4 Strength Exercises for Trail Runners
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Add these drills to your weekly regimen to galvanize your body for off-road running

If you’re a frequent trail runner, you probably look and feel strong, with your defined quads and ripped calves honed by running on sometimes steep, undulating and uneven terrain. But doing drills to add stability to the joints you use with every foot strike, and strengthening your hamstrings, glutes and supporting muscles will not only make your faster, allow you to go longer and run more efficiently, but they can help you ward off injury as well.

Kirk Warner, an avid trail runner and the strength and running coach with The Run Experience and endurance coach at CrossFit Roots in Boulder, Colo., lays out four moves that’ll make you the best trail runner you can be.

“Ideally, you’d do these in front of a mirror to make sure you’re form stays intact,” Warner says. “But if not, just focus on proper alignment among your joints—ankles, knees, hips and shoulders—maintaining stability in your core as you work through each exercise.”

Warner suggests doing these four exercises on a day off from running or after an easy run.

1. Step-Ups

Why: Step-ups teach you how to drive one leg at a time to improve running power. They also help build knee, ankle and hip stability, and help strengthen glutes and the whole posterior chain—which is important, Warner says, because runners are generally quad-dominant. These can be done on a box at a gym, on a park bench or even off the edge of a patio deck—with or without dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand.

How: Using a box or bench at a gym, or a picnic table or park bench, start with both feet on the ground. Step up with one foot, keeping the knee and ankle in alignment, and your hips square (picture keeping a level waistband). Step up onto the box and back down. Repeat with the opposite foot, and continue alternating feet. Build up to maintaining good form under fatigue. Do all reps on one leg before switching to the other.

How many: Work up to three sets of 10 on each leg.

Amp it up: Increase the height of the step, or hold weights in each hand. When holding weights, keep arms straight, and focus on not letting your knee dive in or out, as weights may make you want to lean over forward or to one side. The goal is to maintain stability by holding proper form.

2. Alternating Limb-Lift Planks

Why: Holding a plank builds essential core strength. Lifting one limb at a time works on trunk stability to resist over-rotating, especially while running downhill. (Over-rotating can lead to a cascading effect of lower-body injuries.) These single-arm/single-leg-raising planks help build midline stability to counter all of that.

How: With your butt muscles and abdominals engaged to keep your back from arching, push into a plank on all four limbs. Have your foot stance wider than you would in a traditional plank for added stability. Hold plank for 15 seconds, then lift one arm straight in front of you, and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Rest for 20 seconds. Resume plank position, hold for 15 seconds, then lift the other arm and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Rest before doing the same with each leg.

How many: Cycle through each limb twice.

Amp it up: Do this sequence—left arm, right arm, right leg, left leg—as a Tabata workout. Start in plank position and lift one limb for 20 seconds, then rest lying on the ground for 10 seconds. Cycle through each limb twice for 8 lifts total.

3. Single-Leg Good Mornings

Why: Like step-ups, Good Mornings work the postural chain to counter runners’ quad dominance. They work hamstrings and glutes like deadlifts, but don’t require weights. Single-Leg Good Mornings build ankle, knee and hip strength as well, which can help ward off ankle sprains. And maintaining postural integrity while doing this exercise helps reinforce good posture while running, which is critical to being able to breathe deeply.

How: Stand with knees slightly bent and arms at your sides. Lift one foot slightly off the ground. Keeping your knee aligned over your ankle and your hips square, reach forward as if picking up a tennis ball or barbell off the ground (it’s OK if you don’t reach down that far; hinge forward only as far as you can keep a flat back). Concentrate on stabilizing your spine and maintaining a flat back through the movement and not collapsing your chest as you bend at the waist. Return to standing. Repeat on that same leg.

How many: Work up to three sets of 8 on each leg.

Amp it up: Do this same exercise holding dumbbells in each hand. Keep arms straight, and make sure your knee doesn’t collapse inward due to the extra weight.

4. Around the World Toe Taps

Why: Trail runners need strong—and mobile—hips. This exercise creates hip stability through a variety of positions and also works ankle stability. Plus, it challenges balance and forces strength and awareness through different planes (forward, back, side and side). Since running is moving in one direction, this can help diversify your awareness in different planes.

How: Stand with feet hip-width apart, legs slightly bent. Lift one foot slightly off the ground, and reach it forward (picture the 12 o’clock position on a clock face), tapping your toe lightly to the ground. Move that same foot out to the side (3 o’clock), tapping your toe. Move the foot/leg to the back (6 o’clock), tap your toe to the ground. Move the foot/leg behind your standing leg and to the side (9 o’clock), tap your toe to the ground.

How many: Cycle through each position twice before switching to your other leg. (You want to feel the burn in your ankle and lower leg.)

Amp it up: Reach your foot further and further forward as you get better at this. See how far you can go, while maintaining square hips and your ankle positioned above your knee.

READ MORE: How Runners Can Get Stronger

Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She writes for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Men's Health and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.