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Improve Your Running By Becoming A Better Athlete

It's worth your time as a runner to work on improving your overall athleticism.

It’s worth your time as a runner to work on improving your overall athleticism. 

The chiseled core of a swimmer. The explosive power of a basketball player. The supple flexibility of a gymnast. The nimble agility of a lacrosse player. While running is typically thought of as a solely linear motion, runners can really do themselves a lot of good when they shift focus from only moving forward in a straight line to working on improving their overall athleticism.

“Running is mostly thought of as a cardiovascular sport but it’s the muscles that do the work and the brain that ultimately controls everything,” explains coach Steve Magness, who most recently worked alongside Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project. “By becoming more athletic you gain multiple benefits. First, you become more injury-resistant because your body learns how to move in multiple planes of direction instead of simply knowing how to run in a straight line.  Secondly, your nervous system is really challenged so that it adapts and creates a more efficient connection from the brain to the muscle.”

RELATED: Strength Training Circuit For Distance Runners

Explosive Power And Agility

One may easily guess why having more power would be an asset; power translates to speed, which benefits you in the finishing stages of a race you want to be the one kicking rather than the person being passed. Agility is about getting your legs to move faster and is a neuromuscular component of training, essentially teaching the muscles to be able to fire at a faster rate. In short, you want to get your feet used to moving up off the ground and coming down quicker in order to take advantage of the power behind the propulsion.

RELATED: General Strength Training For Distance Runners

“Developing power through explosive training is the best way to increase the amount of muscle fibers we can recruit. Everyone’s got a giant pool of muscle fibers they can recruit.  But the brain never lets you fully access all of them for safety reasons,” Magness says. “But, you can increase the amount of that pool you can recruit by doing exercises that essentially call upon a lot of fibers and convince the body it’s safe…the bigger the recruitable pool, the more fibers you have to call upon when your regularly used fibers begin to fatigue.”

When it comes to power and agility the aim is clear: “You’re looking at decreasing the [amount of] time spent on the ground.”

Coach Magness’ Power Moves

When: “Do power work in a relatively fresh state. It’s very hard on the nervous system so you want to be recovered.”

  • Hill Sprints: Start with 4 x 100 meters, work up to 8 reps. Allow a full recovery between each sprint.
  • Squat Jumps and Single-Leg Hops: “A simple progression would be to do squat jumps in the pool then progress to single-leg hops in the pool. Once you get through the pool work, I’d switch to jumps/hops into a high jump pit or on top of a box to minimize the eccentric landing phase.” Begin with a set of 10 and build up to 3 sets.
  • Medicine Ball Throws: “Throws for height focusing on squatting down and really exploding with the legs while tossing the med ball.” Start with one set of 10 and work up to three sets.

Coach Magness’ Agility Drills

When : “Perform some agility training as a warmup with various skips included.”

  • Jumping Rope: Varying the speed as a warmup.
  • A-Skips: 2 x 30 meters
  • Quick Feet Fires: Rapid-fire, lift each foot a few inches off the ground and then back down; 2 x 20 sec.
  • Knee Height Dribble: Aim to lift your foot up to knee height and back down a quickly as possible in full circle; 2 x 30 meters.
  • Ladder Drills: Set with one foot per square, set with two feet square, then set with one foot per square and carry that out into an accelerated stride at the end of the ladder.

Flexibility And Core Strength

“The biggest reason runners need to gain flexibility is to stay healthy,” says coach Jay Johnson, who coaches both elite and age-group runners. Though, having a greater range of motion also allows a runner to open up their gait, creating a more efficient stride. “There is so much to be gained from a sound flexibility program…good hip mobility is a great insurance policy for runners, even for injuries that are further away from the hip, such as foot and lower leg injuries. But the good news is that when your hips and the muscles that surround them are strong and functional, you’re ready to run faster and stay injury-free.”

Flexibility and a strong core, or general strength for a runner, are also intrinsically linked, “I don’t view flexibility and strength of the minor muscles as separate, but rather an exercise like the clam is good for hip mobility and fantastic for glute medius strength, which is a muscle that is often weak in runners,” Johnson explains. This brings us to a runner’s core. “A strong core allows the runner to have a rigid system from their foot to their upper body when they strike the ground.”

The ability to maintain good form as you tire at the end of a race is done so by having the core strength to stay upright.

Coach Johnson’s Flexibility Routine

When: Before and after your runs; 8-10 reps each leg.

VIDEO: Flexibility Routine

  • Clams
  • Donkey Kicks
  • Forward leg swings
  • Lateral leg swings

Coach Johnson’s Pedestal Core Routine

When: 2-3 times per week. Beginners: 30 second hold each pose. Advanced: 10 lifts each leg per pose.

VIDEO: Pedestal Core Routine

  • Plank
  • Reverse Plank
  • Side Plank (both sides)

Building on Pedestal:

  • Overhead Squat: “The progression would be to do this with just body weight, then move to a light weight like an 8 lb. medicine ball, then eventually an athlete may be able to perform this exercise with a 45 lb. squat bar.” Sets of 10; start with one, work up to three.


About The Author: 

Caitlin Chock set the then-national high school 5k record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.