As a runner, it’s tempting to gloss over the lower body during a strength-training session. Between hill repeats, tempo workouts, and long runs, your legs and glutes are regularly pushed to their limits. Do you really need a dedicated leg day workout? Covering all that ground should be sufficient, right?
“Wrong,” Dane Miklaus, founder of WORK Training Studio, tells Runner’s World. Focusing solely on running is a “less-than-optimal” training strategy that can eventually lead to injuries, he says.
The Benefits of a Leg Day Workout for Runners
“The vast majority of us have developed a foot strike and cadence that may feel natural to us but is far from optimal. Imbalances bilaterally, tight joints, weak connective tissues, and even sore muscles from previous training sessions will all lead to compensatory movements when we run,” Miklaus says. “These compensations can negatively affect running economy at best, and directly contribute to both acute and chronic injuries at worst.” But, a well-designed strength-training program that includes the legs and glutes can help identify and correct injury-causing compensations.
Even if you do manage to avoid getting hurt, consistently skipping leg day could be robbing you of speed and power. “Fast-twitch muscle fibre types are primarily responsible for our fastest, most explosive, and strongest movements. In your legs, these fibers help you go from a jogging pace to a true sprint pace,” Miklaus says. “Running alone will not optimally challenge these muscle fibres. Instead, they need direct targeting from heavy resistance training, and very fast, explosive exercises.”
To help you stay healthy and get the most out of your runs, Miklaus developed the following leg day workout. Incorporate it into your current strength-training plan or pair it with an easy run.
How to use this list: Perform 6 to 8 reps of each exercise (per side for the dumbbell swing, step-up, and Bulgarian split squat), resting up to 3 minutes between sets. Repeat the full circuit 4 times.
You will need a heavy set of dumbbells and a loaded barbell. (If you don’t have a barbell, stick with the heavy dumbbells. “Choose weights that are so heavy you literally cannot complete more than the prescribed reps,” Miklaus advises. “If you can do more at the end of the set, it’s not heavy enough.”
1. Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Why it works: The stiff-leg deadlift targets the hamstrings, glutes, and posterior core muscles, all of which tend to be neglected by runners who don’t strength train, Miklaus says. “This can lead to knee and hip injuries and decrease top speed,” he says. “Stiff-leg deadlifts help increase strength in those areas and can improve the power and speed of a runner’s ‘kick.’”
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell in front of thighs with straight arms and an overhand or mixed grip. Keeping legs as straight as possible (a slight bend in knees is okay), hinge hips, push butt back, and lower weight until you feel a pull in hamstrings. Maintain a flat back, and don’t round shoulders. Engage glutes, and drive feet into floor to extend hips and stand back up. Repeat.
2. Dumbbell Swing
Why it works: Besides strengthening the posterior chain, dumbbell swings help develop a dynamic hip extension, which drives a runner’s forward propulsion.
How to do it: Stand with a dumbbell on the ground, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hinge at hips, push butt back, bend knees, and grab the dumbbell with the right hand using a neutral grip. Extend left arm to side for balance. Pull dumbbell through legs, up and back, to load the glutes and hamstrings. Then, explosively extend hips forward, engage glutes, and straighten legs, allowing the momentum generated to swing the dumbbell out in front of the body with arm extended. Engage core to avoid back from arching. Allow the weight to naturally come back down between legs, then immediately launch into the next swing. Repeat. Then switch sides.
3. Sumo Deadlift
Why it works: “Traditional deadlifts still have a very heavy quadriceps emphasis. The sumo deadlift allows the athlete to get deeper into their glutes and also target the oft-forgotten adductor muscles. For any runner who has ever experienced a ‘groin’ injury, selling them on the idea of strong adductors should be pretty easy,” Miklaus says. “On top of that, any training in the frontal plane (e.g. adduction, or moving toward the body’s midline) will help increase hip strength and stability.”
How to do it: Position feet under the barbell with a very wide stance, toes pointed out slightly. Keeping chest lifted, hinge hips, send butt back, and keep a flat back, allowing knees to bend naturally. Maintain a neutral spine—don’t hunch forward—and look down and out to keep your neck neutral. Grip bar with an overhand or mixed grip, arms extended, shoulders back and down. Push through feet to stand up, keeping the bar close to legs. Maintaining a flat back, hinge hips, bend knees, and lower bar to the ground. Repeat.
Why it works: Step-ups are tremendous glute strengtheners, but the box must be high enough, says Miklaus. “Ideally, your knee is higher than your hip joint when you begin the move and your foot is simply resting on the box. Make sure you extend all the way upright at the top before putting the other leg on the box in order to get the most benefit,” he says. “Also, make sure you return to the floor on the same leg in order to get the benefits of the eccentric contraction in the same leg.”
How to do it: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms at the sides. With your right foot on top of a box and left foot on the ground, step up onto the box by driving all of your weight through the right foot, keeping your knee over laces, and your body travelling directly upward. Lightly place the left foot on the box next to the right, then lower it back to the ground with control, keeping the right foot on the box. Repeat. Then switch sides.
5. Bulgarian Split Squat
Why it works: “Bulgarian split squats directly target the quadriceps, hip flexors, hamstrings, and glutes, but they also add a great stability challenge as well. They’ll help strengthen pretty much every part of your leg, including down at your ankle,” Miklaus says.
How to do it: With arms at the sides, hold a dumbbell in each hand. Stand in front of a chair, bench, box, or step, facing away from it. Take a small step away from the chair. Reach the right foot back and rest the top of the foot on a chair. Lean forward just slightly, keeping your chest up, back straight, and bend your left knee to lower as far as you can toward the floor with control. The left knee should track over the toes, and the right knee should almost touch the floor. Drive left foot into the floor to stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides