Trail runners should incorporate weight training into their schedules to see the best results on the course. Not only will it improve running, but it also helps prevent injury.
It is a common mistake to concentrate on the quadriceps in the gym, assuming they help drive a runner forward. But in fact, the posterior chain is responsible for accelerating forward (and upwards) while the quads’ most important role is in downhill control.
The posterior chain includes calves, hamstrings, glutes and back. What’s more, single leg exercises will remove imbalances between limbs, improve core and balance.
Here are five exercises to work on your strength.
Hold two dumb bells above your head and take a large step forward. Keep your body at right angles to the ground, drop your back knee until it just touches the ground. With your leading foot drive your heel back up into a standing position, then step forward once again with the opposite foot.
The driving phase will develop your glutes and hamstring. It requires balance so will prevent injury and improve downhill running. The weight overhead will strengthen your upper body, making it easier to stay upright during races, which maximises oxygen intake and running technique.
You can use one weight in one hand to make balancing even harder. You can hang the weights by your side if you are new to the exercise or have a shoulder injury. And you can do it with no weights at all if you are new to strength training.
Single leg jumps
Set out a series of targets using cones or other markers about a metre apart. Standing on one leg, bound to the target and land on the same leg. When you land, have a soft bend in your knee, but try to come to a standstill as quickly as possible. When you are balanced, bound forward again.
This will develop power to drive you uphill and along trails. The deceleration landing will improve your agility and balance, and prevent injury.
You can hold a weight, or place the targets farther apart, to increase the difficulty of the exercise.
Romanian dead lifts
Hold a weight in one hand, balance on one leg and slowly rotate forward from your hips. Raise the other leg up behind you until your upper body and raised leg are parallel to the ground. Resist the temptation to twist your shoulders or open your hips. Snap up quickly from your hips, bringing your body upright again and your back leg down.
The balancing aspect of the exercise is great for ironing out discrepancies between your two legs and preventing injury. As you snap back upright, you are engaging your glutes and hamstrings and strengthening your hips.
Increase the weight or the repetitions to make it even harder.
Standing on a raised platform, slowly lower one leg over the side by squatting with the other weight-bearing leg. The slower the better. When your hanging foot reaches the floor, do not take weight on it, but drive back up through the heel of the foot on the platform.
The isometric lowering phase will increase the strength of your quads, helping to protect your knees on steep downhills and helping your posterior chain on steep staircases. When you drive back up, you are using your glutes and hamstrings once again.
If you are struggling, use a strong rubber band to take some of the load by wrapping it around a stable post (perhaps the frame of a squat rack) in front of you, and keep your arms straight as you hold the band. Or, if it is too easy, use a weight. Or attempt a pistol squat by pushing your hanging leg out parallel to the ground and going as deep as possible.
Bulgarian split squats
Stand with your back to a platform, roughly at knee height, such as a bench press. Lift one foot and place it on the platform behind you. You should be in a position similar to a lunge, but with a raised back foot. Drop your back knee until it almost touches the ground and then drive through your front foot back up. Make sure you keep your body upright and that your front knee does not bend in front of your toes.
This is the ultimate glute burner. Expect to wake up sore. The driving phase engages your hamstring and your glute, and the single leg nature ensures your are practising your balance.
Make it harder by increasing the weight, or move your foot even further forward so you are relying less on your quad and more on your glutes.
And remember, incorporate core exercises into your sessions as well for stability, improved running technique, injury prevention and to get the most out of your weight movements.