Your backside does the lion's share of propelling you forward when you run, and that means a particularly heavy workload for your hamstrings and calves. Zika Palmer, elite marathoner and director of ZAP Fitness, a training center for post-collegiate runners in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, offers these four essential moves for runners — a stretch and a strengthening exercise for your hamstrings and your calves. If you work up to three sets of the strength moves twice a week and stretch after each run, you'll have a smoother, more powerful stride within four to six weeks.
To Strengthen: The Wide-Leg Squat
Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend the knees and slowly lower your butt until your thighs are nearly horizontal to floor (don't let your knees move forward beyond your toes). Slowly press back up to a standing position. Start with one set of 6 to 8 repetitions and slowly work up to three sets of 10 to 15. Note: This will also strengthen your quadriceps muscles and glutes.
To Stretch: The Cross-Over Stretch
In a standing position, cross your right leg over your left, with your feet close together, and then slowly roll your upper body down toward the floor until you feel a gentle stretch (not pain!) along the back of left leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs, repeating twice on each side.
To Strengthen: Single-Leg Raisers
Stand on one leg on the edge of a stair or curb. Your forefoot should be on the step with your heel hanging off the back. Gently lower your heel toward the ground, and then slowly lift back up so that your body weight is on the ball of your foot. You may lightly touch the stairway railings for balance, but don't put weight on your arms; your calf muscle should be doing the work. Start with 5 reps on each side, and build up to three sets of 10 to 15 with each leg.
To Stretch: The Drop-Off Stretch
Start standing on one leg on a stair or curb, with your heel hanging off the back (same starting position as for the single-leg raisers). Gently press your heel toward the ground until you feel a gentle pull along the back of your lower leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Then slowly bend your knee slightly, until you feel the stretch move lower on the calf. Hold 30 seconds. Switch legs, repeating twice on each side.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, September 2006.