Runners like to run.
That's pretty obvious, and that love of running is what leads some runners to make it their only form of exercise. Honestly, this is one reason running injuries are so common. If you love to run, more often than not you have battled a nagging injury in the past year. Between 65 and 80 percent of the running population fights injuries such as patellar tendonitis, shin splints, IT band syndrome or even bone spurs.
Strength training can help runners significantly cut down on their risk of injury and clock faster times on race day. Loading the muscle tissue and joints with moderate-to-heavy weights helps strengthen bones, tendons, ligaments and collagen, making them more resilient against the repetitive overuse injuries that often plague runners. A good strength training program will also help optimize your form and lead you to run faster with less effort.
But if I could recommend just one strength exercise to runners, it would be the Bulgarian Split Squat (aka the Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat):
Though this dumbbell setup is probably the most common execution of the Bulgarian Split Squat, the move can also be performed with body weight, kettlebells (either by your side or in a front rack position) or a barbell (either in a front rack position or across your back like a typical Squat). This video does a nice job of breaking down the essential setup and form points, which remain fairly consistent across these different variations.
Why do I love this exercise for runners? Lets start with its potential effect on your stride. In an effective running stride, legs are creating contact with the ground one at a time in an opposing manner. When one hip is flexing, the other is extending.
Bulgarian Split Squats effectively work these actions of the hip a lot better than a traditional Squat, which can translate into a more optimal stride length or "angle" as some coaches like to refer to it. When done right, the Bulgarian Split Squat is also an excellent way to strengthen your gluteus medium. In fact, a 2010 study published in the journal Sport Rehabilitation found that the Split Squat elicited significantly greater glute medius muscle activity than the Barbell Back Squat.
This is important for runners because the gluteus medius plays a critical role in preventing the inward collapse of your knee, a function that goes a long way toward keeping your ankles, knees and hips healthy. A stronger, more stable gluteus medius won't just protect you against nagging injuries, but it will also make you a more efficient runner.
By training the muscles needed to get strong in a split-squat position, you're naturally reinforcing a movement pattern that plays a key role in running. If you're not able to support, propel and absorb your body weight over and over again on one leg at a time, you're not going to be a very efficient runner.
Additionally, Bulgarian Split Squats effectively mobilize your hips, which should further reduce your risk of overuse injuries. Many runners will even get a great mobility enhancement just from the setup position. Done properly, the rear foot being elevated provides a a great stretch while also signaling any signs of an unstable stability pattern.
Setting up for the Bulgarian Split Squat starts with selecting the right bench/box/platform to elevate your rear foot. If you find the height of your back foot causes your back to arch, hips to shift off kilter, or torso to learn too far forward, the box is too high. If you're able, you want to use a platform that's at least 12 inches high. If you cannot do this, simply start lower and increase the height as your hip flexibility improves. Place your rear foot on the platform with the laces down.
The placement of your front foot will depend on your body type, flexibility and biomechanics. The closer you set up to the bench, the more you will target the quads. But go too close and you put yourself at risk of knee pain. On the flip side, going too far can stress and strain the hip flexors. Take some time to practice with just your body weight and find that sweet spot for your front foot where your hip, knee and ankle are all generally aligned.
As you descend into the movement by bending at the front knee, avoid arching your back. I've noticed runners have a tendency to compensate by arching and shifting forward. Try moving straight down and do not worry about full range of motion if you cannot get all the way down. Focus first on quality repetitions.
Keep in mind you do not want the knee to significantly track over the toes or go past the midline. Those with weak, unstable knees, ankles, or hips may have trouble with this, and should start with just their body weight. If you need some assistance, don't hesitate. The first variation in this video allows the athlete to hold onto a rack for added stability, then covers a number of increasingly difficult variations:
To finish, drive through the heel of your front foot (but keep your entire foot flat on the ground) to get back to the starting point. Some may experience a "burning" sensation in the rear-elevated quad. This is a sure sign that your rectus femoris is very tight.
Again, start light and master the movement before you start using a loaded barbell or heavy dumbbells. I've seen guys who can squat 200-plus pounds struggle when it came to single-leg squatting 50 pounds because of the added components of mobility, stability and unilateral strength with the Bulgarian Split Squat.
Runners can see serious benefit from getting inside the weight room. If you're for some reason hesitant to commit to a larger strength training program, simply performing a few sets of well-executed Bulgarian Split Squats a couple times a week can be enough to spur improvement.
Photo Credit: Pavel1964/iStock
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