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I'm 27 and I'm in pretty good shape. I'm getting in even better shape, having signed up for a gym membership a couple months ago for the first time in my life. I've been hitting some free weights, pec press machines (or whatever you call them), the pull-up bar and the treadmill (I run 4.5 miles in about 32 minutes). But I do no leg weights - I'm on my feet all the time - I'm a human! - and these machines seem like a waste of time to me. Still, next month I'm running my first 10K. And I find that often while running, my legs start to ache before I'm exhausted.

Can lower body exercises help me?

Are they worth my time? (I'd rather not spend much more time in the gym than I already do)

If so, which exercises should I do?

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You're right that weight machines are not ideal. Free-weights are the way to go. See @Dave Liepmann's answer about Squats and Deadlifts. I do want to warn you though that once you start doing these your legs may be very sore for several days, especially when you first start and your body's not used to it. Therefore, it would probably be wise to begin lifting weights after your first 10k is over, not before. Also, I'm not sure if having more muscle will help with the ache you feel in your muscles when running. It will probably make you faster and less injury-prone, however. –  Joshua Carmody Sep 23 '11 at 17:20
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@JoshuaCarmody I hope you don't mind that I incorporated your comment into my answer. You said what I meant more clearly, and added a great point about the ache. –  Dave Liepmann Sep 23 '11 at 17:31
    
@Dave Not at all. Glad it was helpful. –  Joshua Carmody Sep 23 '11 at 17:42
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3 Answers 3

"Lower Body Exercises"

Let's define our terms. In lifting, squats and deadlifts are considered the primary "lower body exercises", but in truth they develop strength in the entire body. You could focus on "legs" specifically by using machines (leg press, leg curl), but that would be wildly inefficient and unproductive. Heavy barbell squats and deadlifts will get you much, much stronger over your whole body, including your legs.

As Second Nature Fitness puts it, "Due to its difficulty and impact on the body, the deadlift is an essential part of everyone's program - regardless of goals."

A functional human being should be able to squat and deadlift a significant amount of weight in order to maintain strength and mobility. This makes you less disposed to injury and able to do more things.

Strength For Running

It's common knowledge, and stands to reason, that being stronger will help you run faster. Deadlifting in particular is recommended for running. It strengthens your hamstrings and back, both of which are essential in running. Per Healthline:

Deadlifting is important for athletes because it requires several large muscle groups to work in a coordinated fashion. Athletes also use this versatile lift to develop explosive strength through the legs, hips, and back. Performing deadlifts will benefit you in any sport that requires jumping, running, lifting an opponent or object, or moving quickly from a stationary spot.

Your Situation

It might not make sense to start lifting for the first time a month before a race. Your legs may be very sore for several days when you first start, since your body is not used to that kind of work. Therefore, it would probably be wise to begin lifting weights after your first 10k is over, not before. Also, having more muscle may or may not help with the ache you feel in your muscles when running. It will probably make you faster and less injury-prone, however.

Once you are able to start, lifting will definitely get you stronger (and therefore healthier) and faster. One of the best resources for getting started is Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength (book and wiki). You could either take a few months off from running and do a novice progression, or you could simply add a squat/deadlift workout a few times a week to your current regimen.

A typical novice progression (cribbed from Starting Strength) is essentially:

  • Lift heavy three times a week with a barbell, doing a few sets of not more than six reps
  • In each lifting workout you will do: squats, bench press/overhead press, and deadlifts/chin-ups. (Slashes mean you alternate the exercise each workout.)
  • At each workout, you lift a little more in each exercise than you did in the previous workout.

Other novice progressions (like GreySkull LP) focus more on the upper body, but that wouldn't make sense for someone interested in running. The specifics aren't terribly important; the core idea is a small number of full-range-of-motion compound barbell exercises done heavy for a few reps, increasing in weight each workout for as long as possible.

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Can lower body exercises help me? Absolutely

Are they worth my time? Yes, and I've included ones that will get you out of the gym.

If so, which exercises should I do?

Start with lower body and core resistance training. Then move on to plyometrics. These will help with your running performance, reduce the chance of injuries and balance out your total body. Choose from some of the exercises below.

Types of Strengthening Exercises

  • For running, plyometric or explosive strength training can improve your neuro-muscular control, increasing both your strength and power. This improves your economy of motion, or "running economy", and therefore allows you to run more smoothly, with less effort and probably less aches. Plyometric training can even cut into your running endurance training time and still improve your running results. However, before you try plyometric training, you need to have a solid strength base.
  • Design your lower body and core muscle strengthening to give you a stronger toe push off, forward drive and better cushioning on landing as your muscles absorb the shock. Think in terms of functional movements, multiple muscle groups and specificity of training for running. Some suggestions:
  • For a strong toe push off - toe or calf raises with or without weights or machines,
  • For a strong forward knee motion - cable hip flexors
  • For good shock absorbing and eccentric control include:

    dorsi-flexors of the foot and ankle - heel walking or cable dorsi-flexion

    quads with partial step downs
    glutes with step ups or squats and lunges

  • For core muscle control: planks, bridges, bird-dogs progressions

Once you have good basic strength, you can begin with plyometric exercises like squats with a medicine ball toss, box jumps, bounding, one and two legged hops (forward and lateral) and vertical or long jumps.

Add some wobble board training to work on balance and agility, and keep flexible with a stretching routine.

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The study you linked to as evidence for plyometrics saw an increase in running times from using maximal-weight half-squats 4x4. (It seemed to me like they were with a barbell, but I could be wrong.) Are half-squats plyometric? I would classify them as strength training. (I agree with your conclusion either way--being stronger, and being speed-stronger, will help running times.) –  Dave Liepmann Sep 24 '11 at 1:14
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@Dave, thanks for catching that. I meant: Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. simultaneous explosive-strength training, including sprinting and endurance training, produced a significant improvement in the 5-km running performance by well-trained endurance athletes without changes in V˙o 2 max or other aerobic power variables. This improvement is suggested to be due to improved neuromuscular characteristics that were transferred into improved muscle power and RE. –  BackInShapeBuddy Sep 24 '11 at 8:24
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@Dave, so no, as you point out squats or half squats are not plyometric. You can improve running with strength training and explosive strength training. I did want to make the point in my answer to make sure one gets a good strength basis before adding plyometrics. –  BackInShapeBuddy Sep 24 '11 at 8:36
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Lower body exercises would probably help you build speed and prevent injury (by building muscle around your knee, for example, you'll be less likely to tear something). Runner's World has a great article called Faster in Five that outlines 5 different lower body exercises you can do, mostly just with your own body weight and dumbbells. These include single leg squats, balance run (also try the running man variation), heel raises, hamstring push-up (one-legged bridges on an exercise ball or chair), and plank lift. Regular squats, lunges, and high step ups are good too.

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