16 Easy Strength Exercises & Stretches to Help You Run Faster & Injury-Free

Maybe you’re plagued by injuries.

Maybe it’s too cold/icy/windy/[insert excuse here] to run outdoors today.

Maybe you’re burned out and want to shake up your routine a little bit.

Or maybe you want to finally break past a plateau to become a stronger, faster, more efficient runner.

While there’s certainly something to be said for hill repeats, speedwork, and long runs, there’s more to running than … well, just running. Strength training and stretching have not only been found to improve overall running performance, they can also help you prevent injury.

Yes, I know it’s time-consuming. It’s boring. You have places to go and people to see. But if you can take fifteen to thirty minutes after each run to perform some simple exercises and stretches, you’ll reap the benefits faster than you might expect. It also may prevent you from being forced to stop running (injuries beat stubbornness every single time).

And before you say you “can’t” because you can’t afford a gym membership or fancy equipment, I’ll tell you that none of that is required. You have no more excuses.

*Disclaimer: Though I received a tremendous amount of help from the eternally awesome Jason Dooley, PTA  for this post, I am not a medical expert, nor do I play one on TV. If you don’t believe me, look at the photos below for evidence that I am an uncoordinated asshole. If you are currently injured or unsure of how to properly do an exercise, please, please, please consult with someone who has completed the fancy schoolin’ required to assist you.

10 Strength Exercises for Runners (Gym-rat grunting optional)

Before doing this circuit, make sure your muscles are warmed up. If you’re doing this post-run, go straight into this workout as part of your cooldown. If you are doing this as a stand-alone workout, warm up with ten minutes of light cardio, such as riding your bike, jumping jacks, or step aerobics (people still do that, right?).

If you feel an exercise doesn’t challenge you enough, add more repetitions or repeat the set 2-3 times. If you’re still not satisfied (you sadist, you), do the modified version mentioned at the end of each exercise description (some may require equipment, such as a stability ball).

Leg Drives (or Form Running)

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Leg drive

Stand approximately 3-4 feet from a wall, pole, or other steady object. Extend your arms and lean into the wall, then bring your knee up towards your chest. Repeat with the other leg. Start by alternating legs with a 5-second pause, gradually increasing the speed of leg turnover until you hit a challenging rhythm.

Fancy-pants: Shoot for the runner’s “sweet spot,” if you can — 180 steps per minute!

Split Squat Jumps

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Split squat jump

Drop down into a lunge position, making sure to keep your knees at a 90-degree angle. Don’t let your back knee drop down to the ground, and make sure your front knee stays behind the toes. Using equal amounts of force from both legs, jump into the air. Switch legs in the air and return to a lunge position. Repeat, landing ten times on each leg.

Supa-stah: Place your back leg on a bench. Instead of alternating legs in mid-air, squat, jump off, and land on your forward leg. Repeat 5 times on each leg. Make sure there are no small children around, ’cause you’re going to be cursing like a motherfu — ahem.

Squat Jumps

squat jump

Squat jump

Keeping your chest up and out, move your rear back and down, like you’re sitting back. Again, make sure your knees stay behind your toes when you squat. Jump up as high as you can, pushing up from the whole foot (not just your toes). Use your arms for momentum/stability, but don’t go crazy – you shouldn’t be arching your back when you jump. Upon landing, bend your knees and return to a squat position. Repeat 10 times.

Stubborn:Using a light-weight medicine ball, keep your arms extended in front of you when you squat and over your head when jumping. Again, control your movements.

Walking Lunges

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Walking lunge

Keeping your chest up and out, step forward and drop your back knee straight down until both knees are at a 90-degree angle. Pushing off with your entire front foot, return to an upright position and walk forward, repeating action with alternate leg. Take ten “steps” with each leg. If limited on space, just step forward and push back, alternating legs.

Feelin’ like P. Diddy version: Use two dumbbells to do shoulder presses with each lunge. Dumbbells should be at your shoulders when you drop down, and press above your head when standing up.

Single Leg Deadlift

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Single leg deadlift

Stand on one leg. Keeping the knee slightly bent and the heel on the ground, lean forward at the hips. Engage your core to keep your balance as your shoulders come forward and your alternate leg raises off the ground. Make sure your pelvis does not rotate to one side, and keep your back leg as straight as you are able! Keep your heel planted firmly in the ground as you pivot from the hip to return to an upright position. Repeat 10 times, then alternate leg.

So you think you’re hot stuff: Instead of keeping your arms pointing downward for the duration of the exercise, extend them in front of you as you extend your leg back. This will require you to use your core muscles even more to stay balanced. You can also add weights to both hands.

Ski Bend

ski bends

Ski bend

Stand approximately 3-4 feet in front of a bench or chair. Extend one leg backwards so your toes are resting on the bench. You may need to hop forward a little bit to make sure you are far enough out. Keeping your back leg on the bench and the front heel on the ground, drop down into a lunge position. Using your entire foot, press yourself back into a standing position. Repeat 10 times, then alternate legs.

Now you’re just showing off: Instead of a bench, use a stability ball.

Plank

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Plank

Oh, don’t give me that look. You knew this was coming. Lie down on your stomach. Resting on your forearms, push off the floor until you’re on your toes. Keep your back flat – if you’re butt is in the air or you’re sagging in the middle, that’s a sign you need to tilt your pelvis and use your core muscles. Don’t forget to breathe! Hold for 60 seconds.

Extra credit: Hold your plank for as long as you can. (I hear the world record is somewhere around 1 hour and 20 minutes.)

Single Leg Plank

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Single leg plank

Same as the original, but on one leg (hence the clever name).

Hurts so good: Extend the arm on the opposite side of the raised leg.

Side Plank

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Side plank

Lying on your side with your feet together, place your forearm under your shoulder and raise your body up off the ground. Keep your legs straight and your pelvis tucked forward. Hold for 60 seconds, then repeat on alternate side.

The hidden bonus track with a special background vocals by John Mayer: Instead of holding, move hip up and down 30 times.

Bridge

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Bridge

Lie on your back with your hands at your sides and your feet together (as far under your knees as you are able, while still keeping your heels on the ground). Raise your hips up, squeeze your glutes, and tilt your pelvis into your belly button. Hold for 30 seconds.

You brown-noser:Prop your feet on a stability ball and keep your legs straight. Hold yourself in a bridge position for as long as you are able.

6 Stretches for Runners (Don’t even think about skipping out on these!)

Contrary to popular belief, stretching is not one of those “hurts so good” activities. Stretching should only be good, period. If it hurts, you’re probably stretching too far.

Do these six stretches at the end of every workout (yes, every single one!). Stretches should be held for the duration of the stretch – don’t bounce. Every time you bounce during a stretch, a baby marmoset dies. (True story. I read it on the Internet somewhere.)

Gastroc Stretch

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Gastroc stretch

Stand with one leg in front of the other. Keeping your back leg straight and both heels on the ground, gently push your hips forward until you feel a light stretch in the back leg. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on other leg.

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

kneeling hip flexor

Kneeling hip flexor stretch

Kneel down on one knee. Slowly press your hips forward until you feel a light stretch in the front of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds, then alternate legs If more stretch is needed, bend your back knee toward your rear end.

Hamstring Stretch

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Hamstring stretch

Lie on your back. Keeping your shoulders and pelvis on the ground, lift one leg until you feel a light stretch along the back of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds, then alternate legs. If you cannot reach your leg, use a yoga strap (pictured above) to assist with the stretch.

Piriformis Stretch

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Piriformis stretch

Bend one knee. Cross the opposite foot over the bent knee. Clasping your hands behind your bottom leg, pull both legs back toward your chest until you feel a light stretch in your rear and hips. Hold for 30 seconds, then alternate legs.

Knee to Chest Stretch

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Knee to chest stretch

Keeping your shoulders relaxed and your pelvis on the ground, clasp your hands around your knee and bend your knee into your chest until you feel a light stretch in your lower back. Hold for 30 seconds, then alternate legs.

T Stretch

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T stretch

Lie on your back with your arms extended and your shoulders on the ground. Twisting at the hips, cross one leg over the other until you feel a light stretch in your lower back, hip and thigh. Hold for 30 seconds, then alternate legs.

About the Author: Susan Lacke, No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete and author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, is currently on Month 4 of no running due to a knee injury. It could have been prevented by … yup, the exercises and stretches above. “Like” her on Facebook for links to her latest ramblings in Competitor Magazine, Triathlete.com, and Fit Bottomed Girls.

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Comments

  1. Runners should always strength train in addition to their running—stretching is important too. Both will keep you strong, fit and injury-free!

    Hope you’re able to run again soon, Susan! Injuries are never fun.

  2. Ugh… you would post this the morning after I hyper-extend my knee playing soccer. Sending positive vibes that your recovery speeds up.

  3. Thanks for the tips! Yesterday, I was tired after a long run and didn’t feel like going to the gym or yoga so I spent about 20 minutes on these exercises and stretches and felt great! I’m going to get better about incorporating them into my routine.

  4. I knew of the importance of this but still didn’t follow through with post run stretching or any strength training. After loosing the last 3 months of the season for any real running due to Plantar Fasciitis I won’t be forgetting or neglecting it again. Thanks for the reminder and a few new exercises to try!

  5. I enjoy reading your blog and am using your speedwork tips to improve my run time. My goal is to get to a 2:00 HM time on my upcoming race in January. I love your shirts…but am not yet at a “No Meat” stage to “legally” wear them… I’ll adore from afar. I’ve nominated you for The Very Inspiring Blogger Award. http://onthevector.com/2012/11/01/whoomp-there-it-is-the-fine-print/

    Keep up the great reads! Cathy

  6. It’s not often I laugh when thinking about difficult exercises, this was a great article!

  7. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Hey Susan,
    great exercises. If you want to progress the bridge exercise even more, with your buttocks lifted alternately straighten one knee slowly while keeping the hips level. Hang in there with your injury. It sucks. But know that no matter what exercises you do there’s never a full guarantee against injury. I hope you are getting some good physicaltherpay!

  8. Some of the poses are similar from Hatha yoga

  9. These pictures are valuable in completing your directions here. Thanks a lot.

  10. Thanks for the tips! I can use all the help I can get staying injury free. Definitely trying these moves after my next run!! :)

  11. Great post, thank you! Keep the good work!
    And obviously, take care of your knee!

  12. world_runner says:

    How often do you recommend doing the strength training exercises and when? Is it okay to do these after a hard workout? I am currently marathon training and I really only have one day a week that I can fit in a strength session that does not fall before/after my speedwork or long run.

    Interesting that you included the static stretches as there is so much controversy surrounding the pro/cons of stretching. Great article though and excellent writing! :)

  13. Great article! Stretching and strength building exercises are often overlooked by runners (and triathletes I believe) because they’re time consuming and “boring”. I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in speed and endurance with the addition of the two into my training routine.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Meat Athlete, 16 Strength Exercises and Stretches to Help You Run Faster and Injury Free. Susan offers some great advice for how to make your body stronger, more flexible, and injury [...]

  2. [...] Even if you’re a runner and focus your fitness on cardiovascular feats, you need to be sure that you’re doing strength training as well. Not sure where to begin? Read The No Meat Athlete’s 16 Easy Strength Exercises & Stretches to Help You Run Faster & Injury-Free. [...]

  3. [...] Even if you’re a runner and focus your fitness on cardiovascular feats, you need to be sure that you’re doing strength training as well. Not sure where to begin? Read The No Meat Athlete’s 16 Easy Strength Exercises & Stretches to Help You Run Faster & Injury-Free. [...]

  4. […] No Meat Athlete’s plan involving little to no equipment […]

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