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A common misconception in the exercise community is that running builds leg muscle and strength. I have encountered many experience runners who run 30+ miles weekly, yet find their legs destroyed after a simple workout of body weight squats and body weight lunges. The act of running does not build leg strength, nor leg muscle. What running does do is increase your body’s ability for oxygen intake (that’s the V02 Max thing you may have heard of), improve your lactate threshold (the “burn” you feel in your legs? That’s lactic acid build up, which you become more efficient at buffering with running), and improve your running economy (you can run father, faster!). There are many other benefits to running, however, from a physiological stand point, those are the biggies.
Why is strength training the legs so important for runners? The repetitive stress put on the legs requires you to have strong legs if you want to run injury free. Each stride you take while running results in a force 2x to 3x your body weight. Your legs must absorb that force, over and over again. You cannot put in 20+ miles a week with weak legs and expect to make it to the fall without any issues. You must place stress on the body that causes the physiological response of strength gain and muscle gain. The only way to cause this response is to lift weights and to lift weights with your legs!
What exercise should runners do to improve their leg strength and decrease their chance of injury? Squats, lunges, and deadlifts are the best leg exercises for runners. Start with using just your body weight for squats and lunges. As your leg strength improves, begin to weight up your squats and lunges slowly over time. The deadlift is best done with a heavy kettle bell or barbell (this exercise is key, as most runners suffer from weak hamstrings, low back, and deep core). Hip abduction exercises are also important for strengthening the hip area, a common weak link to an efficient running gait. Consult with a fitness professional if you are unsure of the best way to incorporate these movements into your program and to ensure your form is pristine!
Finally, a note to beginners who are looking to begin an exercise program, and experienced runners who are about to begin a summer running program. Everyone starting an exercise program or running program should always do a 6 to 8 week leg strengthening program BEFORE consistently running. Too many people start an exercise program with running as their focus, resulting in overuse injuries. Build the leg strength first, then incorporate running in your exercise program.
Hit the gym, strengthen your legs up, and have an awesome and injury free running season!
Personal Training Manager
Lincoln Square Athletic Club
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