Single Leg Exercises for Better Running
As runners, we all know how important it is to keep our muscles strong. No matter how much time we have in our daily lives to get to those “extra” exercises besides running, we are aware of the benefits. Although running itself strengthens certain body systems, especially the heart and lungs, it alone may not be the best at keeping each and every muscle group strong. Taking just two or three days per week to focus on a few essential workouts outside of running is all it takes to reap the benefits.
Muscle Compensation = Overuse
Runners who rarely or never strength train are more at risk to acquiring injuries. Just a simple twist of an ankle from stepping on a pebble is more likely to sprain the ankle of a runner who skips strengthening exercises versus one who doesn’t. The more common injuries are caused by overuse of certain muscles. Running requires the effort of many muscles working together. Strength imbalances are usually the cause of the overuse. When one muscle is significantly weak, others surrounding the muscle must work harder to compensate for the weakness. Basic exercises such as squats, lunges, and push-ups are great to help strengthen several big muscle groups at once, but they should not be the only moves performed. These examples are considered double-leg or double-sided exercises. This means as the muscles are getting strengthened with the moves, the differences in strength between muscles remains the same. If the right quadricep is significantly weaker than the left, the body will most likely lean more towards the left side during the squat, therefore leaving the right side weaker than the left.
This compensation is what happens during running as well, except that running is actually considered a single-leg activity so instead of the left leg compensating for right quad weakness, the other muscles on the right leg must compensate for the lack of sufficient quad strength. This overcompensation will eventually lead to overworking of both that weak quad and the muscles trying to do its job. Once you have been running for a long time, it gets hard to tell where your weakness is. Unfortunately, in many cases, one may not realize they have an imbalance of strength until they are injured. This is why it is imperative to begin a strengthening program as soon as possible to get those muscles in balance!
Better Balance = Better Running Economy
Running is simply a balancing act. There is never a moment where both feet are on the ground at the same time. It is all about single leg balancing with each step while creating a ‘falling forward’ motion. This balancing act is controlled primally by the ankle system, followed by the hips and core. When the body lacks proper balance needed during running, the overcompensation of the muscles will only lead to poor recruitment patterns and fatigue, which will cause a runner to not last as long at a given desired pace. Over time, this is what leads to strains in important muscle groups such as the hip flexors, IT Band and Achilles tendon. During extended runs such as a marathon, the poor recruitment and muscle fatigue may turn into Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. All of these problems will be ongoing until the proper balance of muscle strength and stability of the body gets corrected.
Improve Strength & Balance at the Same Time
Single leg exercises should be incorporated into all strengthening sessions as it is the best way to mimic the single leg work required in running. It will also help get the correct ratio of strength between muscle groups that must cooperate with each other. Many easy floor exercises work for this purpose such as leg raises, clamshells and single-leg bridges. The bulk of single-leg strengthening, though, should be performed in the standing position to get the most benefit for running improvements. Below are examples of single-leg exercises that isolate specific muscle groups. Single leg squats, deadlifts and heel raises are a more effective way to isolate one quadricep, hamstring, and calf muscle at a time.
Not only do the single leg exercises isolate muscle groups more effectively, but they work the “balance” muscles in the hip and ankle. As mentioned above the hip and ankle systems in the body are what controls the balance required in running. The goal of these exercises is to be able to complete each without your ankle rolling or your hips shifting or dropping to one side. This will indicate those “balance” muscles in the ankle and hips are strong enough to stabilize you during dynamic movements. More advanced single leg exercises include step-ups with weights and a running arm motion, resistance band hip kicks, and performing a variety of moves on an unstable surface such as a balance disc.
Studies have concluded that strengthening programs lead to improved running performance with increases in VO2 max and muscle power. With the great amount of time it takes to train for a marathon, many runners often skip strengthening programs all together. The majority of people in general have one side of the body stronger than the other. In runners, as in most other athletes, this imbalance is detrimental to improving performance as well as avoiding injuries. Isolating a single leg at a time during strengthening is effective at identifying and correcting asymmetries in leg strength. Over time abnormal recruitment patterns in the muscles during running will lead to mechanical issues in different parts of the body, and eventually injury and/or pain. If you are looking to avoid injury and improve running performance, muscle strengthening should be prioritized during training. Focusing on single-leg exercises is the most beneficial way to strengthen. Performing exercises such as the ones above two or three days per week will only take around 20 minutes and will be worth it!