Do Trail Runners Need to Strength Train?

Supplement your aerobic workouts with strength training to experience the full potential of your running performance.

The short answer is, no. Running is something that humans have done for 2 million years, without strength training. We have evolved to run!

But the long answer is, yes—if you want to improve your injury resilience and overall performance.

Modern life, with the sedentary habits it creates—think of the hours spent behind the desk, commuting, etc.—has degraded our joints, tendons, and ligaments, making us more susceptible to both acute and chronic overuse injuries. Furthermore, modern science has given us a much better understanding of how to train the factors that affect longevity, speed, and efficiency in running, such as tendon stiffness, biomechanics, and rate of force development in the muscles.

Simply put, if you want to experience the full potential of your running abilities, you should supplement your aerobic workouts with strength training.

Not all strength exercises, however, are equally effective or useful for runners.

Here are our three favorite moves to build tissue capacity, maximum strength, and power for a bulletproof foundation:

1. Forefoot Isometric

Why: Running is a series of foot-ground collisions. The stiffer your foot-and-ankle complex is when your foot strikes the ground, the more spring you’ll have at takeoff, and the shorter your ground contact time will be—all leading to a faster pace. This isometric hold helps build this tissue capacity in the plantar fascia, Achilles tendon, and gastrocnemius (calf muscle), along with single-leg stability, which will increase running efficiency (elastic rebound) and injury resilience.

How to do it: Stand on one leg, shift your weight onto your forefoot, and grip the ground with your toes. Then, with a slight bend in your knee and forward hinge at the hips, raise your heel. Hold this position for 30 seconds until failure. Then lower your raised foot to the ground, switch legs, and repeat.

Protocol: Perform three sets of 30 seconds to failure, each leg, with 1-2 minutes of rest between sets. Add weight by holding a kettlebell on the same side as the target leg so you reach failure right at 30 seconds.

2. Single-Leg Squat

Why: Running uphill is biomechanically different from running on flat terrain. In uphill running the muscles that extend the knee and hip have a lot more work to do, and the ground contact time is much longer. The move reflects the biomechanics of uphill running, and can be loaded to achieve significant strength gains that will transfer to real world uphill terrain.

How to do it: Stand on one leg, then draw your raised knee and foot back, toward the ground as you lower into a squat. Try to use your free leg as little as possible for assistance—ideally your knee and your foot will touch down at the same time. Press through the heel of your grounded leg to stand, but don’t come all the way up to full extension to maintain tension. And repeat.

Protocol: Aim for 6-9 reps with bodyweight or 5-6 reps with additional load, each side, and a total of three sets.

3. Split-Squat Jump

Why: Shorter ground contact means faster running. This explosive move places rapid and high eccentric loads on the lower leg, which will increase the rate at which your muscles contract when your foot strikes the ground. Only perform this exercise when you’re pain free and healthy, since rapid loading can exacerbate injury.

How to do it: Start in a split-squat stance with your back foot elevated on a box or a bench (on your toes). Lower into a partial squat, then, with the front target leg, explosively jump as high as you can. Land softly to absorb the eccentric forces, and immediately follow with the next rep. Repeat on both sides.

Protocol: Perform 3-5 reps on each side, and stop as soon as power declines. Aim for three sets, and rest for 2-3 minutes between sets.


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