Your average pace and weekly mileage are important stats to live by, but without strength-training running exercises, you won’t be nearly as efficient as you could be.
When performance starts to plateau, it’s time to step it up with some strength training. These 10 running exercises will prevent your muscles from flat-lining and help you score a more efficient stride (and killer calf muscles, too!).
Don’t believe us? Keep reading! We’re ready to fill you in on exactly why cross-training matters for all our running rebels out there. Let’s take a look at the best exercises to start implementing into your routine today—we promise you won’t regret it.
Want to get those gains a little faster? Click on the links below to jump straight to the exercise that interests you the most:
- Why cross-train for running?
- Best Exercises for Runners
- Backward Lunges
- Side Plank
- Mountain Climbers
- Long Jumps
- Side Shuffles
- Speed Skaters
Why cross-train for running?
We get it. You’re probably thinking, “I’m training to crush my PR, not crush reps at the gym.” And hey, that’s fair. One of the many reasons running calls to us is because it helps force us outside into the fresh air. Running laps around the park, pounding pavement in city streets, or climbing ascents up off-road trails all get our adrenaline going. So putting in time at the gym might seem like a total buzzkill.
But if you’re serious about taking your running performance to the next level, logging high mileage and pushing the tempo aren’t the best strategies to get you there. While stamina is essential for interval running and hill running workouts, your true power and endurance come from your muscles—not just your V02 max.
The best exercises for runners help you perfect your form so you can achieve more explosive energy with each toe-off, knee lift, and arm pump. Cross-training activates every single one of your muscle fibers through exercises that “wake up” under-utilized muscle groups.
So what does this all mean? Strength training will perfect your proper running form by mobilizing all your muscles—instead of a select few—to push you past the competition. Every. Single. Time. Let’s get to it!
Running Form and Muscle Groups
It’s pretty easy to understand the relationship between your quads and calves when it comes to running power. After all, it’s usually these two muscle groups that get tuckered out after a particularly intense training session.
But even though strong quads are necessary for pushing your PR, being overly reliant on these muscles can wreck your alignment by weakening your abdominals and glutes. Misalignment can mess up your whole body, resulting in a tight lower back and hip flexor, runner’s knee, and ankle pain while running. That’s a big no-no in our books.
The solution? By strengthening your hamstrings and glutes with running exercises, you can avoid over-dependence on your quads. It also helps to switch your stride from a “push” to a “pull” motion, which reduces the risk of injury caused by over-reaching. Sweet, right?
Similar to your quads, some athletes have it all wrong when it comes to the best exercises for runners. Your largest calf muscle (called the gastrocnemius—that’s a mouthful) is responsible for flexing your ankle and knee joints to make your push-offs more explosive. But don’t forget to give credit where credit is due.
The anterior tibialis (aka the front portion of your shin), forces your toes to flex upwards. This motion, called dorsiflexion (DF), is a relatively simple movement but can quickly drain your power supply if done incorrectly.
The key to performing the best exercises as a runner is all about tuning into your body’s interconnectedness. We know that sounds all hippie-dippy, but bear with us.
Think of the human anatomy as one big, kinetically-moving chain, with each muscle group intertwined and working together to optimize mobility and functionality. Sure, increasing your aerobic capacity and ramping up your cardio regimen will help your long distance tempo run. But if you truly want to unlock Beast Mode, you need to balance your exercise and fitness with deliberate cross-training.
Best Exercises for Runners
Alright class, what have we learned so far? Adding strength training to your workout routine will boost your running stamina, speed, and overall athleticism. Good!
So, what are the best exercises for runners who want to take their performance to the next level? Core exercises will help drive your power from all the right reserves, and HIIT routines will target more than one muscle group for a full-body workout.
Pro tip: HIIT effectively adds an element of cardio, which not only gets elevates your heart rate for the best results but also improves your V02 max (or oxygen efficiency). This is critical for both long-distance runners and quick sprinters.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 running exercises you should incorporate into your weekly training schedule. The cherry on top? Most of these body-weight exercises don’t require any equipment. That means you can still get an outdoor workout in at the park and avoid that smelly, bro-filled gym!
It’s no secret that burpees are everyone’s least favorite exercise. But the thing is, they’re also one of the best exercises for runners—no pain no gain, am I right? Burpees will bust your butt, but it’s because they employ almost every muscle group in your body: your quads, calves, core, and even your arms muscles (which also contribute to proper running form!)
- Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Lower your body into a squat with your arms positioned in front of your chest to perfect your center of gravity
- Jump your legs back into a push-up position, making sure to utilize your core strength in the plank
- Using controlled movement, bend your arms at the elbows to lower your body to the ground—no sloppy, worm-like motions!
- Push back up to the plank, jump back into a squat, and swing your arms overhead as you hop up. Aim to get at least 6 inches off the ground.
- Land, and repeat from the beginning
There’s no doubt it’ll be a love-hate relationship, but once you see how effective they are, you and burpees might just become BFFs.
Squat it like it’s hot! It seems like there are a million different types of squats out there: sumo squats, single leg squats, pulsing squats, and so forth. While they all have their slight variations, the goal of this running exercise is to fire up the glutes (get those booty gains!). Most of us have glutes that have “fallen asleep” due to inactivity, especially if you sit in a chair at a desk all day. However, your gluteus maximus is one of the largest muscles in the human body—and the main extensor of the hip muscles—making it a key player in your running performance.
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart directly under your hips
- Engage your core muscles, as if someone was drawing a string inward from your belly button
- Bend at the knees and lower down as if you’re about to sit in a chair
- Drive your weight through the backs of your heels and be sure that your knees do not extend over the front of your toes
- With explosive energy, straighten your legs to stand back up, making sure to squeeze your butt muscles when you reach the top
- Relax the contraction and repeat the motion
Remember, strong glutes help prevent your quads from taking over on your run, so don’t skimp out on this running exercise. Pro tip: Listen to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” as you work these into your regimen!
Looking to strengthen those calf muscles so you can explode into a sprint? Lunges are your best bet. Keep in mind, though: knees are a particularly weak and fickle joint, so be sure to always take it easy on them to avoid stress from overexertion.
- Begin standing with your feet beneath your hips, shoulder-width apart
- Take a big step forward and bend 90 degrees at the knee, making sure to engage your abs as your back knee lowers, hovering just barely an inch above the ground
- Take care that your front knee is aligned with your ankle and does not extend past the front of your foot
- Using your glute muscles, squeeze and drive your leg up and back
- Return to your starting position and repeat on the other side
You can do these standing in one place, or walking with alternating lunges by pacing 20 yards back and forth. It’s time to get low!
4. Backward Lunges
You guessed it—these are good ole’ lunges just done in reverse. Switching up your body mechanics by stepping backward will place less stress on your knees by directing the exercise emphasis to your hip flexors and anterior tibialis.
- Stand balanced with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Take one leg and make one large step backward
- Lower your hips so that your front thigh becomes parallel to the ground and the back knee points to the floor with your heel lifted
- Drive the weight into your front heel to bring your leg back up and forward
- Return to standing position and alternate legs
Want to level up? Add some weights to your lunges and squats to go into full Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson mode.
Planks are deceptively simple, but they’re one of the best core exercises for running. When done correctly, they should have your entire body shaking after a 45-second hold. We dare you to hold it for as long as you can!
- Begin in a push-up position with your hands on the floor, directly beneath your shoulders with your feet in-line with your hips
- If necessary, modify by dropping to your forearms or knees
- Imagine one straight line running through the crown of your head to the heels of your feet, with energy actively driving out through either end
- Contract all the muscles in your body and hold for at least 30 seconds
- Release, and work your way up to holds lasting from 45 seconds to over 1 minute
Core exercises for runners help stabilize your torso and make all your movements more efficient. When you have a strong core, you can breathe easier through exertion, power up steep hills, and stay steady on slippery sidewalks.
6. Side Plank
Oh boy, you’re in for it now. To target your oblique abs—which feed into your hip flexors—take your standard plank and flip it on its side!
- Place your forearm directly beneath your shoulder with your feet stacked on top of one another
- Contract your core and raise your hips off the ground, forming a straight line from your head to your feet
- Hold for a designated period of time before dropping back down and switching to the other side
To make this core exercise for runners a little more challenging, try lifting your upper arm and leg into the air to form a “star” position. If you can master this, make sure to post a pic to your Instagram. #CrushingIt
7. Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers not only strengthen your core muscles, but they also boost your metabolism and torch calories—making them a great running exercise to burn fat.
- Begin in a traditional plank position
- Engage your core and bring your right knee into your chest with your toes hovering just slightly off the ground
- Keeping your arms and torso in place, drive your right foot back and kick your left knee into your chest
- Continue to alternate legs so that it feels like you’re running in place, but in a plank position, for a specified number of reps or seconds (50 seconds is a solid goal)
8. Long Jumps
You don’t have to be a track star to reap the benefits of long jump running exercises. Whether you’re a casual jogger or an ultra-marathoner, mastering the long jump will make every toe-off more efficient.
- On a safe, soft surface, get a running head start and leap toward a measured marker by jumping off one leg
- Drive your knee forward to carry your momentum and bend your knee softly upon landing to protect the joint
- Alternate legs and increase your targeted distance, or perform box jumps using both legs instead
While you might feel like an oversized frog, this exercise is great for strengthening your hip flexors to build a strong stride.
9. Side Shuffles
Every day I’m shuffling! While you probably won’t use this move on the dance floor, side shuffles place your body in lateral motion by shuffling your feet side-to-side. Going sideways, as opposed to your usual forward-facing runs, switches up your muscle movements and works your outer quads.
- Start by standing with your knees slightly bent, spread slightly wider than your hips
- With your chest held high but your body crouched low, extend your right leg to the side
- Shuffle your left leg towards your right and crunching at your oblique, reach with your right hand to tap the ground on the outside of your right foot
- Use your core to straighten back up, stay low to the ground as you repeat on the other side, shuffling back and forth
Remember, speed isn’t everything (we know it’s tempting). Maintain proper form to get the max out of this movement!
10. Speed Skaters
Last but not least, speed skaters are an excellent running exercise if you’re looking for a total body workout with a sprinkling of cardio. These bad boys combine squats, lunges, and running in place for one head-to-toe, strength-building, fat-shredding movement. Booyah!
- Start by standing straight up, and make a big hop-step out to the right
- Sweep your left leg back behind you, bringing your left arm in front of your body
- Switch, and hop-step outwards using your left foot, sweeping your right arm and leg across your body
- Continue alternating side-to-side, staying on the balls of your feet the entire time
This is a classic cardio move, and it’s one of the best exercises for runners looking to improve their speed, footwork, and agility.
With all these exercises in your arsenal, you’ll be ready to smash any strength-training routine that comes your way. Build muscle, burn fat, and turn your body into a lean, mean, running machine as you cross-train your way across the finish line. Happy sweating!