3 Strength Exercises for Runners You Might Be Doing Wrong

Even the best exercises, if done wrong, can actually do more bad than good.  Here is a list of three of them:

1. The Plank

Benefits for runners: better posture

Planks are meant to strengthen your core in order to improve your balance, stability and running form to run more efficiently and, therefore, faster.

What you might be doing wrong: holding it for as long as you can

Most of us tend to have overactive and tight hip flexors from sitting most of the day.  Because of that, those muscles often try to "help" others when we are doing some exercise (that's why you should not do sit ups). When trying to hold a plank as long as possible, you will likely end up trying to hod the pose when your posture is no longer that of perfect plank.  The issue is that at that point you will no longer just work your core, but also your hip flexors, which is something you need to avoid for the sake of your running and your lower back.

What you should be doing instead: hold it until you feel tension in your lower back

I tell Ready 2 Run clients to focus on keeping their belly button in and their whole back flat and parallel to the ground and to stop the plank as soon as they can no longer keep their whole body in perfect alignment or when they feel tension in their lower back. If this means doing multiple repetitions of the exercise for a few seconds at time until they can feel the burn in their core, then that is what you should do.

2. The Forward Lunge

Benefits for runners: stronger glutes and more flexible hips

Lunges in all their variations are some of the most useful strength exercises for runners as they use the same muscles and joints that are used when running in an exagerated range of motion. They can help you improve both your strength and hip mobility to make you run faster and more smoothly.

What you might be doing wrong: leaning backward and/or forward

A common mistake I see is people starting their movement by leaning slightly back, then reaching forward as far as they can with their foot, and finally pulling their body towards their foot.  This is an inefficient way to move forward that we should avoid practicing when training as we also want to avoid doing it running.

Often, by the time that they are in the lowest part of the lunge, new athletes would then lean forward.  This is a sign of tight hip flexors and quadriceps (again, often caused by sitting) and a lack of engagement of the glutes and core (our running best friends).

By doing walking lunges like that, you are mainly training the wrong muscles and are not getting the dynamic stretching benefits of the lunge.

What you should be doing instead: stand tall, engage your core and glutes, and feel the stretch in your hip flexors.

One thing I discovered when I started coaching multiple sports in track & field is that the root of efficient movements is in proper posture. Before moving into a lunge you need to activate your core and stand tall with your head, shoulders, and hips aligned, and then lift your knee and tuck your hips under your shoulders as you "fall" forward into a lunge. As you get to the bottom of the lunge, you should feel a stretch in front of your back leg and hip. If you do not, it means you are doing the movement wrong, so tighten your core, squeeze your glutes, and stand taller.

If no matter how hard you try you cannot do the lunge with your upper-body vertical, it means your quads and hip flexors are too tight, so do some foam rolling, leg swings, "heel to butt" drills and other dynamic stretches daily before your workouts. You can also switch to doing reverse lunges (i.e. step back) until you are ready for the forward ones. 

3. The Bridge

Benefits for runners: stronger glutes

The glutes are the main motor for running: they push you forward and keep your posture upright.  If I were to only work one muscle group at the gym, it would be this one.

What you might be doing wrong: using your lower back and hamstrings to lift your hips

Because we spend a lot of time sitting and, in generally, do not do many activities that involve our glutes, our bodies often forget how to activate them. So many of us end up doing bridges by tightening and arching our lower back and pulling the ground back with our heels using our hamstrings.

What you should be doing instead:engage your core and squeeze your glutes

Tighten your core before starting the movement to stabilize your pelvis and lower back, then lift your hips by squeezing your glutes and only using your heels as a support.  Depending on how tight your hip flexors and quads are (or how weak your glutes are) you might not be able to go as high as you did when doing the exercise wrong, but you will feel it a lot more in the muscles you actually wanted to work.  It will also teach your body to activate both your core and glute muscles together in the way they should be activated when you run.  The goal is to eventually be strong and flexible enough to bring your hips in alignment with your knees and shoulders while keeping your lower-back flat.