Sport-Specific Training: Running
Updated: Aug 11
Gyms are closed. Yoga studios are shut down. What is one to do besides workout in the living room? Maybe go for a nice run! Not a bad idea at all, besides the fact that everyone and their mother is trying to get outside right now so those trails you love might have some traffic.
Whether you have been an avid runner for years, do it occasionally as a challenge, or recently picked it up out of necessity, there is one key thing to understand. Running is a sport, and a high impact one at that. Although that may seem kind of strange to say since here is no human physical contact (hopefully), the impact of striking the pavement with your feet for miles on end can definitely have an effect.
Just like any other sport, there needs to be training that supports the activity you have engaged in. Runners often experience a host of ailments, injuries, and movement dysfunction that range from foot pain, shin splints, hip tightness, lower back pain, and more. While anyone can of course experience these, those who frequently run are more likely to encounter these issues if not prepared for.
Now if you regularly engage in strength training and run on occasion, maybe 1-2 times per week at a moderate pace for a few miles, then your training should be sufficient to keep you running without much discomfort. For those who have been running for years, or recently started, and have been feeling weakness or pain due to running, this is for you.
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR SPORT
Put simply, most sports involve a repeated action of some kind. Throwing a ball, a swimming stroke, a tennis forehand, or running forwards for miles. Doing the same thing over and over again of course will cause a change in your body’s natural state and if left alone, might create injury.
Simple example would be a baseball pitcher. The repeated act of throwing a baseball will put a lot of stress through the shoulder joint and the muscles that surround it and if nothing is done to either offset it or account for it, then eventually something will give. Same thing happens in running.
Often with runners there is a great deal of instability in the ankle, knee, and hip joints which cause them to take the blunt of the force with each stride. Where muscles should be absorbing the contact, they are instead failing to fire at optimal capacity and have left the joints to fend for themselves. Over time this will create increased discomfort, and every time you run it will dig you in a deeper hole if nothing is done. So what should you do? Let’s start from the ground up.
**It is next to impossible to prescribe the “perfect” routine or workout for any situation as everyone has different body structures, experiences, and expertise levels. With that in mind, what will be listed below are things to be thinking about for training and an example or two for each rather than just listing a bunch of exercises.**
Probably the most neglected portion of all strength and conditioning is the lower half of your leg. Your feet are what is in contact with the ground all day yet many forget to account for their presence and importance when training.
The human body isn’t just a combination of body parts that operate independently of each other. Yes, you can isolate muscle groups in training, but during sport you never behave like this. So when you have weak and inactive feet, then it makes sense how that can impact how your knee, which can affect the way your hips sit, which can create lower back pain, and it can go on and on.
Foot and ankle training works brilliantly in the beginning of workouts because the feet and ankles should be “turned on” during almost every exercise, and they serve as a good cognitive drill as they often incorporate some sort of balance component. Think about learning to grip the floor with your feet and creating an arch in your foot as you do this drill. Do this by pushing your knees outwards from each other and screwing your feet into the floor. You should have three points of contact with the floor as pictured below.
A great drill to work on this while also incorporating core, balance, stride mechanics, and cognitive function is a single leg stand with 90 degree hip and knee flexion. Perform 3 sets of 20 seconds per side at the beginning of a workout.
The importance of a strong posterior chain (your backside) has been reinforced time and time again and while it’s not always the cause of your issues, it’s a good place to look to improve upon. If you have trouble deadlifting, squatting, or lunging then you probably have some degree of failure with loading into your glutes and hamstrings.
This is where it gets tricky to suggest exercises in this format without seeing each individual move in person. It all depends on where you are currently at and what you can currently do properly. For someone who is used to training and a gym and has fairy proficient movement patterns, then some form of a good morning would be a great exercise to implement. For someone who needs something a little more regressed, a good morning would spell nothing but trouble and only make matters worse.
A simple exercise that is often suggested for this would be a hip bridge. Now a hip bridge on the floor with no weight isn’t particularly challenging for most and is often used as a warm-up exercise. It is a perfectly good exercise that should teach hip extension and how to feel for and use your glutes/hamstrings. They can be taken a notch up by performing them in single leg fashion, off the edge of a bench, or by using isometric holds.
Below are a few videos of both a good morning and hip bridge variations to give you an idea of what they look like. Again, use your best discretion here; if you have never performed a hinge before then don’t go putting a bar on your back and bending over. That would just be silly.
Any workout advice wouldn’t be complete without some core! Everyone knows the importance of having a strong trunk but this isn’t about pounding away at crunches. Learning how to properly brace and engage your deep abdominal wall is integral for any sport, running included.
Since running is a pure aerobic sport without any rapid, explosive movement there is much less natural core recruitment involved in the sport itself. Basketball, football, gymnastics, soccer, and many more all involved jumping, cutting, holding, sprinting, and change of direction, which on some level require core stability. All this to say that while every athlete should train their core, runners especially need to give it attention as the actual sport itself requires very little core activation when compared to other sports.
Exercises that incorporate holds for time as opposed to reps tend to work better as a teaching tool because once you feel your core engaged, you just have to hold it. While there’s nothing wrong with going in and out of reps, it is just that much more likely that you lose that tension that you want to maintain. Every rep is a chance to mess something up, so you’re better off finding the sweet spot, and holding it for the duration of the set.
Plank variations, dead bug variations, hollow holds, and farmer carry variations are all fantastic exercises that teach the core and torso as a whole to maintain rigidity and tightness. Below is a video of a great plank variation that not only teaches the anti-extension (not letting hips fall) aspect of a plank, but also challenges you on a single leg front as well.
Of course, these aren’t the only three areas of the body that a runner should be training, but for the sake of brevity these truly are the three most often neglected areas when it comes to frequent runners. The upper body should be trained as well but you should place more emphasis and frequency on training what’s listed above.
Learn to improve the function of these areas and your body should begin to feel more in sync and functioning better than before. You will start to notice how they all tie in together as training your core will help with your balance, and training your feet will help you be aware of and active your glutes/hamstrings, etc. Most sports, running in particular, are a function of repeated action, stride after stride after stride. If you want to run pain-free and excel at it, then you need appropriate training to prepare you for the task at hand.