Any avid runner will tell you that there are few things in life better than the endorphin rush you get coasting along an open road. Also common shared experience for seasoned runners: injuries. Although running is a affordable and effective way to train your cardiovascular system, the stress of the repetitive forward motion, not to mention the impact of pounding the pavement (or treadmill), can wreak havoc on your joints, muscles, and other tissues.
The best way to deal with an injury is to avoid it in the first place, and that’s where crosstraining comes into play. In addition to their typical weekly mileage, runners should focus on strengthening the muscles used during running (as well as the ones that don’t), stretching muscles that tend to tighten up, and activating the core to connect the upper and lower body.
Since running involves a constant forward motion, it’s important to strengthen the muscles that propel you forwards; in other words, the entire lower body. Your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves all need a little love when it comes to resistance training. However, due to sedentary lifestyles (even if you’re a runner!), the glutes especially tend to be weak and prone to not firing correctly.
Even if you don’t hit the gym, bodyweight exercises are a great start. Try basic bodyweight squats, forward lunges, single leg deadlifts and calf raises (off a stair or step) to get you started. Better yet, move your body in various planes of motion to balance the fact that while running, you are only moving forwards - a recipe for creating asymmetries. Lateral (sideways) and curtsy (or transverse) lunges are perfect to throw into the mix, as is utilizing a resistance band to fire up the outer hips. Having a strong lower body is especially helpful when chugging along uphill, or breezing along downhill for that matter. A strong lower body means both more power and more control.
While bodyweight exercises have their place, if you’re serious about strengthening your lower body, the Megaformer is your best friend. Between the added resistance of spring, and working on an unstable surface, you are bound to get a great workout for your lower half. Standing Outer Thighs, Skater Lunge, and Mega Donkey Kick are a few personal favorites to target the hard-to-isolate outer hips. Strengthening these muscles will help support the knee joint, improving running form and making you a more efficient runner.
If you consider yourself a “runner,” you’ve likely complained to your comrades about the seeming requisite tightness that comes along with it. Keep in mind, sometimes a muscle may feel tight because it’s compensating for a weakness elsewhere. Regardless, moving your joints through their potential range of motion will help keep things feeling loose and lubricated. The same techniques we shared for preparing yourself for running (foam rolling, dynamic stretches, and static stretches) all apply here. Just remember: save the static stretches (like touching your toes) for after your workout. Pre-run, try hitting the foam roller to warm up muscle tissue and throw in some dynamic stretches involving large, total body movements.
Finally, although runners certainly need strong and limber lower bodies, it’s essential not to overlook core strength. Think about it: when you run, not only are you moving your legs, but your arms swing in opposition. Or at least they should; natural gait is contralateral, meaning as one foot steps forward, the opposite arm swings forward. If this natural gait is compromised, you risk not only losing power and speed, but injuring yourself.
And what connects the lower body to the upper body? (Spoiler: THE CORE!) All the various layers of the musculature of the torso work to help synchronize the upper and lower body together. In particular, the obliques (which cross over your torso) and transverse abdominals (which assist with respiration) are worth focusing on. Think twists and side planks to target the oblique muscles; Snake, Teaser, and Kneeling Torso twists are just a few of our oblique-focused favorites. And you can’t beat planks of any kind to help engage the deepest layer of your core, transverse abdominals.
If you want to get better at running, you certainly have to run. But cross training your body by including strength training, stretching, and core work will help keep you injury-free and become a stronger runner.