The vast majority of runners end up injured – but smart strength training can reduce your risk, writes runner Katie Yockey.
Running injuries are very common—and if you’re a runner, you probably know this all too well. According to a 2021 study, 68% of runners had injuries over the course of one year, with most of them attributed to the very act of running.
A lot of things contribute to your chances of getting hurt: how much you run, what shoes you wear, what surfaces you run on and your body’s natural predisposition to injuries. But one of the easiest ways to prevent it? Doing the right cross-training.
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Yeah, runners like to run, and many of us make excuses for skipping the weights in favour of a few more miles. But scheduling in some strength and mobility work can both make you a better runner and keep you running injury-free. And not getting injured means more running in your future – it’s a win-win!
But what exactly should we be doing?
Cross-training: the key exercises all runners need to do
There’s a lot of conflicting info out there, and we’ve all read plenty of articles prescribing crunches and clamshells. While these may be helpful, a full-body approach will make you a well-rounded and resilient athlete.
Todd Wise, a personal trainer who works with runners, says: “We need to change the idea of ‘supplementing’ and ask why or what the overall goal is for running.” He says that cross-training shouldn’t be an afterthought – it should be part of the original plan. “You need both a high amount of aerobic endurance, muscle mass and a good amount of strength. You can have both,” he says.
If you think about the motion of running, you’ll realise it’s essentially bounding off one leg and then bounding off the other. This means your muscles are working really hard to push off the ground and absorb impact when you’re landing. “These actions are generated by the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves,” says Wise.
“On top of the bounding action, you stabilise the hips through your midline: both the anterior (obliques and transverse abdominals) and posterior (spinal erectors and lats).”
Running uses just about every muscle in the body
Basically, running is working way more muscles than you think. But that doesn’t mean you always need to be doing full-body workouts.
“Running breaks down muscle, especially at higher mileages,” says certified running coach and physical therapist Lauren Wentz. “Runners need to strength train in order to maintain muscle so they are strong enough to withstand the repetitive single leg activity and can avoid poor gait mechanics.”
This means a big part of your cross-training routine should be lifting weights. “It’s important to do bilateral (both sides of the body) heavy lifting, like full-depth squats and deadlifts,” says Wise. “It’s also important to do unilateral (one side) lifting for symmetry and stability, like single-leg Romanian deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, and loaded single-leg box step-ups.”
And don’t be afraid of lifting heavy. Research shows that runners can benefit from lifting loads at 60-80% of their max; this means weights you can only perform with for three to six reps.
We’ve talked about how much strain runners put on the legs and glutes, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect the rest of your body.
“Upper body exercises are important for runners to maintain good posture as we run,” says professional runner Rachel Tomajczyk. She says it’s crucial to build a strong core, too. “The core is where all our movement originates from. A stronger core means more efficient running and a reduced risk of injuries.”
And don’t forget: mobility matters. Mobility basically means how far you can comfortably move or bend without feeling restricted or in pain. If you’re more mobile, you’re less likely to suffer from bad form, which can lead to injury.
“Weak foot muscles or poor ankle mobility can cause plantar fasciitis, shin splints or knee pain,” says Wentz. Sound familiar? These are some of the most common running injuries, and simply having stronger, more mobile feet and ankles can prevent them.
If you’ve been meaning to diversify your running routine for a while, this is your sign to give it a go. Our contributing experts Wentz, Tomajczyk and Wise have shared their favourite exercises for runners, and we’ve combined them into an easy workout plan you can do at home with a mat and some weights. We’ve broken them into sections, so you can do them all at once for a full-body workout, or you can add them to your existing routine as bite-sized workouts throughout the week.
How to strength train to avoid running injuries
Let’s start with some weights. Choose whatever you feel comfortable with for these exercises, and feel free to increase or decrease as necessary. Try to pick a weight that feels like 60–80% of your maximum.
- Full-depth squats (3 sets of 6)
- Lateral lunges (3 sets of 6)
- Deadlifts (3 sets of 6)
- Single-leg Romanian deadlift (3 sets of 6, each side)
Now, try the following bodyweight exercises.
- Clamshells (3 sets of 10, each side)
- Fire hydrants (3 sets of 10, each side)
- Glute bridge (3 sets of 10, each side)
*Form tip: make sure that you use your glutes to bridge up, not your lower back.
We’re using weights for the upper body, too. You’ll want lighter ones than you used for the lower body exercises. If you’re not sure what feels right, start with lighter weights and focus on your form. Once you’re more comfortable, gradually increase the weight.
- Lying chest press (3 sets of 6)
- Single-arm rows (3 sets of 6, each side)
- Overhead press (3 sets of 6, each side)
- Tricep kickbacks (3 sets of 6, each side)
Although we’re not adding any weight to these core exercises, they should still feel challenging.
- Dead bugs (3 sets of 10, each side)
*Form note: press your back into the ground, and focus on working your core instead of your hip flexors.
- Plank (3 sets of 1 minute each)
*Form note: try doing a plank next to a mirror to make sure you’re maintaining a straight line and flat back.
- Side plank (1 minute, each side)
- Bird Dog (4 sets of 10 on each side)
These exercises probably won’t feel as strenuous as the previous ones, but don’t use that as an excuse to skip them. They’re an essential part of your injury-prevention plan.
- Single leg balance (3 sets of 30 seconds on each side)
*Form note: if this feels too easy, try closing your eyes!
- Downward-facing dog to low lunge (2 sets of 6, alternating legs)
- Lying supine twist (3, each side)
*Form note: don’t force this stretch. Go as far as you are comfortably able.
- Half pigeon stretch (30 seconds, each side)
*Form note: you should feel this one in your hips
For more running and injury-prevention tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
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