Most runners focus on running more and longer to build speed and improve performance, but let’s switch gears and add strength training, explosiveness, and high-intensity interval training to your workouts at max effort to maximize speed. That’s movements like the deadlift, Bulgarian split squat, and sled pushes.
As a runner, it’s only natural to want to run faster. Maybe you’re trying to shave a few seconds off your pace, or perhaps you’re trying to hit a PR for a marathon.
Whatever the reason, the need for speed is a common goal—but increasing it isn’t always the easiest job. Sure, you can try to give yourself an extra push with a solid pre-workout or tune into your mental state to boost focus, but often, it takes a bit more than that.
That’s where speed workouts come into the picture. But building speed isn’t only about doing speed work.
When you hit other aspects of performance via strength exercises to build muscle mass, you can indirectly improve aerobic capacity, increase the strength of the leg muscles, and train different muscle fibers, all of which can improve speed, reduce recovery time, and enhance overall performance.
So, if you’re ready to become a faster runner, we’re foregoing the traditional speed workouts and covering the best 6 strength training exercises to ignite your internal fire and help you run faster.
Why Strength Training Is Essential For Runners
While most running workouts focus on increasing the amount of running you do, increasing your speed and running performance isn’t just about increasing the miles you cover. Most runners don’t realize that strength training is critical to any running program.
Incorporating strength movements into your routine - in addition to speed exercises - is essential if you want to run faster.
It improves key running performance markers like VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy, but it also helps improve muscle and connective tissue strength—all factors that influence overall running performance.
But here’s the thing: runners shy away from strength training for fear that they’ll turn into big, bulky meatheads, which will ultimately work against their goal and slow them down. It’s not true.
Adding strength training exercises to your running workouts can improve 1-5:
- Running economy via enhancing elastic energy—you can propel your body forward more efficiently, thereby reducing the amount of work the muscles have to do—and by improving torso and hip biomechanics.
- Maximal sprint speed via altering neuromuscular connections that increase the efficiency of force application.
- Overuse injury risk by inducing positive changes in muscle, tendon, and bone health.
So, if you want to increase your speed, it boils down to one thing: strength training.
Picking up weights or other heavy objects increases size and strength and builds stronger and more powerful muscles that help improve and quicken your stride.
But you must choose the right moves to translate your strength gains into speed gains.
Explosive movements are some of the best exercises to help activate your muscle power quickly during the acceleration phase of running, increasing the speed of your turnover and the power of your stride. And research backs it up.
A 2003 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that just 6-weeks of plyometric training improved running performance, especially during short-distance runs 6.
Let’s summarize why strength training is important for runners:
- Improved power and coordination
- Reduced risk of injury
- Greater power during acceleration
- Increased VO2max
- More efficient muscle function
Simply put, performing at your highest potential requires more than just running—runners can benefit enormously from incorporating other kinds of workouts that target strength, flexibility, and balance, all of which make you a more well-rounded runner.
Top 6 Exercises For Running Workouts to Build Speed
Running benefits: Explosive strength, speed, strength, and vertical jumping power.
If there’s one exercise that can push the rest of your training into overdrive, it’s box jumps. They’re an explosive movement that targets your legs and core muscles and are one of the best moves for building power and firing up the central nervous system.
Training your body to become more explosive complements the raw strength built during big movements like deadlifts or squats. But they also challenge your hip extension and flexion, which are essential for runners.
How: Facing a sturdy box (weight bench or an aerobic step works, too) with your feet about hip to shoulder width apart. Sit back and begin in a low squat stance and stretch your arms back behind your body like a ski jumper.
Dig through your feels and push off the floor using your arms for momentum. Be sure to land softly with both feet on the box and absorb the jump with your knees. Step down from the box and repeat.
Running benefits: Core strength and stability, quad and glute activation, and range of motion.
The Bulgarian split squat is one of the best exercises for building size and strength in the lower body, reducing muscle imbalances, stretching and strengthening the hip flexors, challenging balance and stability, and reducing the load on the spine, all of which are beneficial for speed training.
Some research suggests that the split squat is more effective at recruiting the hamstrings and gluteus medius and may even boost testosterone levels more than bilateral squats 7.
How: Stand in front of a bench or box (or another stable platform). Place the top of one foot onto the bench behind you and get into a position where your front foot is planted on the floor with your shin vertical to the ground; when you sink, your thigh should be parallel to the ground, forming a 90-degree angle at the knee.
Grab a single KB or dumbbell, or one in each hand. Engage your core, maintain a neutral spine and neck, and retract and depress your shoulder blades.
Stand up tall and hinge forward slightly to avoid overextending your back. With control, lower yourself down while keeping your shin vertical. Stop before your back knee hits the floor (about one inch above the ground).
Squeeze your glutes to keep your knee in the proper position, then drive through the planet heel and push yourself back to starting position.
Running benefits: Posterior chain strength and reduces knee pain.
If you’re looking to build strength, mass, and athleticism, incorporating the deadlift into your training program is a given.
It’s a full-body compound movement that increases strength and durability, builds stronger legs and glutes, improves posture, and enhances endurance.
Deadlifts are also great for developing propulsive forces in the glutes and hip extensors, which can contribute to push-off as you increase your running pace.
How: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with the bar over your mid-foot. Keeping a straight back, hinge at the hips, and sit your butt back slightly, gripping the barbell with a shoulder-wide grip.
The barbell should be close to your shins but not touching them. Maintain a neutral spine and neck, and look towards the ground (avoid looking straight ahead—it strains the neck).
Retract your shoulder blades and lift your chest. With a straight back and engaged core, exhale as you engage your glutes and push through your heels to lift the barbell.
Keep the barbell as close to your body as possible, and fully extend your hips at the top of the movement.
Lift your chest, keep your shoulders protracted back, and maintain a straight back. Lower the weight (along the same path you raised) with control.
Looking to develop explosive power that will translate directly into more power during running? Look no further than the broad jump.
They’re one of the best movements to develop speed in your fast-twitch muscle fibers and train your leg and core muscles to contract quickly to generate maximum force with each jump.
They’re also incredibly effective for improving horizontal force production, which is a main component of acceleration.
How: Start with your legs about shoulder-width apart. Raise both of your arms overhead and rise onto the balls of your feet; your heels should be in the air.
Swing your arms behind your torso, bend at the knees, and drive your hips straight back. Push through the legs and feet and drive yourself off the ground, jumping forward as far as you’re comfortable.
You want to use the arms to generate power and propel you through the jump. Land with your arms extended behind your torso, bent knees, and hips down and back. Repeat.
Sled (prowler) push
Running benefits: Improves speed, builds upper and lower body strength, and increases endurance.
Sleds are excellent for improving speed, building upper and lower body strength, and boosting power. When performed correctly, sled pushes and drags are full-body movements that target every muscle in your upper and lower body.
But what’s interesting is that studies show that heavy loads during sled training produce the greatest gains in sprint performance over short distances 8.
How: To use the sled push for speed, load the sled with about 25% of your maximum load. Stand behind the sled with your feed about hip-width apart and grab the poles with a high-grip hand position.
Engage your core, sit your butt back, and push the sled forward as fast as possible, driving power from the ground through your legs.
Ensure your hips and knees are extended as your push forward. Your foot stance should resemble a natural running stance. Rest for 30 to 60 seconds between pushes.
Running benefits: Core strength and coordination.
The deadbug is one of the best exercises to safely and effectively strengthen and stabilize your core, spine, and back muscles.
It should come as no surprise that core strength is essential for runners, but the deadbug has a bit of an advantage, especially for runners—you’re moving opposite arms and legs in tandem, just as you would with running.
But the goal here is to keep your core engaged as you move your limbs, which translates into a stronger and more stabilized core during running to protect the low back and spine.
How: Lie flat on your back on the floor and press as much of your spine into the floor as you can.
Raise your arms straight towards the ceiling, and bend your hips and knees to form a 90-degree angle—you want to be in a ‘table top’ position with your shins.
While consciously trying to keep your entire spine in contact with the ground, reach your left arm above your head and extend your right leg.
Keep your toes pointed and push your leg away from you. Without allowing your heel to touch the floor, keep your core engaged and return to starting position. Repeat the movement with the opposite arm and leg.
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- van Poppel D, van der Worp M, Slabbekoorn A, et al. Risk factors for overuse injuries in short- and long-distance running: A systematic review. J Sport Health Sci. 2021;10(1):14-28.
- Barnes KR, Kilding AE. Running economy: measurement, norms, and determining factors. Sports Med Open. 2015;1(1):8.
- Maestroni L, Read P, Bishop C, et al. The Benefits of Strength Training on Musculoskeletal System Health: Practical Applications for Interdisciplinary Care. Sports Med. 2020;50(8):1431-1450.
- Vannatta C, Heinert B, Kernozek T. The effect of strength training on running kinematics: A narrative review. Critical Reviews™ in Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine.
- Spurrs RW, Murphy AJ, Watsford ML. The effect of plyometric training on distance running performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003;89(1):1-7.
- McCurdy K, O’Kelley E, Kutz M, Langford G, Ernest J, Torres M. Comparison of lower extremity EMG between the 2-leg squat and modified single-leg squat in female athletes. J Sport Rehabil. 2010;19(1):57-70.
- Cahill MJ, Oliver JL, Cronin JB, Clark KP, Cross MR, Lloyd RS. Influence of resisted sled-push training on the sprint force-velocity profile of male high school athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2020;30(3):442-449.