3D Strength Training for Runners
Six dynamic exercises that build side-to-side strength to improve performance and resist injuries.
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Distance running mostly takes place in what’s called the sagittal plane. This involves forward and backward movement of the legs and arms to propel the body forward.
Performing strength-focused exercises in this plane can improve running efficiency by increasing force production capabilities and the ability of the muscles and tendons to absorb and release energy with each stride. To develop strength in the sagittal plane, target the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings and calves with dynamic exercises that propel the body upward and forward.
Stability and Sideways Motions
But forward and backward strength work isn’t all that you need. Because running involves a single-leg stance during each stride, runners also require strength in the frontal plane, a plane that involves side-to-side muscle action. To develop strength and stability in the frontal plane, target the hip abductors, particularly your gluteus medius. The hip abductors play an important role in maintaining pelvic stability during the initial stages of ground contact. The impact of running creates a torque in the pelvis which, if not stable, can lead to pelvic drop, causing IT band issues and knee pain.
Additionally, it is a smart idea to also prepare the muscles for lateral movements. Occasionally runners need to move side-to-side when rounding corners, dodging other runners in a packed race or park, or navigating obstacles on a technical trail. These movements might not be as pronounced as those made playing multidirectional sports such as soccer or ultimate frisbee, but that doesn’t mean that the muscles involved don’t need to be strong.
Performing exercises in multiple directions will challenge the running muscles in new ways, which may help reduce injury risk and muscle imbalances. Training with 3D exercises can also develop more athleticism, body coordination and balance while providing a break to the movement monotony associated with running in a straight line all the time. Running with 3D strength will increase confidence on race day and prepare the body to handle multidirectional strides.
This 3D strength workout is designed to be performed once a week. You’ll need one dumbbell ranging from 15–35 pounds depending on your strength level. You’ll also need a small circular band. If you’re new to strength training, using your own body weight will be sufficient as you get accustomed to the leg exercises. This is one workout with three different mini-circuits (A, B and C). Between circuits, take a 90-second to 2-minute rest.
A1) Hip Hike, Ball on Wall
Sandwich an exercise ball on a wall with your right hip. Stand tall on your left foot on a 3–4 inch block and lean into the ball. Slowly lower your right hip down below the surface of the block and notice your left hip shift laterally. Push your right hip into the ball to hike the right side of your hips upward. Squeeze your hip abductors on the left to perform this action. Complete 15 repetitions per side. Take minimal rest and proceed to exercise A2.
A2) Lateral Lunge Jump
Stand on your left leg and crouch down while swinging your arms behind you. Jump laterally to the right and land on your right leg. Land softly like a ninja, crouch down, swing your arms back and jump back toward the left. Perform 10 jumps per direction. Take 45 seconds rest, then return to exercise A1. Do 4 total sets of A1 and A2. Take a 90-second to 2-minute rest and proceed to exercise B1.
B1) Crossover Goblet Lunge to Lateral Goblet Lunge
Hold a dumbbell lengthwise in front of your body and stand with your feet hip width apart. Step behind your leg left with your right foot and kneel toward the ground. Your right knee should approach the floor to the outside of your left ankle. Keep your left foot flat on the floor and notice a unique stretch in your left glute. Return to the starting position.
Next, take a big step toward the right. Transfer your weight toward your right leg as you squat down. Keep your left leg straight and both feet parallel. Notice a stretch on the inside of your left groin. Return to the starting position and start over. Perform 12 lunges per direction. Take minimal rest and proceed to exercise B2.
B2) Side Knee Plank Clamshell
Lie on your side with a band wrapped around your lower thighs. Go onto your bottom elbow and bend your knees 90 degrees. Lift your hips to form a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Raise your top arm upward. Brace your abs and turn your top knee up and open your legs like a clamshell. Squeeze your top glute to turn your knee up and squeeze your bottom glute to keep your hips still.
Hold this top, open position for 6 seconds. Then perform 6 dynamic clamshell reps. Return to the top position and hold for 5 seconds, then perform 5 dynamic reps. Continue this countdown with 4 minutes/4 reps, 3, 2 and 1. Change sides and repeat. Take 45 seconds rest, then return to exercise B1. Do 3 total sets of B1 and B2. Take a 90-second to 2-minute rest and proceed to exercise C1.
C1) In-Place Low Cossack Goblet Squat
Hold a dumbbell lengthwise in front of your torso. Stand with your feet double shoulder-width apart with your feet parallel. Keep your feet flat and squat over to your left. Keep your right leg straight and slowly turn your right leg so the toes on your right foot turn toward the ceiling. Notice a stretch on the inside and back of your right leg/groin/hamstring area. Stay low and shift your body over toward the right. As you shift your weight over, turn your right leg back and plant your right foot. Keep your left leg straight and perform a squat on your right leg. Go back and forth from side to side 10 times per side. Take minimal rest and proceed to exercise C2.
C2) Quarter Squat Knee Dance
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart with a circular exercise band around your lower thighs. Squat down a quarter of the way and keep your feet flat. Turn your knees out to increase tension in the band. Notice this movement occurs at the hip joint. Let your knees turn inward and notice tension release in the band. Turn your knees in and out while staying in the quarter squat for 20 reps. Next, turn your knees out, then turn one knee in while keeping the other out. Return that knee out, then switch sides. Alternate knee turn-ins for 15 reps/side. Stand and rest for 5 seconds. Then repeat 2 more times. Rest for 45 seconds, then return to exercise C1 and perform 2 total sets.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a Strength & Conditioning Coach with 15 years of experience and is co-owner of JKConditioning, a health and fitness business in St. John’s, NL, Canada. He’s a retired competitive runner and a long time contributor to PodiumRunner. Follow him @JKConditioning.