A quick, simple strength training program for trail runners

Strength training is a critically important part of a trail runner’s program, but one that’s overlooked far too often.  Runners want to spend their spare time running.  They don’t want to waste it beefing up in the gym.  Trail runners, especially, want to spend their time outdoors, enjoying nature.  Would you rather be stuck in a gym doing repetitive weights, or out on a trail enjoying the outdoors?

The benefits of weight training are well established.  Strength training can improve cardiovascular fitness, improve your balance, strengthen your bones, and help you lose weight.  Importantly though for trail runners, strength training can reduce the risk of injury by strengthening specific muscles and other soft tissues that are put under stress by trail running.  In particular, these are the foot, ankle and calves.  Also, strengthening muscles like the glute and the smaller leg muscles improves balance and agility, which leads to reduced injury.

This strength program is designed specifically for trail runners, but also suitable for non-trail runners.  These few exercises are all you need to maximise your trail running and reduce injury.  In fact, keeping it simple increases the effectiveness and makes it easier to stick to.  The best part is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.  One strength workout per week is plenty for the average trail runner.  And each workout will only take about 30 minutes.  Minimising the amount of time required for strength workouts makes it more likely that they’ll actually get done.

Single-leg deadlift

OK.  I started with a tricky one but don’t leave just yet.  The single-leg deadlift is the ultimate goal.  Start with a double-leg deadlift before moving on to the single-leg version or you’ll probably have difficulty or hurt yourself, and you’ll definitely have poor form.  

The single-leg deadlift does so much in one action.  It’s one of those compound exercises that develops functional fitness by working multiple muscle groups at once.  Deadlifts work just about every muscle in the leg, including glute, calf, quad, hamstring and Adductor Magnus.  They also work numerous back and abdominal muscles.  Single-leg deadlifts are even more awesome because they also require torso, pelvic, and hip stability.

How to do it

  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold the barbell with your arms fully extended toward the ground, hands shoulder-width apart, and palms facing your thighs. While lifting one foot a few inches off the floor to bring it behind you, slightly bend the knee of your supporting leg.
  • Push your hips backward, bending at the waist to lower your torso toward the ground as your rear leg trails behind you to help with balance. Push out your chest, only going as low as you can without your lower back rounding. Let the weights touch the floor, pause, and then squeeze your glutes to return to the starting position.

Instead of the barbell, you can also use dumbbells or kettlebells, or just one kettlebell for extra emphasis on stability and balance.

Weighted hops

Single legged hops with dumbbells or a barbell strengthen the calves, which are important for stability on technical trails and for powering up hills.

How to do it

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet together.
  • Lift one leg off the floor and balance on the other.
  • Hop up and down and do the same motion until exhaustion. Switch sides and repeat.

Do this exercise without wearing shoes.

Single leg balance

This exercise improves balance and strengthens foot and ankle muscles.

How to do it

  • Stand on a BOSU ball.
  • Lift one leg up, bending your standing leg slightly.
  • Stay in this position for as long as you can until your muscles become fatigued and cause you to lose your balance.
  • Repeat three to five times.
  • For an extra challenge, try it with your eyes closed.

Jumping lunges

This is another one of those exercises that work just about every muscle in your legs.  Specifically, it works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves and hip flexors.

How to do it

  • To begin, start standing tall with your feet staggered, your left foot slightly in front of your right. Making sure you’re not too stiff, keep your stance active with your knees bent in a slight but not full lunge.
  • With your core engaged, push off the bottom of both feet into a jump, switching the position of your feet in mid-air, landing in a basic lunge with your right leg in front.
  • Without rest, repeat this movement alternating which leg is in front. To prevent injury, make sure your back leg is bent directly underneath your body and your front leg is bent at 90 degrees at the knee and hip.
  • Repeat to exhaustion.

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