skipping and one legged jumping that have value but just doing the 4 just listed is enough and will have great benefits.

I won’t go into great detail on them but will give these important pointers on performing them. The forward lunge should have a long follow through and you should stay low.

Do not come all the way up each rep. Follow through while still with knees bent. This will keep constant tension and force the glutes to get more engaged. This is important.
With the side lunge, it is also important to stay low the entire time.


Put your legs out and get down into a plie squat position with your upper legs basically parallel to the floor and move side to side by extending your foot out and coming back down. Remember to stay down in the position with legs parallel to the floor the entire time. Do not come up to legs straight position until done with the movement. Make sure to do the same number of reps to the right as you do to the left because moving your leg out works that legs abductors and moving the trailing leg in works that legs adductors. A very tough, anaerobic and beneficial exercise.

High Knees are straightforward. Standing up straight forcefully and quickly raise one leg up in front of you until your upper leg is parallel to the ground. Then quickly bring that leg down and repeat with the other leg. Do not move forward when doing this drill but stay in one place and simply alternate legs up and back to the ground. One key is to pump your opposite arm (to your leg) out like you are running. This will help guide in the proper arm movement and also recruit more overall fibers (by incorporating the upper body). The depiction of the movement in the image below is good except move your arms less up and more directly out and back.

Butt Kicks are performed standing (and while keeping your upper legs perpendicular to the floor) you alternate legs and kick your heel back and toward your glutes. Use the same opposite arm motion as I wrote when doing High Knees. Do the movement forcefully and quickly.

These last two drills also work the calf as you will notice when performing them. The more you spring doing them the more calf will be recruited.

3) Romanian Deadlifts and Hack Squats or Smith Machine Front Squats

Rep ranges for the 3 exercises mentioned should be 12 – 20. This isn’t about gaining max one rep strength but gaining usable stabilizing strength in your entire posterior chain (low back, erectors, glutes and hamstrings) with the Romanians and hip, quad and knee strength from Hack Squats or Smith Machines squats. Just 3 sets of Romanians and 3 sets of one of the other two exercises once a week can make a significant difference. Most definitely do these on your off running days and not before or directly after running. Either dumbbells or barbells can be used for Romanians. I think this video gives a good depiction of performing dumbbell Romanians (except I would continue the movement until the dumbbells touch the floor… that stretch is important in deference to what he says. I also would not put the weight plates underneath the front of your shoes.). Always keep your knees bent but lever at the hips not the knees (unlike a normal deadlift). Demonstration of Hack Squats. Go low and keep your toes pointed slightly out and your feet out in front of you (not too low) and always only use weight that allows you to perform 12 – 20 reps.
You can also do hack squats with a barbell if your gym doesn’t have a Hack Squat machine but these are challenging and can put extra stress on the patellar tendon. Essentially you do a standard deadlift with the barbell behind your legs instead of in front of you. Putting weight plates underneath your heels has been accepted as a way to reduce stress on the knees, but I don’t think this is a great idea as it is putting you in a slightly unnatural position. Smith Machine Front Squats demonstration. I would put my feet a bit further out in front of my body than the video but otherwise I think it is good. Remember to keep your elbows high and your hands crossed across the bar. If you have the shoulder flexibility, you can hold the bar without your arms crossed but most don’t have this flexibility and holding the bar like this isn’t necessary.

4) Don’t do extra calf work besides running and the Drills. If you are running hard and long your calves get a lot of work, and I have tried to do calf raises at the gym along with running but always ending up straining my calves not too soon after. Especially if you are running with a midfoot/forefoot strike, your calves are getting tremendous work and extra heavy calf work is just too much. I don’t believe your calves get enough time to recover and extra calf work is not necessary.

So work towards getting your legs stronger and you will feel lighter and have more bounce in your stride for longer and longer distances.

Best of luck in your training,

Chris

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