Here are my top 10 picks for strength and conditioning exercises for runners. This doesn’t encompass all you could or should be doing, but these 10 will give you a lot of “bang for your buck”, require little space, and most require no equipment. Using just your body and a hallway’s worth of space you can keep your body strong for all those miles!
You have heard it before and it is worth stating again, a focus on form and quality over quantity is important for all of these. I tend to subscribe to the “rep until fatigued” model and if it is taking too many reps then it might be time to add some weight. For most of these I will do multiple sets (2-3) to fatigue. (Read: until I can’t hold good form anymore.)
As a reminder, I am a running coach and not a personal trainer. I highly encourage you to work with a certified trainer to tailor a specific program to your needs especially if you have special considerations like injury. At the very least you should consult with a certified trainer to confirm your form is sound before performing these on a regular basis. Performing some of the exercises incorrectly especially with weight could lead to injury! Since I feel strongly that you should consult with a trainer on form, I will refrain from giving detailed instructions for how to perform each exercise and just share some of my thoughts on each.
“an exercise in which a person lies facing the floor and, keeping their back straight, raises their body by pressing down on their hands“
Seems simple, right? Push-ups are one of the most valuable body weight exercises when performed correctly as they engage your entire body. Haven’t been feeling your glutes and legs in your push-ups? You should focus on your form. Ground your toes, engage your core (suck your belly button into your back), engage your glutes and hammies, and flatten your back so that your entire body is straight. This should also mean your pelvis, shoulders, and neck are neutral. Make sure to keep this straight and neutral position all the way down and back up. Do not let your back arch and hips dip! I find focusing on pressing up through my entire body as opposed to just my hands to be helpful in keeping form on the way back up. Keeping your elbows tucked in and at 20-40 degrees to your body puts less strain on your shoulders than flaring your arms to 90 degrees. It makes the push-up more difficult, but remember quality over quantity!
One of my favorite things to do with push-ups is to lose the momentum by slowly lowering towards the ground and holding a few inches above it before pushing back up. If you are unable to do a full push-up, you can place your upper body higher than your lower body to make the exercise easier. So instead of putting your hands on the ground, you use a chair, table, or bench.
“(also called a front hold, hover, or abdominal bridge) is an isometric core strength exercise that involves maintaining a position similar to a push-up”
I would argue that a plank can and should also be a full body exercise in the same way that push-up is and I would include forearm, full, and side planks here. Your form for the full plank is going to be the same as a push-up in the up position. For forearm planks, you are just down on your forearms. Not letting your back arch and hips sag is important here. It is also important to not let your butt drift too high as that is going to “turn off” some of the key muscle groups that you are trying to work. Video yourself with your phone from the side or use a mirror to check your form for these to ensure you are getting the value out of them! Once you have worked up to a reasonable amount of time, you can sweeten the deal by moving from full to forearm and back again during your hold or try doing some single leg lifts during your hold. Make sure to keep your form and keep the lifted leg in line with your body.
Side planks can be performed with a fully extended arm, on your forearm, and with the bottom leg fully extended so your foot is the point of contact with the ground or with your leg bent to 90 degrees at the knee and your knee as the point of contact. Important things to consider here are keeping your hips in line with your body. So hips and pelvis should be square with the upper body and hips should be stacked directly on top each other. Watch for dropping towards the floor at the hips, sticking the butt out too far behind you, and your top hip rolling forward or back. Mastered the side plank? Trying lifting the top leg up and holding or you can shift the top leg’s foot back behind you a bit and do slow leg lifts in this position. Height of the leg lifts should be a balanced counter to your grounded leg. No need to kick the foot to the ceiling!
No definition found for a dead bug?! These are a deceivingly complex and a totally underrated exercise in my humble opinion. If you have ever done these and felt they were easy, you were probably doing them wrong! Key points to performing deadbugs properly are maintaining a flat back, not hyperflexing the knee, and speed of the reps. To get into proper starting position, exhale to bring your ribcage down and flatten your back to the floor. This should rotate your pelvis and allow you to engage your glutes and core. Your knee should be at about 90 degrees and arms extended directly in front of you towards the ceiling in the starting position. From here, you should focus on slowly lowering one leg and the opposite arm while continuing to engage your core and keeping your back flat on the ground. Arm should not stray out from your body and should be directly above your shoulder, next to your head, and close to your ear. Foot can be pointed. Now hold for a few seconds before SLOWLY coming back to starting position. Again, keep your core engaged and your back flat against the floor. Ten of these should be enough to get you shaking. I do these to almost completely fatigued which for me is about 10!
“a classic core exercise that emphasizes lower back strength and balance”
Alright, now I am just repeating myself–form and speed are key components to this exercise! For this exercise you are on hands and knees so the first part of form is correct placement of those. Be sure to have your hips and shoulders in the correct position and weight evenly distributed through your four limbs. As with all of these exercises, your hip, pelvis, and overall back alignment is really important. Suck in that belly and tuck your tailbone to engage your core and tilt your pelvis into neutral. Back should be flat and not rounding including they shoulders. As you raise your arms, think about that dead bug positioning — arm should be straight in front and close to your head and ear not straying out from the body. Your leg should lift to be in line with your body and straight behind your glute so foot is in line with your butt cheek. If you don’t have the strength to lift the leg and arm at the same time, you can do just legs and then just arms. Your raises and lowers should be slow and deliberate and you should focus on keeping your pelvis, hips, and back in proper alignment. You can hold the raised position for added intensity.
Squats, deadlifts, and pistol squats
“a compound, full body exercise that trains primarily the muscles of the thighs, hips and buttocks, quadriceps femoris muscle, hamstrings, as well as strengthening the bones, ligaments and insertion of the tendons throughout the lower body. Squats are considered a vital exercise for increasing the strength and size of the legs and buttocks, as well as developing core strength”
Phew! That’s a lot. So why didn’t I put these amazing exercises first? Because these are next level exercises, in my humble opinion. Get the form wrong on these and you can end up with ill effects. All of these are in the same family and have the same general form and motion, but have some important unique benefits. At it’s simplest form, a squat, when performed correctly improves strength in the posterior chain. (All that stuff on the back on your body instead of the front.) A strong posterior chain is super important for a runner as this is what stabilizes you and helps to propel you forward. Squats can be performed as a body weight exercise or with weight. Squats (with a barbell) and deadlifts may seem like the same exercise with just a shift in barbell placement, but they actually work the muscles in different ways so are both important to include your routine. Pistol squats add balance and really test your unilateral strength. I will refrain from giving pointers on form for these as I do feel it’s really important that you consult a trainer for proper form and weight recommendations here!
The first 5
So that’s my first 5 exercises! These exercises are great at improving your strength through body weight and movement. They can be performed without equipment, in very little space, and many of them can be done every day without fear of too much fatigue or soreness. I’ll be sharing my next 5 soon. In the meantime, let me know what you think of these 5 and I loved to hear what you think my next 5 will be!