Quick Start Plan to Building Leg Strength and Power

This is a guest post from Jedd Johnson. Jedd is a strength enthusiast and Grip Sport competitor, and loves writing about all forms of strength training. Check out his site, DieselCrew.com, for articles and videos on all forms of strength training.

Imagine this scenario for just a moment…

You are facing the final stretch of your 5K run. Just a few hundred more meters to go and you will cross the finish line, but for some reason your legs feel like jelly.

For the entire race, you have felt solid, but with the finish line so close, it’s never felt so far away.

With each stride, you can feel your quads getting more rubbery, and your glutes are about to give out on you.

Why is this happening now????

Unfortunately, this is a situation that many runners face. At the end of a race, they find they don’t have it in them for that final kick, and while they may finish, at the end their pace has a huge drop-off.

One of the reasons for this happening is a lack of strength in the legs, especially the glutes and quads. The strength of the lower body is the foundation for many aspects of a race, including overall speed, power to get by another runner, and endurance at the end of the race.

How can we improve speed, power and endurance all at the same time? One way is by increasing your base Strength. Let’s look at each running factor in a bit more detail.

Running Speed

Speed is a combination of many factors, two of which are stride length and stride frequency. Stride length is the actual distance you are able to cover with one cycle of strides, and stride frequency is the number of strides you take over a given distance. Both of these factors are related to and driven by sheer Strength.

Think of it this way: if you lack leg strength, then you will not be able to propel your body as far forward with each stride and when you lose propulsion like this, you lose stride length. As a result, when you have a shorter stride length, it means to cover a certain distance, you will have to take more strides than a person that is roughly the same size but much stronger than you in the legs. More strides = a high stride frequency, which means you are doing a lot more work to cover the same ground as the other comparative athlete.

Running Power

When you want to pass by someone on a track or on a road, you need to shift it into another gear in order to blow by them. This increase in speed that takes place quickly in time is a result of Power.

In order to be powerful, you need to have Strength. If you do not have the strength required throughout the lower body, then you sacrifice your Power output and as a result, in order to pass someone you have to increase your stride frequency, thus changing your natural mechanics and burning more energy than is necessary.

Running Endurance

Your level of endurance and stamina is a direct result of your Strength and Conditioning levels. Think of your endurance abilities as a Pyramid. With more Strength, comes a wider foundation or base, with which to build your endurance, and thus, the pyramid has the capacity to be built higher.

However, if your strength levels are low, this means the base of the pyramid will be narrower and your endurance will suffer. Many of the people that burn out at the end of a race do so because of a lack of strength in the legs, not just poor conditioning.

Think about this. How many people do you know that can run a 5-k in their sleep, but do so dreadfully slowly? They might sign up to do a race with 4 or 5 other people, and their pace is way off the others.

This is partly due to their lack of strength, the lack of propulsion, having to constantly mess with their stride frequency by kicking it up a notch to maintain a pace, and then finally endurance which suffers because of this lack of sheer leg strength.

With the preceding examples, you can now see how Strength in the lower body (or lack thereof) can have a tremendous effect on your performance in a run or race. Now, we have to decide what to do about it.


Lower Body Strength Training for Runners

Chances are, since you are a serious runner, you understand running mechanics and how important it is to keep them in check. This article will not cover that aspect of the running game. Instead, this article will cover some of the exercises you can start doing right now in order build the lower body strength you need to increase your running performance.

1. Squats

One of the best movements you can start doing right now is Squats, especially Back Squats and Front Squats.

Back Squats

Front Squat

Back Squats are particularly beneficial for developing the back side of the body, the glutes, lower back, and hamstrings with a little bit of quad thrown in there as well. For an even bigger emphasis on the quads, you can perform any of the varieties of Front Squats.

Do not be tempted to replace Squats with Leg Press. The Leg Press is a bodybuilding tool, more so than a Strength Tool. The reason I say this is it is used to “isolate” portions of the lower body in order to get them to grow. The Squat variations, however, keep you up on your feet in a more similar position to running. Have you ever seen anyone run while sitting down?

Also, because you are seated inside a machine when using the Leg Press, you do not get the stimulation to the synergistic muscles, the ones that work along with the main muscle groups to keep everything firing efficiently and maintain balance.

Squats, of course, are a very technical exercise, so it is wise to consult with a trained professional on the proper execution of the exercise, or you can check out this post on my website, How to Squat Properly.

There are many squat programs out there today, ranging from very low volume (3 to 5 sets of 1 rep) to very high volume (20-rep sets). When I squat, I personally like sets of 3 to 5.

For runners new to squatting, the most important thing is to develop great technique and then progressively increase weight, reps or both, while still maintaining your great technique. If at any time your form begins to fail, cut the set short and re-rack the bar.

Covering the many Squat variations that exist would turn this article into a book. However, I know some people may not have a barbell and weights in their home and may not have a gym membership. While I feel squatting is the best all around developer of leg strength, I will cover some other exercises that you can use to supplement your Squats or in the case that you do not get into Squatting at all.

For an idea of Squat variations you can perform, simply search YouTube.com for how to perform Back Squats, Front Squats, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, Zercher Squats, Overhead Squats, etc.

2. Step Ups

Step Ups are another great exercise for building strength in the lower body. They are not as technique-intensive as Squat variations are, but they are still a better alternative to the Leg Press because, again, you are up on your feet driving force through the ground (or a platform) and the entire lower chain of the body must work together.

Step Ups

Do not be tempted to use your hands to assist you when performing Step-Ups. This takes away the effectiveness of the lift. Also, do not use the lower foot for assistance out of the bottom of the hole. Make every effort to generate the strength through the concentric phase of the exercise with the quads, the big muscles on the front of the leg.

Do not make the mistake of short-cutting your range of motion on the step-up. Make sure each and every repetition ends with a strong upright position created by the glute. Short-cutting here will reduce glute activity, and limit your development. Remember, the glutes are where you get your power from. Finish strong with the glutes to strengthen them and to lengthen the hip flexors.

Do not be afraid to load your Step-ups. Barbells and dumbbells can be used, as well as chains draped over the shoulders. As far as sets and reps, two or three sets of 10 to 20 reps should work great.

3. Lunges

Lunges are another great exercise for runners because they work the entire leg, you are standing on your feet instead of being in a machine, and you can easily load them and change directions with them.

There are two main ways to perform worth-while lunges in my opinion. The first way is to lunge over a distance. When doing so, it is important to maintain proper form. Think of driving with the glutes on each repetition and think of over-emphasizing the stride. Remember, lunges are not a running mechanics drill, they are a Strength Drill, so treat them as such.

Lunges

The other acceptable way to perform lunges is loaded with either a barbell or dumbbell. When performing Lunges, don’t be tempted to drag the feet. Instead, drive through the feet in a way that is powerful, lifting the feet up as you move.

4. Sled Dragging

There are many ways to perform sled dragging. There are different ways to attach the sled to your body, different ways to hold the sled, etc. You can pull forwards, drag back wards, side ways, you can sprint, lunge, jump – all of these movement patterns are possible and will help you develop unparalleled power on the road and track.

Don’t think you have a good kick for passing people and finishing strong in a race? You will if you start adding Sled Dragging to the end of your routine.

Sled Dragging

Again, with Sled Dragging, this is not a running mechanics drill. This is about developing drive, striding hard, and building power. Sure your legs will be blown up at the end of the training, but that is nothing that a little stretching can’t fix.

As far as volume, 6 to 10 runs of about 30 yards or so should do the trick, but if you have less room, so be it. From time to time, you can even mix up how much weight you add to the sled, while changing the distance you pull it.

5. Weighted Glute Bridge

The Glute Bridge is often done on the floor with just bodyweight or very little resistance. While this is good for activating glutes that have laid dormant for quite some time, eventually, you need to build strength in the glutes, and this is one way you can do it.

To do so, lie your shoulders on a bench with a loaded barbell above your hips. You can start out with just the barbell if you want, or with light weights added, like 25-lb bumper plates. You may also want to pad the bar with either a squat pad (one of the few good uses for a squat pad) or a towel. Hold the bar in place with your hands but do not assist the lift with the arms.

Glute Bridge

From there, it is just a matter of positioning the bar in the right spot in the bend of the thighs and in the center of the bar and then you just lift the barbell upwards to the point where you lock the hip joint out, then return to the floor.

Remember that this exercise works the glutes so the primary action should be at the hip. The lower back angle should stay consistent with this exercise, so do not extend the lower back at all in order to get further movement.

Drive the heels into the ground and keep the feet flat or lift the toes, but do not drive through the toes. That makes the exercise less efficient.

For volume, 3 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions should work well. Remember to start out light when you first start doing this movement, control each rep, and do not flex the neck. Keep the neck angle as consistent as possible throughout each rep.


Setting up a Lower Body Strength Program

While I have given you 5 excellent ways to train the lower body for strength and to increase your running performance, that does not mean you need to do all 5 lifts every single workout. Instead, I would suggest selecting a Squat Variation and then combining it with one other lift, plus some sled dragging, for a total of 3 lifts per lower body workout.

Since you are most likely running quite a bit, I would also suggest training the lower body only once per week. During periods of higher distances and running frequency, you can keep the overall volume of the lifts lower and when you are running less, you can increase the volume.

Here is one way to set up some lower body strength training sessions over the course of an 8-week period.

Week 1

Squat Variation
Lunge
Sled Dragging

Week 2

Squat Variation
Step-ups
Sled Dragging

Week 3

Squat Variation
Glute Bridge
Sled Dragging

Week 4

De-load: Zero to Minimal Weight Training

Week 5

Squat Variation
Glute Bridge
Sled Dragging

Week 6

Squat Variation
Lunge
Sled Dragging

Week 7

Squat Variation
Step-ups
Sled Dragging

Week 8

De-load: Zero to Minimal Weight Training

As you progress, you can even add in different leg training exercises. There are so many out there: Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Vertical Box Jumps, Plyos, Glute/Ham Raises, etc.


Safety Considerations for Lower Body Strength Training

As always, safety is the primary concern. While increasing your strength levels is a sure-fire way to improve your running performance, it is always wise to go about things the right way.

First off, do not even start weight training until you consult a doctor or physician. If you have underlying issues from your running past that you are not aware of, weight training can make things worse.

Second, I can not put enough emphasis on working your way up slowly. The 8-week progression listed above does not include weights and volume due to the amazing variety of readers Shaun has at his site. With that in mind, feel free to come to my site and drop me a line in regards to proper loading for your training.

Third, proper preparation is key. Far too many people try strength training for a short period and give up because it “hurts” or is “too hard.” Many times this is because they do not warm-up properly and do not pay attention to technique. While strength training is a way to better prepare for running, you must also properly prepare for strength training as well.

In the end, it is all about knowledge. Always be looking for ways to improve your knowledge base. When it comes to strength training, my site is one of the best, so I invite you to check out DieselCrew.com and view the Popular Posts on the right hand side. Strength is my passion and the 800+ posts at my site will show this.

I wish you the best in your training, and again, please check out my strength training website, and subscribe to my newsletter.

Jedd

Jedd Johnson is a Strength Coach and strength training enthusiast whose primary emphasis is Grip Strength. Jedd routinely competes in Grip Strength Contests all over the United States and international competitions involving world-wide participants. For more information on strength training, check out his website, DieselCrew.com, which is packed with nearly 1000 articles on various strength training and fitness related topics.

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3 Responses to Quick Start Plan to Building Leg Strength and Power

  1. jim says:

    He lost most of my attention when he started dogging higher stride rate. I can’t count the number of (reputable) sources I’ve seen encouraging striving for a *higher* stride count specifically to shorten the stride and reduce the risk of injury due to over-striding.

    I’m also not so sure about the form depicted in the images provided for squats. I’m pretty sure most instruction/guidance I’ve seen would encourage you to keep your heels on the ground to ensure stability and avoid injuring your forefoot.

    Other than that, seems like some decent recommendations!

  2. Jedd Johnson says:

    My heels are on the ground in all of those pictures. Absolutely, they should stay there.

    Increased strength will allow you to cover more distance per stride. This could be only inches, but those inches add up. I\’m not suggesting \”leaping\” on each stride, rather just propelling a bit better and thus running more efficiently.

    There is a HUGE debate about running efficiency where stride frequency and rate is concerned. In the end, with all things being equal, it will be the stronger athlete that wins, so it is important to train the legs for strength.

  3. Bill C says:

    Jim, I think those sources encouraging shorter strides and a higher count are meant for the many people who try to increase their stride by reaching forward with the lead leg. I’ve seen many people in 5k races who are running at ridiculously low stride rate and are almost HOPPING from leg to leg. But for people already running at around 180-190 steps per minute, the most efficient way to get faster is to cover more ground with each step.

    If you watch a distance race on tv and count the runners’ steps, the stride rate of the front runners and those in the back of the pack will be nearly identical. The difference is usually going to be strength and/or flexibility.

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