Never skip leg day! Are you one of those people in the gym taking a selfie on the leg press or next to the squat rack? I have a few Facebook friends like that, which isn’t a problem. However, I am always left to wonder…are you not missing leg day because you want muscular or toned legs and glutes or is it because you want more strength? I guess I am a nerd to think that way, but from my point of view, regardless of the purpose, I would look for modalities where the reward is greater than the risk (injury) and gives you the biggest bang for your training buck and will translate to running performance best.
In my day job as a dental hygienist, I have people from the general population ask me all the time “If I am worried running will ruin my knees?”. A few months ago, a patient came in and said to me, “I can’t believe you are still running, you are going to ruin your knees”. He proceeds to tell me that he hasn’t been going to the gym because he jacked his shoulder and he has too much pain in his knees from doing too much on the seated leg press (I’m not a fan of that machine, by the way). He told me he was leg pressing 900lbs. What is the point of leg pressing 900lbs? Was he training to squat down and lift a car off a trapped body underneath it? It doesn’t make sense; the risk was greater than the reward because now he hasn’t been working out at all in part because he has pain in his knees. One of my issues with the leg press machine is that it does allow you to move a heavier load you may not be able to squat otherwise, which is dangerous.
The back squat is a far safer choice than the leg press machine. But is the squat the best choice for you? Again, for my blog, I am looking for exercises that minimize injury risk and increase strength. In a 2015 issue of Journal of Applied Biomechanics, researches compared the traditional back weighted barbell squat to the barbell hip thrust in healthy, resistance trained adults. The results of the study concluded that there was greater electromyographic (EMG) activity in the gluteus maximus, biceps femoris (hamstring), and vastus lateralis during the barbell hip thrust compared to the squat. The latter is one of the quadricep muscles and a knee stabilizer. The barbell thrust is not only better at training the muscles of hip extension, gluteus maximus and biceps femoris, it is kinder and safer to your knees. The squat is good, don’t get me wrong, the hip thrust is just a better option. Do you remember reading my blog post on kettlebells? That was another superior exercise for hip extension. Without hip extension, you cannot get out of the chair you are sitting in and you will lack power and strength during push-off when running. Interestingly, in a 2017 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers discovered in 84 runners with chronic lower-back pain, hip extension exercises every other day reduced running induced back pain after 8-weeks. Get those hip extensors strong, knees stabilized, and back pain diminished, running friends!
My personal favorite leg exercise is the Bulgarian split squat. This is a unilateral exercise, which means you bare the majority of the weight on one foot. Therefore, this challenges your balance, which engages your core muscles more. Additionally, because this is an exercise that is done with one foot on the ground, it better mimics running, where a portion of the stride is spent in single leg stance and you need to go into triple extension at the ankle, knee, and hip for push-off. In a double leg squat, the legs share the load equally, whereas in the Bulgarian split squat, 85% of the load is assumed by the stance leg, creating a more challenging workout. Also, as you squat down, you get a really good stretch on the hip flexors of the rear leg. Try it out folks!
Check out this great link with hip thrust examples:
Bulgarian Split Squat:
As a virtual (online) trainer, I work with runners of different abilities living and training in various locations. I have noticed some trends amongst my runners. They typically fall into three categories: they belong to training groups but are in need of more one on one coaching/mentoring or they are within a few minutes of their Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, or have run their BQ but didn’t qualify with a large enough cushion of time to solidify their acceptance into the race. One of the many questions I ask runners when they approach me about training to achieve their BQ is, “Will you be happy with running your BQ time and not actually getting into the Boston Marathon or do you want to run the Boston Marathon”? Nowadays with the qualifying standards and the masses applying for the race, the latter is more difficult to achieve.
What is a runner to do when they are so close (within a minute or two), yet so far away from achieving their goal of being accepted into the Boston Marathon? Start training earlier to have a longer training season? Train faster? Train with higher mileage? Is running 60-75 miles a week better than running 35-50 miles a week? I’m going to say for most runners the answer is no to all of the above if the runner’s ability is that close to their BQ for their sex/age qualifying standard. Same story with a runner that has run the same time over and over and can’t quite conquer their PR.
A paper was published in the 2011 Journal of Applied Physiology titled, “The two-hour marathon: who and when?” The paper discussed what would be required for an elite male marathon runner to run a 2-hour marathon. Interestingly, after the paper was published, there were 38 unique counter commentaries from physiologists, professors, and researchers around the globe. At the time, the world record in the marathon was 2:03:38, so what would it take for the world’s best runner to improve his time by three minutes and thirty-eight seconds? What would it take for you to improve your time by three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, because that may be the cushion of time you need to be granted acceptance into the Boston Marathon? Guess what? Both you and an elite runner are human beings so if you are running your inherent ability, then the answer will be the same - well, kind of anyway. More on that later. I am using the example of a three-minute difference because you will see below how many runners were not accepted into the Boston Marathon over the years because the cushion of time from their BQ was not large enough to be accepted into the race.
YEAR/ FIELD SIZE / CUT-OFF TIME*/ AMOUNT OF QUALIFIERS NOT ACCEPTED
2012: 27,000 1:14 3,228
2014: 36,000 1:38 2,976
2015: 30,000 1:02 1,947
2016: 30,000 2:28 4,562
2017: 30,000 2:09 2,957
The difference between you and an elite when both are running at their inherent ability is that an elite is just that, an elite. They don’t make mistakes in training (normally a coach makes training decisions for them) or race day strategy execution. Whereas in my observations, recreational runners make small mistakes that have massive consequences. An elite will take 1-3 minutes off their personal best when the weather is favorable to long distance running such as a tailwind and cool weather or a race route that has minimal turns that typically disrupt pace and race “flow” momentarily. The world witnessed this last year in Nike’s Sub 2-Hour Marathon attempt. Scientists identified the most favorable weather day on a Formula One race track. Additionally, the runners in the Nike attempt wore a shoe that had a carbon-fiber plate embedded in the sole of the shoe that would require 4% less energy to run at the same pace. The shoe is banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations and is only one of the reasons Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:00:25 marathon did not count as a world record at the Nike Breaking-2 attempt. This was a two minute and forty second personal best for Kipchoge. Wait, what!? That may be what you need to secure your acceptance into the Boston Marathon or maybe improve your personal best. But the chances of you running a marathon on the most perfect weather day is slim, as well as you buying the Nike VaporFly Elite shoe for $1,000.
One of the things the elites in the sub-2hr attempt did was consume nutrition at very specific times in the race that was handed to them by scientists riding alongside them on bikes. That’s it folks, that is one of the mistakes many make that miss their BQ time or PR. They just don’t fuel their race properly, nor their training runs or their recovery nutrition from training runs is lacking. Like I said earlier, most runners make small mistakes that have massive consequences and nutrition is typically one of those mistakes
So, here is where my services come in. One of the things I do with my runners is problem solve their mistakes in previous training seasons and races. This is the benefit to having a one on one coach, even online. What I do with my runners that are willing to follow the plan (it’s a process), will normally lead to superior results than they had in the past, assuming they are well on race day and that their goals are within their inherent ability.
Thanks for reading my blog posts and I hope to hear from more runners in cyberspace so I can help you achieve your goals. Even if you just choose to shoot me an email or an IM on the Facebook page. If you are on Facebook, please like/follow the Run With Gina page and invite your friends to like it too!