My Cross Country coach once told me, “running is a series of controlled falls and one leg stances, you never land both feet at the same time”. This statement stuck with me and has been a major influence in my training regimens for myself and my clients. Single leg exercise training addresses muscle imbalances and is one of the most effective ways to prevent injuries, whether it’s walking or running a marathon.
Running is switching your balance from one foot to the other, using mico-movements and muscle activation to control your balance. While running, the body tends to recruit your stronger muscles first, but when the workout gets tough and the strong muscles tend to fatigue, running economy tends to decline, leading to changes in gait pattern and form. This can lead to muscles overcompensating for one another, creating muscle imbalances that will likely lead to injury in the future. There is an easy fix to have control over your body, by focusing on strength and stability one leg at a time. By using these exercises you’ll minimize the risk of injury by exposing any weakness or dysfunctions in muscle recruitment patterns. Single leg exercises provides strength, stability, and balance by isolating single muscles; which will help you run faster and more efficiently for longer periods of time. Try the below exercises 1-2 times a week. Most of the exercises can be done in the privacy of your own home and don’t require a lot of equipment. If you are new to exercise, meet with a trainer to make sure your form is correct.
Single leg jump rope
- This is a great warm-up exercise. Jump rope for 100-200 reps on each leg before completing the strength exercises. Be sure to maintain proper posture by standing up tall, not allowing the chest to drop
Single leg-leg press and calf raise
- Sit in a leg press machine, positing one foot on platform, with knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Exhale and press through your heel, extending your leg. Hold for 1 second at the top, inhale and lower slowly (1-2 seconds). Repeat 15-20 times on one leg. Then place just the forefoot on the platform, exhale and press up, lifting the heel in the air. Hold for a 1 second and lower slower. Repeat 15-20 calf raises before switching sides.
Single leg deadlift (with optional press)
- One of my favorite exercises. Stand on one leg, holding a weight in your hand. Slowly hinge forward at the hip, with a slight bend in your knee reaching the weight towards the ground. Keep your core tight and chest up. Exhale and return to the starting position while simultaneously pressing the weight overhead. Repeat 15-20 reps before switching sides.
Single leg squat
- This exercise is great for strengthening all the muscles of the upper and lower leg, while also working on balance. Stand on one leg with foot behind you, hold a weight at your chest. Inhale and lower, sticking glutes out and chest up. Exhale and return to start. Complete 15-20 reps on each side
Single leg hamstring curls
- This exercise targets the hamstring, glute, and promotes stability in the core (low back/abs) and also balance. Lie on back with feet on stability ball. Lift hips in the air, squeezing the glutes for balance. Lift on leg in the air, inhale and pull ball back towards glutes, exhale and extend the leg. Try to keep hips up in the air the whole time. Repeat 15-20 reps and repeat on other leg.
Single leg glute lift
- Glutes are the powerhouse and driving force behind running, so they need to be strong. Lie on the ground with knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Extend one leg in the air. Inhale and lift glutes off the mat, driving the hips in the air. Hold for 1-2 seconds and exhale and slowly lower. Repeat 15-20 reps on each leg. For more of a challenge try this exercise with feet on top of stability.
Ball Toss Drill
- Improve balance and control of the lower leg and ankle with this drill. I always include this exercise last when my muscles are fatigued to work on stability and balance further. You’ll need a medicine ball and can be done with or without a partner. Stand on one foot and throw the ball back and forth between your partner or against the wall, reaching for the ball and balancing on once foot. Toss for 2-3 minutes on each leg.
As a trainer and runner myself, I’ve found single leg exercises are crucial to the success of a runner and injury prevention. Almost every athlete I have worked with has had injuries relating to muscles imbalances. Once the imbalances are addressed, the injury or soreness quickly went away, including my own hip pain which I found was exacerbated by weak glutes and having a huge strength difference in the quadriceps of one leg compared to the other. I’m positive that within a month of completing these exercises 1-2 times a week, you’ll be a stronger, more balanced and efficient runner.
About the Author: Erin Nielsen is a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and ambassador for SKORA Running with a Master’s Degree in Health Promotion. When not writing for Born to Run, Erin is most likely running, reading, or helping others become healthier individuals. Current Shoe Rotation: SKORA Base, Form, Phase, & Core and Vivobarefoot Jing Jing.