As a regular runner you may assume you have strong legs and strong ankles, but you could be wrong. Although you may have strong quads and calves your hamstrings may be relatively weak, meaning they have to work harder to compensate.
Why do I need strong ankles and legs?
Various studies have suggested that regular strength training could increase the efficiency of the way your body uses oxygen by up to 8%, dramatically improving both speed and muscle endurance. When it comes to that last stretch of the race, having strong legs will give you the ability to push through and overtake or increase the distance between you and your opponents. Having stronger muscles will allow you to propel yourself forwards more in each stride you take. The stronger your legs, the longer it will take for them to tire out and the impact of running long distances will be absorbed better. If your training route or race includes hills, your legs will respond much better to the incline with more strength.
If you’re a keen runner it is also important to have strong ankles. The stress put onto your ankles when running can cause injury if you don’t have the strength to deal with it.
Exercises to strengthen your ankles
Stand on the edge of a raised surface; this could be one of your stairs, for example. Lower your heels and then bring them back up so you are stood on the tips of your toes. If this is too easy for you try adding weight or only use one leg at a time. If this is a little tough to begin with, do from a typical standing position without the raised surface.
Use a resistance band
Grab yourself a resistance band and wrap it around the arch of your foot. Sit with your legs flat to the floor and your back straight. Gently pull the resistance band back and use the strength of your ankle to push your foot back down. If you don’t have a resistance band you can use a towel instead, just roll it up and hold it by each end.
This is just one of many example exercises you can do to create strong ankles using resistance bands. Have a play around and see what works best for you.
Simply standing on one leg and trying to hold your balance is a quick and easy way to make your ankles stronger and can be done anywhere. Next time you’re waiting in the queue at the supermarket, try standing on one leg for as long as you can.
If you find it easy to hold your balance on one leg then there are ways you can make it harder. Try closing your eyes or hopping around. Or try to balance whilst trying a number of yoga poses, such as Warrior 3.
These exercises don’t take long to do, just select a few at the end of each training session. The benefits are likely to improve your performance and dramatically reduce your risk of injury.
Exercises to strengthen your legs
Squatting will strengthen your quads, glutes and calves. To perform a squat correctly, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, point your toes outwards slightly and keep your back straight. Bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor, ensuring your knees don’t go over your toes.
To make this exercise more challenging, consider adding weight using a barbell. Regularly increase your weight by small amounts and record your improvements. If weight training seems daunting you can try using a resistance band, slowly increasing the strength.
If you have access to the gym try using the leg press, it will target your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. Place your feet hip-width apart onto the platform. Be sure to turn out your toes slightly and keep your heels down. Bring the platform down until your legs are at 90° and push back out until they are straight. The key to using a leg press safely is to not lock your knees. Again, increase your weight a little each time you work out and remember to write it down.
Lunges work your hamstrings, glutes and quads. To perform a lunge, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, then take a large step forward with one leg until both legs are bent and one knee is close to the floor. Keep your chest up and arms by your sides. To return to standing position push of the front leg.
To make this exercise slightly harder, try holding kettle bells or dumbbells in each hand and increase the weight regularly.
If you’re someone with weak hamstrings these will be especially useful for you. To carry out a Romanian deadlift, all you will need is a barbell; start off light if you’re a beginner. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees in line with your hips ensuring your shoulders are back and your back is slightly arched. Lower the bar as far as you can, keep your head up and focus forwards. To bring yourself back up drive using your hips. It is essential you regularly increase you weight by small amounts each workout session to become stronger.
You can even try a single-leg Romania deadlift, working to create both strong ankles and strong legs.
Be sure to leave at least 48 hours between training sessions to allow adequate time for your muscles to recover and prevent injury. If you have one leg stronger than the other, consider performing squats, deadlifts and the leg press all with one leg and then swapping to the other. When using both legs for these exercises your slightly stronger leg will compensate for the weaker one and using them separately will ensure this doesn’t happen.
Ensure you’re using a pair of running trainers and not just any trainers. Read our blog on ‘Are running shoes worth it?‘ to find out more on why running trainers are the best.
And, if that’s not enough, try not to use the same pair of running trainers for different types of running. There’s running outdoors, running indoors, sprinting outdoors, sprinting indoors, long-distance running and more. For each that you do, you want a different pair of trainers.
Lastly, everyone runs differently. There are three different types of pronation (the way your foot sits when you run) – neutral, overpronation and underpronation – and you want the best shoes that fit your style. Get yourself a free Gait analysis done to find out your style.
We’ve done a blog on this too – ‘Is gait analysis worth it?‘ It explains the process of Gait analysis and why it’s important to have shoes that work with your feet, not against them.