When it comes to running strength, we tend to think of the core muscles and exercises that work the legs like squats, lunges and (if you’re a bit of a sadist) burpees. These are great but won’t be as beneficial as they could be.
The propulsion phase of running is a pull motion from the hamstrings as they contract and shorten to flex the knee behind us, and extension at the hip as our glutes contract. With that in mind, squats, lunges and burpees are really doing mostly work on the opposite muscles to the hamstrings (the quadriceps or quads) as well as some good work for the glutes.
We do need strength in the quads for knee stability and some vertical propulsion when we run, but to run faster it’s well worth shifting at least some of the time you spend strengthening to the hamstrings.
Deadlifts are a classic staple of strength work and will do far more than just strengthen your hamstrings which is why they’re so good. Try out single leg variations as well as stiff-legged and Romanian deadlifts to target different areas of the muscle group. A word of warning though, I recommend getting tuition on deadlifts for safety and maximum benefit.
Hamstring curls can be done in so many ways and are one of the most versatile options with the choice of gym machines, resistance bands, dumbbells and even your own bodyweight when using a suspension trainer system or slider pads.
Running… yeah, I know how it sounds. With some technique tweaks and an emphasis on pulling, you can notice some great strength benefits. A recent study showed that even running at 75% of your maximal speed uses 115% of the maximum voluntary strength in your hamstrings. You might not be using them much in the way you run right now so the numbers will likely be lower, but this can be improved.
Concentric vs eccentric work
Concentric is what you’d think of as “normal” exercise repetitions, a simple up and down at the same controlled but steady pace.
Eccentric repetitions focus on a slow relaxation phase for the target muscle, where it lengthens, before a more rapid contraction to shorten the muscle. Typically, a start point for this would be 3 seconds relaxing followed by 1-2 seconds contracting.
The benefit of eccentric repetitions is that the muscle works for longer and the deceleration causes more micro tears in the muscle fibres, leading to extra strength in the long term. Alongside this, the muscle has a chance to move more and may therefore achieve some small improvements in flexibility and mobility, something many runners lack in one way or another.
All of this may sound great if you just want more strength, but remember we’re looking at it for your marathon times. The extra strength will give you a longer stride length through more propulsion, reduced chance of injury (meaning fewer missed training miles) and higher muscle endurance, all of which really add up over the course of 26 miles.
So, if you’re chasing a marathon PB, or looking to step up to the distance, get your hamstrings working.
Written by Kyle Brooks, Running Coach based in Norwich, Norfolk