Military Muscle: 4 strength drills to improve your running speed

runner_burpee combo_1000

Many runners believe that to be better runners, they need to run more, run longer, run faster — and that strength training will only make them tight, sap their flexibility and raise their risk of pulled muscles and injuries.

Not true. Strength training improves your running, lowering the risk of injury, both running- and nonrunning-related.

Running is basically a repetitive event involving motion that is fairly straightforward, front to back. So the muscles used in lateral or twisting motions — and there are many — may be weaker than they should be. In that situation, a game of racquetball on a cold winter day could put your run program on hold.

The bottom line: Stronger muscles are more powerful muscles, and more power can help you run faster over the same distance with less effort.

Here are four strength exercises that can give your running program a boost. There are many, many more. Try to do 10 reps of each exercise.

Burpee (above)

Said to have been invented by American physiologist Royal H. Burpee and adopted by the U.S. military during World War II, this exercise engages the core, chest, triceps, shoulders, back, quads, hamstrings and fast-twitch muscles.

You can use several different counts, but the one that engages all the muscles mentioned above is the six-count. It also gets your heart rate and cardio endurance up. Count positions should flow immediately into each other. It won’t hurt to do these after your run.

Start in a full standing position, arms at your sides.

Count 1: Drop into a deep squat, hands touching the ground at shoulder width.

Count 2: Explosively drive your feet directly behind you, ending in a pushup position.

Count 3: Execute the down part of a pushup.

Count 4: Execute the up part of the pushup.

Count 5: Bring your feet back up to the Count 1 position.

Count 6: Perform an explosive jump so that your feet leave the ground.

Upon landing, go immediately into Count 1 position and repeat.

Bridge to leg curl 


This exercise (figure A, below left), which employs a stability ball, will light up your hamstrings. It’s quite technical, so get a partner to observe you and offer corrections as needed.

Lie on the floor with your feet on the top of the stability ball. Your glutes should be on the floor, but your legs should be as straight as possible. You should not be so close to the ball that your legs form a 90-degree angle.

Bridge up, squeezing your glutes together and raising them off the ground. Your body should be in a straight line from your shoulders to your feet.

Putting pressure through your heels, roll the ball toward your glutes. Here is the key to correct technique: You must keep raising your hips as you roll the ball toward you.

The straight line is now from your shoulders to your knees. Try to touch your glutes with the ball.

A progression to this exercise (figure B) is to do it one-legged (you’ll raise the noncontact leg in the air). This is a super maneuver for your core.


This works the quads, a critical body component in running. Execute these with or without weights.

If you want to use a weight, try the “goblet squat.”

Using a single dumbbell held in a vertical position at your chest — as heavy a weight as you can accommodate — slowly drop down so that your thighs are parallel to the ground. Rise back up quickly, first activating your glutes by squeezing them together to start the push.

Dumbbell hammer curls to shoulder press 

runner_curl combo_1000

With this, we shift to a compound move combining two exercises. This keeps your upper torso strong so that toward the end of a training run or race you don’t start to sag and lose your form, making you struggle to keep your pace.

Hold the dumbbells at your sides, palms facing each other. Bring the dumbbells up into a curl. You’ll quickly notice that this brings the forearms into play, as opposed to the bicep focus of a regular curl.

When you reach the top of the curl, push your elbows out to the sides so your palms now face forward, then perform a shoulder press, bringing the dumbbells together with arms extended above your head.

Reverse everything on the way down: Elbows come back to your sides when the dumbbells reach your shoulders, and palms face each other as you finish the hammer curl.

A great progression for this exercise is squeezing a small stability ball between your thighs while executing the movement. This helps tighten your entire core.

Demonstrating this workout are retired Marine Maj. Mark Unger and his wife, Marine Maj. Pamela Unger. Mark is a former MV-22 pilot and current stay-at-home dad. Pamela is a comptroller attending Command & Staff College. She’s a marathoner, cyclist and active weight lifter. She can also do eight pullups, enough to earn her a perfect score if and when pullups hit the PT test for Marine women.

Do you want to be in an upcoming issue? Here’s how.


Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas has been our Military Muscle columnist since 2007. He’s the director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla. He’s his base’s lead trainer, a wounded warrior program facilitator and the Navy nutrition counselor there. His special emphasis is on fitness for the military retired population. Find his Military Muscle columns here.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas has been our Military Muscle columnist since 2007. He’s the director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla. He’s his base’s lead trainer, a wounded warrior program facilitator and the Navy nutrition counselor there. His special emphasis is on fitness for the military retired population.

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