Author: Sarah Parker, ACSM cPT, ACE Health Coach
If you're a runner and you get injured often, join the club. The incidence rate for running injuries is between 37% and 56% each year. While you may not be able to completely sidestep injury (especially if you log high miles), you can still work to prevent as many as possible by working on single leg strength and balance exercises [Functional Strength Training].
When you look at a runner in slow motion, you can easily see that both feet are rarely on the ground at the same time. The majority of a runner's time during a run is either spent on one leg or in midair, so it makes sense that we should be training runners on a single leg at least part of the time to strengthen and adapt it to repetitive (unilateral) movement patterns.
For runners, it's important to work on both 1) single-leg strength and 2) single-leg balance. Gaining proprioception and awareness of our body in space is extremely important for injury prevention for recreational exercisers and athletes alike, and these exercises will build both muscular endurance and balance needed for safe running.
If you're working on trail running, it's important to add some instability to your balance training (as tolerated) with wobble boards, BOSU trainers, etc. to prepare the ankles, legs, and hips for unstable terrain encountered on trails.
Single Leg Runners: This is a great single-leg exercise for building core stability during the balance moves. Balance on one leg and maintain a slight bend in the supporting leg. Hold a pair of light dumbbells in each hand (they don't need to be heavy!) and begin to move your arms back and forth as if you are running. Work on maintaining core stability while moving your arms. Work on keeping your torso as upright as possible. Repeat 15-25 times on each leg.
Single Leg RDL (Romanian Deadlift): If you want to strengthen your hips and glutes, then this is an exercise you should add to your routine. Balancing on one leg, reach toward the floor with the opposite arm, keeping the supporting leg slightly bent. Keep knees in alignment with hips and don't let your knees fall inward. You can do this facing a mirror to check knee alignment during the exercise. Repeat 10-15 times on each leg.
Single Leg Bridge: In a supine bridge position, lift one leg and perform bridges with one leg. Make sure your low back is in a neutral position and not over-arched. Work to keep hips from tipping to the side with the lifted leg. Repeat 15-20 times on each side.
Single Leg Squat: Balancing on one leg, begin to press your hips back and begin to move into a squat, keeping your torso high and knee behind your toes. You can lower as far as is comfortable for you (I have hip impingement so my single-leg squats aren't very low), as long as it is tolerable for your knees and hips. Don't go all the way to the ground if it bothers your knees at all, a 90 degree bend in the supporting knee is sufficient as long as this is a gluten-driven squat. Make certain that your knees do not buckle in during this exercise - keep your knees in alignment with hips. Repeat 10-20 times per leg.
Single Leg Hop: In this exercise, you will hop on one leg in a pattern. Imagine you are hopping to the four corners of small square in a clockwise pattern, then counterclockwise. If you have good balance and strength, you can begin to do this exercise on an uneven surface (like grass or trail) to prepare your legs for trail running. Use caution with this exercise and always land on you ball/forefoot for adequate shock absorption.
Single Leg March with Glute Activation: This is a slow march that works on engaging a single glute muscle at a time. Begin standing upright and lift the left knee to 90 degrees in front of your body and balance on the right leg. Hold that stance for a few seconds, engaging the glute in the supporting leg. Return to start and repeat on the opposite side.
About the Author: Sarah Jane Parker is an ACSM certified Personal Trainer, ACE certified Health Coach, blogger, and yoga instructor working and living in Wyoming. Her blog, The Fit Cookie, shares simple healthy living tips, allergy-friendly recipes, and workouts.