Sturdy legs keep injury away. A simple plan to do it right.
Setting a foundation of strength work during the spring ensures that when it comes time for summer speed, your legs will be able to withstand whatever abuse you dish out. These three workouts will fortify your legs for the race season to come.
Do three sets of these simple exercises at least three times per week after any run or cycling session to strengthen often overlooked muscles that can cause injury in unusual places later down the line.
20 squats: Thrust your butt back as you go down, almost to the point where you’re falling backward. Don’t let your knees go in front of your toes. After these become easy, graduate to one-legged squats while resting the top of your other foot on a raised surface behind you. Do 20 on each side. Later, add dumbbells or a medicine ball.
Strengthens: Hamstrings and glutes, but also calves, abs and lower back
15 calf raises: This exercise can prevent season-ending Achilles injuries, calf troubles and shin splints, so don’t rush it. Same drill as squats: Do both calves at the same time to start, then graduate to 15 on each side. Do these on a step and be sure your heel goes as low as possible, then as high as possible very slowly. A good rule of thumb is two seconds up, two seconds hold at the top, two seconds down.
Strengthens: Calves and soleus muscles
Lunge matrix, 10 per leg in each direction: Lunge one leg forward, keeping your front knee directly above your toes; lunge to the side, keeping the non-lunging leg straight and the lunging leg’s knee above the toe; lunge backward, stepping one leg behind, the other leg remaining in front, knee above the toe. Do this 10 times on each leg.
Strengthens: Most major leg muscles; back and abdominal muscles
After you’ve laid down an aerobic base, the next step is to add build runs. Build runs are important for increasing strength by working hard on already tired muscles. Keep in mind that during this phase in your training you don’t need to approach race pace yet, so don’t go overboard on the fast part. The easiest way to approach a build run is to use time and perceived effort or heart rate rather than distance and speed—save that stuff for later.
The big build: 15-minute warm-up easy; 10 minutes at 5 out of 10 effort, 10 minutes at 6/10, 10 minutes at 7/10; 10-minute cool-down easy
The broken build: 15-minute warm-up easy; 5 minutes at 5/10 effort, 5 minutes at 6/10, 5 minutes at 7/10, 3 minutes easy; 5 minutes at 6/10, 5 minutes at 7/10, 5 minutes at 8/10; 10-minute cool-down easy
Once you’ve been training and doing the strength building exercises for a few weeks, it’s time to add some hills to the mix. Hill training not only builds strength for running, but also allows you to focus on your form and even adds power on the bike. During the pre-season, it’s not necessary to do short, steep, intense hill reps—those will come later. Instead, focus on long, gradual sustained hill climbs for big strength gains without the risk of injury. Add a big hill near the end of your long run to build power on already tired legs, focusing first on running tall, then leaning forward and looking at the ground in front of you. Do not look up at the top of the hill, which can cause you to tip back and rotate your stride back onto your heels. Build throughout each hill, splitting it up into thirds: the first third finding your perfect form, the second third slightly increasing your turnover and speed, the final third cresting the top with power while still retaining form.