Unpopular Opinion: There are NO MAGICAL exercises that prevent running injuries.
(and this is coming from a physical therapist)
I can't give you ONE exercise and say "yup, you're good for life now!"
(I wish this was the case).
But I can give you the KEY.
I can give you the CONCEPT that if you use this, I PROMISE will change your strength cross training game for life.
I base ALL of my rehab exercises on this.
And my personal strength training circuits on this.
And once you see it, you'll IMMEDIATELY level up.
Curious? Let's dive in!
YOUR STRENGTH EXERCISES SHOULD LOOK LIKE RUNNING
It's simple, I promise.
Think of exercises that look like running.
This means exercises that use:
A single leg (this includes variations)
opposite/reciprocal arm pull/push (this means one arm forward and one arm back)
If this sounds confusing right now, hang tight!
What's a one legged exercise that looks like running?
Forwards and backwards lunges
Bulgarian split squats
Seem familiar yet? ;)
Now let's talk about the harder one: reciprocal arm push/pull
What's a push? A push up. A chest press
What's a pull? A row. A pull up.
The beauty of categorizing upper body exercises as pushes and pulls is that it widens your exercise vocabulary.
You begin to see movement, not just exercises.
You begin to understand what the movement is trying to accomplish and strengthen instead of being at the mercy of whomever designed your program.
How does this relate to running?
Let's take a closer look:
Let's start with the obvious.
Can you see I'm standing on one leg?
(Looks like I'm slow motion-chariots-of-firing my way through the trails.)
Let's keep going:
Can you see how the leg closest to the camera is bent?
Now look at the arm IMMEDIATELY above it.
That contralateral arm (meaning arm on the opposite side of the body) is a PUSH.
The arm trailing behind me is a PULL.
All of my exercises for runners are based off these 3 facts.
Because by creating an exercise that uses a single leg with a contralateral push and an ipsilateral (same side of the body) pull, you have an exercise that complements the movement of running.
Now, it's time for the fun part!
TAKE AWAY A LIMB OR CHANGE THE POSITON
If anyone is familiar with Grey Cook and the SFMA theory, yes, this is straight from it.
Prepare for the rabbit hole, Alice.
Now that we've defined what running looks like:
single leg with contralateral push and ipsilateral pull,
…We can start to turn these exercises on their heads (sometimes literally.)
Let's say you're struggling with shin splints.
Typically this happens because a runner is over-using their feet and I find that often, their PULL strength isn't so hot.
(aka…how many UNASSISTED pull ups can you do right now?? Case in point.)
So since I can't mail each of you a pull up bar (although, how dope would that be!)
…I *can* encourage you to keep doing your strength exercises, but without your feet in involved. (want to read more about how to prevent and potentially fix your shin splints? Click HERE!)
How do you do your exercises WITHOUT your FEET?
Easy! Take away a limb.
Meaning, instead of doing your shoulder press or your bicep curls standing, you now do them on your knees.
But this doesn't look like running, dr. Whitt!
You're right; it doesn't!
So how do YOU make it look like running?
(remember, you need single leg action).
ANSWER: a position we call 1/2 kneeling (one knee down; one knee up).
Pretend to run in this position.
Did you notice how one arm came forward (PUSH) and one arm went backwards (PULL)?
Starting to see it?
What you've just walked through is what we call developmental positions:
Kneeling on both knees (tall kneeling)
Kneeling on one knee (1/2 kneeling)
If you stand up from within that 1/2 kneeling position, you'll find yourself in a split stance position
If you widen that split stance position, you'll find yourself in a runner's lunge
Can you start to see how changing the position of only your legs has the potential to change the entire exercise?
pull up your strength work right now and begin to read through it.
How many of them are single leg versions in some way, shape, or form?
(NOTE: Not ALL exercises NEED to be single leg versions!)
How many of them have a push or a pull element? (this might be harder to identify; that's ok!)
THE POINT: start to see movement so you can better understand your exercises and how your body is responding. Over time, you might start to notice single leg exercises are harder on one side and so are pulling motions too.
Our body talks in patterns. It's our job to be aware of these patterns instead of brushing them off.
But let's move on to…
WHY DO MY EXERCISES NEED TO LOOK LIKE RUNNING?
Short answer: Specificity matters.
Long answer: the exercises you do to get you stronger for your primary sport need to meet the specific strength requirements of your sport.
Basic, I know.
Meaning: running is a bunch of single leg squats over and over again (Thank you Jay Dicharry). Therefore, if you did a bunch of single leg squats with body weight or dumbbells, you're training in a specific manner with specific results/running goals in mind. Good job!
This is what it means when fitness professionals say "specificity matters"
Another example: if you're training for a marathon, you're probably not going to do a strength workout designed for the Cross Fit games.
You could do it…
But it doesn't meet the goals of your marathon training and the end results you're looking for.
This same intent, specificity, is what should drive you strength workout. Your cross training weight work should be designed around this principle: to create muscular adaptations designed to help you reach your running goals.
DOES THIS MEAN MY OTHER EXERCISES "DON'T WORK?"
Nope, not at all!
No exercise is "bad" (unless it's physically harming you, duh).
There are simply better exercises for runners to perform based on:
Your current lifting age (see previous blog HERE)
Your running goals
Your current strength
If you try to do ONLY single leg exercises, I promise, your legs will burn out and you might not be able to finish your workout. (This is why we strive for a balance between double legged exercise and single leg versions).
But also: if you've never ever lifted before, you do NOT need to start with Bulgarian split squats with a bare bell. Walking forward and backwards lunges are perfectly appropriate!
This is the beauty of strength work.
It can be progressed (made harder).
And regressed (made easier).
And neither are bad!
There is NO shame at not being able to do a certain exercise.
And it's OK for some exercises to just be plan difficult (read: Bulgarian split squats. I HATE these. I do them anyway. They hurt. Oh well.)
What matters most: is that you can begin to see a new way of looking at strength work for runners by seeing the RUNNING PERFORMANCE side of it.
And use of single leg exercises.
(eventually, you might start to feel the anti-rotation action happening…another topic for another blog post)
Why are we even covering this?
Because I think it's time running performance had a revolution.
Running performance is NOT just for the elites or the super speedy runners among us.
Running performance and running-specific strength workouts should be available for every runner.
And it can be!
Once you understand the underlying principles, you have the knowledge.
And knowledge is power.
Now, you just need to Dare to Train Differently.
If you want to start right now, grab my FREE running guide and dive in!
And until next time…
Dare to Train Differently,
Marie Whitt, PT, DPT
Barrie, B. (2020). Concurrent resistance training enhances performance in competitive distance runners: A review and programming implementation. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 42(1), 97-106.
William B. McCafferty & Steven M. Horvath (1977) Specificity of Exercise and Specificity of Training: A Subcellular Review, Research Quarterly. American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 48:2, 358-371, DOI: 10.1080/10671315.1977.10615433