Runners put a continual beat-down on their lower legs. Whether on road or trail, uphill or downhill, the calves, ankles, toes and tendons undergo tremendous stress. If you’ve had a calf injury then you know the region below the knee is immensely important for successful running. If you have ongoing lower leg injuries then it’s time to build them up and make them strong.
Two lower leg structures must be considered. First, the muscles of the lower leg control knee, ankle and foot joint movements. These muscles must be both strong and fatigue resistant. Second, strong, stiff tendons such as the Achilles tendon are critical for efficient running. Tendons act as springs which absorb impact then recoil to provide much of the propulsion for running. Appropriate strength work for the lower legs will make you more durable and faster.
Three Types of Strength Work
Different loading schemes deliver different benefits from both light weights lifted many times as well as heavy weights lifted for only a few reps. Jumping exercises should also be employed.
Light weights lifted from 8 to 20 reps, or up to one minute bring blood to the tissues which helps the muscles recover and grow. More muscle mass makes the calves and feet more durable. To do this, do 8-20 reps x 2-3 sets such as 20 reps x 2 sets, 10 reps x 3 sets or 8 reps x 4 sets.
Heavy weights lifted for six or fewer reps strengthen the muscles and tendons. Heavy loads stiffen the tendons making them more efficient for running. (Stiff doesn’t mean immobile, you won’t lose joint mobility through heavy loading.) To do this, do 3-6 reps x 3-6 sets such as 3 reps x 6 sets, 5 reps x 5 sets, 6 reps x 4 sets.
Running is a series of alternating one-foot hops, thus jumping and hopping are specific to running. Plyos stiffen the tendons and improve elastic recoil which ups your efficiency.
Heel Raise: Straight-Knee & Bent-Knee
Straight-leg heel raises work the gastrocnemius and posterior tibialis muscles. This exercise builds strong calves and arches. Use both light-weight/high rep and heavy-weight/low-rep schemes.
Bent-knee heel raises work the soleus muscle of the calf and put a different demand on the foot muscles. Simply bend the knee while doing either of the heel raises described above. You’re likely stronger with bent knees than straight knees. You may prefer heel raises standing or on the leg press.
One Leg Mini-Squat
The soleus decelerates forward shin movement as the foot strikes the ground while running. The one-leg mini-squat works the lower leg in exactly this way. This exercise integrates the quadriceps muscles with the lower leg. Use low weight/high reps on this exercise for one minute. Try to stay balanced on one foot. You may tap the other foot down or hold onto something for balance if need be. Hold dumbbells or wear a weight vest for additional load. Vary the demand on the lower leg by reaching at various angles with the non-working foot.
Skipping rope is an easy, low-risk plyometric. You may jump with two feet or skip from foot to foot. Monitor the volume of the session by counting the number of foot contacts with the ground. Count one contact per foot. Two-foot jumps count as two contacts and one-footed jumps count as one contact. Doing 50-80 contacts is a light session, 100 contacts is moderate and over 140 contacts is heavy.
Putting It Together
You have several workouts to choose from. Do two workouts per week and cycle among the workouts from week to week, putting 48-72 hours between them.
Day 1: Jump rope
Day 2: Bent-knee heavy heel raises
Day 1: Mini-squat
Day 2: Light straight-knee heel raises
Simply vary the workout each time and you’ll get strong, durable lower legs in short order.