As a runner, you need to have strong, healthy legs in order to log miles on the regular. One of the best ways to ensure your legs stay healthy: squatting. And while it can sometimes be hard to give up a day of running for a day of strength training, the benefits of squatting for runners outweighs the pain of skipping a run day.
The Benefits of Squats
The squat is a multi-joint exercise that primarily strengthens the hamstrings, hips, quadriceps, and glutes. “These are the biggest and most important muscles for runners because they power your stride,” explains Jason Fitzgerald, USATF certified coach and creator of Strength Running. “When these muscles are strong and functional, you’re far less likely to get injured,” he says. Healthy, strong legs often equal faster legs, too.
Besides just strengthening the major muscle groups used during running and giving you more resilient joints, squatting boasts a bunch of other benefits as well. A proper squat with correct form requires a certain amount of flexibility. “That flexibility will provide a more efficient and economical stride,” Fitzgerald explains.
And while squats appear to work the major glute and leg muscles, they are also an incredible core exercise. “A weighted, heavy squat requires more abdominal bracing than a plank,” Fitzgerald says. “That trunk stability is vital to performance, injury prevention, and improving a runner’s economy.”
Speaking of injury prevention, because squats are a compound, full-body exercise, they prompt a big release of beneficial hormones such as testosterone and human growth hormone, Fitzgerald adds. “These are critical for the recovery process.”
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How to Squat Like a Pro
Ready to give squats a shot? Start standing with feet just wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, and hands clasped at chest for balance. Initiate the movement by sending your hips back, then bend knees to lower down as far as possible while keeping your chest lifted. Press through heels and engage glutes to return back to the starting position.
The Downside to Skipping Squats
If you have an injury or issue that prevents you from squatting, don’t stress—it won’t be detrimental to your running career. Instead, Fitzgerald recommends substituting squats with lunges, deadlifts, or similar exercises. Why? There are other ways to strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, hips, and quads, but being weak in those areas can actually hurt you as a runner.
“Injuries afflict up to 70 per cent of runners every year, and strength training is one of the most valuable injury-prevention strategies that you have available,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a no-brainer to include strength training, namely squatting, in your running program.”
The Best Types of Squats for Runners
If you’re new to strength training, it’s best to start with bodyweight squats to perfect the movement before adding on weight. See above for proper form. Once you’ve perfected a bodyweight squat, the next step is adding weight to the squat. And once you have that form down, you can also move on to more complex squat variations such as an overhead squat or front squat.
“In general, all squats are good for runners,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a good idea to include a variety of squats to vary the movement, get stronger in different ways, and improve flexibility.”
As runners, you shouldn’t ever lift for endurance. Fitzgerald says you already get enough of that from running. But the goal isn’t to lift for hypertrophy (or increased muscle size) either, because you’re not looking to become a bodybuilder and have to carry along big muscles on your run. Runners want to lift for strength and power.
“This is done by lifting moderate to heavy weights for a moderate or short number of reps,” says Fitzgerald. An example might be three sets of 10 reps of a bodyweight squat (strength for a beginner) or four sets of three reps of a heavy, weighted squat (power for a more advanced runner).
How Often Runners Should Squat
Because the squat is a complex and demanding movement, it’s an exercise that should always be done after a run–not before—or on a non-running day.
Weighted squats will generally be part of a longer more challenging weightlifting routine done in the gym. “These types of sessions are best done on your hard running days, like after a fast workout or a long run, to ensure that hard days are kept hard, and easy days remain easy,” says Fitzgerald. “Runners only need two formal weightlifting days per week at the maximum.”
If you’re a beginner or just learning to perfect a squat, because you’re only using bodyweight, these can be added after almost any run. They can be included with other bodyweight exercises, which can also be done after every run. “The easier the squat, the less important the scheduling,” says Fitzgerald.
By Amy Schlinger