5 Functional Exercises to Improve Running Performance

I usually only prescribe running in programs to my athletes and high-performance clients. I find that average-joe runners like myself are more prone to injury either because of muscle imbalances and/or pre-existing injuries. However, you guys love to run. I get it- running is relaxing and great for cardiovascular health. It's social, easily accessible and you can get high off it too. To compromise with your desire to run your ass off, I have listed 5 of my favourite strength exercises that will improve your running mechanics and speed. This will be useful for those of you who like any sport involving running and obstacle course runs like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race. Select some of these exercises and add it to your leg routine as you see fit. You can also use all five of the exercises as I have laid out as a workout on its own.

Below you will find a tutorial of the exercise in text and video that includes progressions and initial set & rep ranges.

1. 45 Degree Calf Pump


Start with the 45 degree calf pump because 1. warms up ankle range of motion, 2. pre-activates posterior leg muscles and 3. gets calve training out of the way before you decide to skip it. However, the main purpose of the exercise is to develop ankle stiffness necessary for optimal running speed.

Place hands against wall at shoulder width and level and arms fully extended. Step back so that you are positioned on the balls of your feet with your body in a 45 degree angle. Keeping hands, arms, abs and butt stiff, raise your right knee up 90 degrees, point right toe up and hold. With your left foot, press onto your tippie toes as high as you can and feel the calf muscles contracting. Finally, descend your left heel til it hovers the floor and repeat. 

BW (Bodyweight) x 30 seconds each side x 3 sets- explosive reps. Quick contraction followed by 3 second descent. Switch sides.

2. CLA Anterior Reach


The CLA Sprinter Start trains the hip and knee motion during the push-off portion of running. You should feel this in the hamstring a.k.a back of your leg between your knee and hips. 

CLA is an abbreviation for contra-lateral arm- which is a fancy way of saying opposite arm and opposite leg. Balance on your left foot and lift your right heel halfway to your butt. Simultaneously, push your butt hips back and reach with your right arm towards an object placed ahead of you (water bottle or dumbbell will work well). See video to see how I gauged the distance between the object and me. Keep your back flat throughout the entire motion. Pro-tip: Imagine you're a really hot girl (if you are... be yourself) showing off your chest and butt as you bend over on one leg. This will help keep your back flat. Once you tap your object, thrust your hips and return to the starting position without losing balance. Repeat the movement for both sides.

Common mistakes:

Try not to look sideways at the mirror, use your camera and record yourself or ask a friend to watch if you're unsure of your technique.

If your knee caves inwards toward your ankle, squeeze your butt muscles- that should help prevent it from caving. Work on glute bridge.

BW (Bodyweight) x 15 each side x 3 - If you want to make it harder, you can hold a dumbbell on the reach arm.

3. Stability Ball Hip Bridge


The stability ball hip lift is a common exercise for rehabilitating and strengthening the hamstrings. It also strengthens the posterior portions of your core such as your glutes and erector spinae (lower back muscle) while stretching your abs (rectus abdominus, obliques, transverse abdominis). 

Start lying on the floor with legs fully extended and calves (or ankles- harder variation) resting on top of the stability ball. Position your arms 45 degrees away from your torso with hands pressed against the floor. Keeping your calves close together and butt flexed- lift your hips up until your body is flat like a plank. Do not lift your hips so high you are over-arching your back. Slowly descend until your body is hovering slightly above the ground and repeat the movement. 

BW (Bodyweight) x 15-20 x 3 - When you achieve 20 reps for 3 sets flawlessly on ankles, progress to the one legged version. You can also make this harder by wearing a weighted vest to challenge core.

4. Single Leg Squat


A fundamental bodyweight exercise that improves hip stability for any single leg activity. For runners, this is important for developing proper strength and mechanics during the planting phase of running. 

Balance on your right foot and hold your left leg back for counterbalance. You can keep your hands clasped together or on your hips for more counterbalance. On your right leg, drop down as low as you can bending evenly through your hips, knees and ankles. Your knee can pass your toe when you squat. Your back should be straight, knees should not cave inwards toward the ankle and no tilting sideways.

Work towards BW x 10 each leg x 3. To make this more difficult, you can hold dumbbells or wear a weighted vest and/or throw in a knee up at the top.

5. Resistance Band/Cable Staggered Stance Single Arm Row


Banded/Cable rows is for strengthening hip stability and postural muscles. Good posture is helps your body intake greater volumes of oxygen. Try curling forward towards your stomach and breathing versus keeping your chest high and breathing. Notice the difference in your ability to inhale and hold you breath. Our bodies use oxygen as part of a process to create energy that is used by the muscle- this is known as the aerobic energy system. When your postural muscles are strong, you'll be able to breathe better and therefore perform better.

Set a cable or tie a resistance band to about knee level or lower. Hold onto the cable handle with your right hand and take one big step back. With your right leg, take another big step back and drop your hips so that both your knees form a 90 degree angle- this is known as the staggered stance. From here your right arm should be fully extended. Without rotating your torso, pull the cable back to the side of your hips.  You should feel the contraction behind your armpit and shoulder blade. Extend the arm and repeat. Switch leg stance and arms and repeat.

Perform a weight you can do 12-15 repetitions each side for 3 sets. Increase weights when you can do 15 reps for 3 sets with perfect technique.

Hope you have a good workout with this one. Let me know how it goes and post your thoughts below!