Are you doing the right workouts? 4 exercises you think are effective but aren’t
Not all training is created equal.
Let me rephrase that…While some types of runs, workouts, routines and exercises can be very effective, they may not help you become a better runner or help you improve for your next race.
This is why selecting the correct exercises and types of runs is so critical to your success.
In this article, we’re going to look at the science behind this concept and help you understand how to select the most effective exercises for your running goals.
Why your workouts may not be effective
In training, we have a concept called “specificity” that explains why some types of training are more effective than others when it comes to helping us improve as runners.
In a nutshell, specificity means performing runs or exercises that expressly improve the muscles and energy systems you use to run.
The more specific your exercises are to running, the more they are going to help you improve as a runner.
Now, some of this is pretty obvious. For example, a bicep curl isn’t going to help you improve as a runner. However, other workouts that may seem beneficial to runners might actually not be.
These workout appear to work muscle groups or energy systems that you think would help with running, but in reality they aren’t helping your running much, if it all.
Thus, these are the two most common mistakes runners make when it comes to workout and exercise selection:
- Doing too many exercises or workouts that are not specific to their race.
- Performing exercises or workouts they think are specific, but really aren’t
Now that we understand why we need including the right type of exercises in your training, let’s look at some of the exercises or workouts many runners think are specific, but really aren’t.
Workouts you may think are specific to running, but really aren’t
By far the most common exercises runners do that they think are going to help them improve are ab crunches.
Ab crunches, and their infinite variety, mainly work the rectus abdominis (the abs you see on your stomach). Unfortunately, most research studies have shown they do very little to improve your performance or help prevent injuries.
Instead, you should focus on your hips.
Weak hips can often be the cause of IT band pain, patella tendonitis (runner’s knee), piriformis issues, sciatica, and a myriad of other common running injuries.
In fact, the research on how close the connection is between hip weakness and running injuries is overwhelming. So, swapping out your ab crunches for hip exercises will be a big win.
Here are the 5 best exercises to strengthen your hips:
Quad extensions and hamstring curls
Quad extensions and hamstring curls seem like they would be great exercises for runners. I mean, heck, isn’t running mainly done with your quads and hamstrings?
Well, yes. But unfortunately, these movements don’t mimic how we actually use these muscles when we run.
The quad does little to no work to extend your leg. This is a completely passive motion. Instead, the quad helps absorb the impact from the ground as it travels up your leg.
Likewise, the hamstring doesn’t have to work very hard to bring your heel towards your butt during your gait. Instead, your hamstring should be firing forcefully as your leg contacts the ground and propels you forward.
As such, better exercises to target your quads and hamstrings would be single leg squats and the “cable drive back” exercise.
VO2 max workouts
You may be surprised to see this workout on the list; and I’ll admit, this workout can sometimes be specific to your running goals.
But, I included it here because I think most stock or template training plans include far too many VO2max workouts, especially at the expense of more race specific workouts.
For those that don’t know, VO2 Max is a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen your body can process when you are running. Generally speaking, VO2max workouts are shorter intervals (400 meters to a mile) and implement longer rest periods, usually about equal to your time spent running.
While these types of workouts are good, they should be used sparingly.
If you’re training for a 5k or a 10k, I like to use them earlier in the training cycle, but as I get closer to race day, I prefer race specific 5k or 10k workouts. I wrote a much more in-depth piece on what those are, why they are important, and how to do them here.
Likewise, if you’re training for the half or full marathon, you really don’t need VO2max workouts more than 2-3 times in the last 12 to 16 weeks of training. Marathon specific workouts and improving your aerobic threshold are far more important. I keep a few VO2max workouts sprinkled in to keep the legs sharp and change things up. But, don’t rely on them and your plan shouldn’t have more than 2 to 3 VO2max workouts.
The misconception about the role of the calves during the running stride is that they assist in propelling the body forward at toe off, much like a traditional calf raise.
However, recent research and understanding of running mechanics shows this isn’t the case.
The calf is most active as the foot contacts the ground and begins to generate hip extension to propel ourselves forward, not when you push off the ground.
As such, the best way to “strengthen” your calves isn’t even to work your calves directly.
Instead, you should perform exercises that help strengthen your glutes, like the theraband drive back, donkey kicks, and bridges.
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Working on your glutes ensures that they have the proper strength to do the work your natural gait requires, allowing your calf to relax and absorb less stress.
Does all training need to be specific?
All this being said, of course not all training needs to be 100% specific to your running.
You can still add in some cross training, crossfit, or any other type of training and workouts that make you feel good and that you like.
My goal with this article is to help you understand the difference between specific and non-specific workouts, help you think critically about your own exercise selection, and ultimately help you put together a better plan for your upcoming race.