People who spread the rumor that if you run and cycle, you don’t need to train legs, are afraid of squats. There’s no doubt your legs are engaged when you run or pedal, but those activities train the muscles for endurance—they don’t build them up bigger and stronger.
Apart from an underdeveloped body, a running or cycling program that lacks strength training for the legs also leads to injury: Runners tend to develop tight calves and shin splints, while cyclists often have weak glutes and tight hip flexors and/or hamstrings from sitting on the saddle long term. Sprint cyclists, with their giant legs, are also exceptional athletes who do extreme amounts of work—and you can bet that they also weight-train their legs. Mobility exercises, along with squat, deadlift, and lunge variations, prevent these imbalances. Keep reading for some recommended moves and how to incorporate them into your regimen.
“If you want to do a leg strength workout before a run or bike, it’s recommended the run or bike is light, form-focused (read: easy), and no more than 30-45 minutes for running and no more than 90 minutes for cycling,” says exercise physiologist and endurance coach Marni Sumbal, R.D., C.S.S.D.
Doing a strength workout before cardio is a great way to build resilience, she adds, since you learn to run well with fatigued legs. As for cycling, the bike is used as a way to actively recover from the strength work since it’s non-weight bearing. Both of these will benefit your training tremendously.
Prescription: Depending on your goal, use the recommended reps/sets with the exercises below.
For functional strength specific to runners or cyclists, training workouts needs to complement the cardio training. Ideally your strength workout will be 20-30 minutes (no more than 40); you’ll complete 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps, taking 30-60 sec between sets and no more than 2-3 minutes between exercises. Complete each exercise’s full number of sets before moving on to the next move.
For a dynamic warmup before cycling or running, perform 1-2 sets of 8-12 reps, taking 30-60 sec between sets and no more than 2-3 minutes between exercises before a run or bike. “We like to say that this turns on the working muscles,” Sumbal says.
The best lower-body exercises for runners and cyclists
- Hip hikes: Stand on a step with one foot hanging off the side. Keep your hips squared and the anchor leg straight. Drive your free hip up, using your hip flexors, then drop your leg back down to hanging. Perform slowly, as your initial warmup move.
- Fire hydrant (with a band): Place a light resistance band around your legs, just above your knees. Come down on all fours. Keeping the bend above your knees, raise and drive one knee out to the side (like a dog lifting its leg to a fire hydrant). Slowly return to start. Complete full rep range for each side. “Make sure your hip doesn’t drop when you move either leg out,” Sumbal says.
- Overhead squat: Grab a barbell. “The bar should be 10-20 lbs,” Sumbal says. You don’t need heavy weight, since this is designed to improve back, glute, and leg strength but also help with mobility, stability, and posture,” she adds.
- Donkey kick: Come on all fours parallel to a mirror, if possible, to watch your form. You’ll work one leg at a time. Keep your foot flexed as you drive it straight up toward the ceiling. Do this slowly. “Some people rotate their foot in or out, which demonstrates weak glute muscles,” Sumbal says. For a little more difficulty, add a 2-6 lb ankle weight.
- Stability ball mountain climbers: Position your hands on a stability ball against a wall (for assistance) and complete mountain climbers as quickly as you can. “This can be a great plyo-type move for explosive power; or it can be used to work on full-body stability,” Sumbal says.
- Glute bridge: Lie on your back and bend your knees so feet are planted on the ground. Drive through your heels to come up to a bridge. Complete slowly, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement, holding for 3-4 seconds.