Man running the backcountry
Runners might think pumping iron in the gym is a waste of time. That’s a common misconception. Here are the best exercises for runners for to build strength and endurance. (Photo: Ethan Welty/Cavan)

Best Exercises for Runners: The Ultimate Cross-Training Workout

Ten moves to improve strength, running economy, and resilience for the road or trail

Man running backcountry

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More than 90 percent of runners experience some sort of sports-related injury throughout their career, according to a review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. But despite the fact that strength training can make you more resilient, plenty of runners still avoid the weight room. Whether that’s because they think pumping iron is a waste of time or they’re worried about bulking up, both reasons are cop-outs, says Scott Johnston, an elite mountain athlete, a coach, and coauthor with Kilian Jornet of their new book Training for the Uphill Athlete.

General strength exercises will shore up any weaknesses and improve biomechanics, but their benefits extend beyond injury prevention. Stronger legs will also improve your running economy. As your legs get tired, they become less efficient, which causes you to expend more energy for every stride when you have the lowest reserves. “It’s like you’re getting worse gas mileage the further you are into a race,” Johnston says. Strength training makes your muscles more fatigue resistant, which offsets this effect.

Try to introduce an hour or two of cross-training on top of your existing running volume, but watch out for overtraining. “Your best weapon to be a more durable runner is rest,” says Jason Koop, a running coach and the director of coaching for the Colorado-based Carmichael Training Systems. Only dive into a strength routine if you have extra time and energy. (If this is you, try our shortlist of the best exercises for runners who aim to perform for the long haul.)

The Best Cross-Training Workout:

This workout from Johnston hits all the important muscle groups for runners. Do the exercises as a circuit, moving from one to the next, with a minute of rest between each exercise and three minutes of rest between each round. Start with two rounds and build up to four rounds of the circuit, twice per week, with at least 48 hours in between for adequate recovery. Warm up with a light jog or a few minutes of jumping rope, plus some dynamic stretches, and focus on proper form over quantity of reps.

The purpose of these exercises isn’t to increase muscle mass, so don’t train until failure (which triggers muscle growth). Aim for lower weights and higher reps when you first start, and as you get stronger, perform fewer reps at higher intensities.

Tools You’ll Need:

  • Resistance bands
  • A box or bench (roughly knee height)
  • Dumbbells, ankle weights, or a weighted vest (optional)

The Best Exercises for Runners

Squat with Resistance Band

What it does: Strengthens the quads, glutes, and hip abductors to improve stability and control of the knees.

How to do it: Place a resistance band around both legs just above your knees, and stand tall, with your feet hip-width apart. Hold your chest upright, pull your shoulders back and down, and engage your core muscles. Then shift your weight to your heels, and squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Push through the heels to stand back up. Drive your knees outward against the band throughout the movement to keep them parallel. Focus on proper form and knee position, and maintain a straight back.

Volume: Start with just body weight only, and do 20 reps or until your form breaks down. After a few weeks, add weight with a vest, a kettlebell (which you can hold in front of your chest), or a barbell on your shoulders. Reduce weighted reps to six to eight per set.

Push-Up to Side Plank (with Hip Dip)

What it does: Strengthens the upper body and core, including the obliques, to help you maintain posture and stability when running.

How to do it: Start in a standard push-up position, with your hands flat on the ground directly below your shoulders, your arms straight, your back flat, and your feet no more than 12 inches apart. Complete a strict push-up: lower yourself until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, elbows tracking backward, and return to the starting position, all in a rigid plank position. Then transition into a side plank by rotating to one side until your hips are perpendicular to the floor, your feet are stacked, and your upper arm is extended to the ceiling. From here lower your hips toward the floor and raise them back up, targeting your obliques. Transition back into the high push-up position, and repeat the exercise—including the push-up—on the opposite side. Alternate sides every rep.

If a strict push-up is too difficult, start on an incline (elevate your hands on a box, a bench, or even a table—the higher, the easier) or with your knees on the floor. When you can easily complete ten or more reps of this exercise, make it more difficult by elevating your feet on a box, a bench, or an exercise ball or by wearing a weighted vest. For an extra upper-body workout, hold light dumbbells in your hands.

Volume: Eight reps total.

Side Steps with Resistance Band (Lateral Steps)

What it does: Strengthens the hip abductors to improve stability and control of the knees.

How to do it: Stand with your feet together and knees slightly bent, and loop a resistance band around your ankles. Place your hands on your hips to make sure they remain level, take a hip-width step to one side, and, with control, bring the second foot to meet the first. Continue in the same direction for 12 to 15 steps, then repeat in the opposite direction. Pay close attention to proper form. Make sure to keep your toes pointed forward and your pelvis level throughout the movement. Don’t allow your knees to collapse inward, which can lead to knee pain.

Volume: Three to four sets of 20 steps in each direction or until your form breaks down.

cross-training moves for runners
(Hayden Carpenter)

Forearm Plank

What it does: Builds strength and stability in the core muscles through an isometric hold.

How to do it: From a kneeling position, place your forearms on the ground shoulder-width apart, with your elbows directly below your shoulders. Extend your legs behind you, feet together and toes tucked under, so that your body forms a straight line from your heels to your head. Engage your core. Keep your back flat—no sagging, arching, or tipping the hips—and your head up so your neck is in line with your spine. Hold this position until you break form (when your hips sag or lift). Remember to breathe. If you lose form in less than a minute, begin with multiple shorter holds (such as six reps of 15-second holds, with 15 to 30 seconds of rest between each), and work your way up to a minute. If one minute feels too easy, lift one limb from the ground for a three-point plank (alternate which arm or leg you lift every set), wear a weighted vest, or have a friend place a plate weight on your back.

Volume: Hold for one minute or until your form breaks down.

Backward Skate with Resistance Band

What it does: Strengthens the glutes and hips to better assist the hamstrings and to improve stability and control of the knees.

How to do it: Loop a resistance band around your ankles, and stand with your feet together and a slight bend in your knees. Take diagonal steps backward, alternating sides. Keep your heels down so you land on a flat foot versus on your toes—this should feel more like you’re sliding your foot backward than stepping. Between each step, bring your feet back together. Keep your toes pointed straight ahead, and focus on knee position and good form.

Volume: Twenty steps on each leg.

Box Step-Ups

What it does: Strengthens your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

How to do it: Stand in front of a sturdy box or bench that comes to somewhere between midshin and just below your knee (the shorter the easier). Step onto the box with one foot. Make sure your entire foot is on the box, not just the forefoot, then engage your quad, press through with your heel, and stand to bring your lower leg up onto the box. Your upper leg should do all of the work. Step back down for one repetition. Alternate which leg goes first every rep.

Keep your torso upright and your hips and shoulders level throughout the movement. Don’t let your knees collapse inward as you step up. Make it harder by wearing a weighted vest or holding dumbbells.

Volume: Start with 15 reps on each leg, and once you add weight, reduce to six to eight reps on each leg.

Windshield Wipers

What it does: Strengthens the core, with a focus on the obliques and rotational core control.

How to do it: Lie on your back, with your arms out to either side, palms down for support. Raise your legs straight up so that they’re perpendicular to the ground, with your feet together and your toes pointed upward. From this neutral position, slowly rotate your hips and lower your legs to one side until your feet almost touch the floor, then reverse the movement back to neutral and repeat on the other side for one repetition. Continue swinging your legs from side to side like windshield wipers.

Perform the exercise slowly and in control. Press down with your hands to keep your shoulders and upper back flat on the floor. Hold your feet together and your legs straight throughout the movement. If you cannot complete six to eight reps with straight legs, try bending your knees to make it easier.

Volume: As many as possible before losing form. When you can do ten reps to each side with straight legs and perfect form, make it harder by wearing heavier boots or ankle weights.

Forward Lunge

What it does: Strengthens the quads, hamstrings, and glutes and also trains balance.

How to do it: Stand tall, with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointed forward. Take an exaggerated step forward (about two feet in distance), then sink your hips until your front thigh is parallel to the ground (or as deep as you can go comfortably). Your rear knee should not touch the ground, and your front knee should not go beyond your toes. Push back to the starting position for one repetition. Alternate legs each rep.

Keep your hips level and square (don’t let them rotate or dip) throughout the movement, and don’t let your knees collapse inward. Start with body weight only, and progress to holding dumbbells on each side.

Volume: Start with 15 reps on each leg, and once you add weight, reduce to six to eight reps on each leg.

Calf Raise Progression
(Hayden Carpenter)

Calf Raise

What it does: Strengthens the calves, which help lift your heels, bend your knees, and absorb impact when your feet strike the ground. Calf strength also provides resilience against Achilles tendinitis.

How to do it: Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of a step so that your heels hang off (this allows you to work your full range of motion). Hold on to a wall or doorframe for balance if necessary, but don’t use your hands for upward assistance. Press through your toes to lift your heels as high as you can, pause, then slowly lower your heels until you feel a slight stretch in your calves. If this is too easy, use both calves to rise up, then lift one leg off the ground and lower slowly (over three to four seconds) and in control with the other. Alternate the lowering leg every rep. The hardest variation is a single-leg lift, in which you complete all reps on one leg, then switch to the other. You can add a weighted vest or hold dumbbells as well.

Volume: For the double-leg variation, do 15 to 20 reps with body weight only. For two up, one down, do 10 to 12 reps total per set. For single-leg calf raises, your goal should be four to six reps on each leg with perfect form. Chose a weight where you hit failure at eight reps, but don’t go all the way to failure during the exercise itself.

Runner’s Deadlift

What it does: Loads the hamstrings eccentrically while training control of the posterior chain (the back of the legs and body) and balance through a functional-based movement pattern.

How to do it: Stand on one leg, with a slight bend in your knee. Engage your core, hinge at your hips, and lower your torso toward the floor as you lift your free leg behind you. Continue until your upper body and raised leg—which should be on one plane—are parallel to the floor (or as far as you can lower yourself without losing form or knee control). Then slowly reverse the movement for one repetition. Keep your hips level (think about keeping the toes of your raised foot aimed downward) and your back flat.

Start with body weight only, and once you can do the exercise with proper form, make it harder by holding a weight such as a kettlebell or dumbbell in the opposite hand of the grounded leg.

Volume: Ten to fifteen reps on each leg.