The #1 Exercise for Runners

If you only have time for one “extra” in your routine, this is your pick. Bold claim, I know, but I’m good at reading science and Will is even better and over the past few years, we’ve spent an enormous amount of time reviewing literature on what makes the perfect runner. Sure, you have to have some genetic predisposition and big lungs, but you also have to have a stable foot and hip/knee drive. The exercise that comes up over and over again to facilitate the development of the best stride possible for each runner are step-ups. Anecdotally, when I do my step-ups regularly, my form is significantly better. When I don’t, it’s right back to shuffle city.

Don't mind the banner in the back. It was borrowed from Terre Haute some years back.

Don’t mind the banner in the back. It was borrowed from Terre Haute some years back.

Earlier this fall, Will built us a step-up box (you can buy them too, but they are surprisingly expensive). Ours is 18″ but anything between 12 and 20 inches should do the trick. If you want an even cheaper version, try using 2 or 3 stairs. Just be careful when you’re coming back down not to catch your foot.

As you can see from the pictures above, I still need work. In one picture, I’m looking down at my foot when I should be looking ahead. In the bottom picture, I’m collapsing towards my loaded foot. With continued lifting and drills, however, this should improve.

How do you incorporate step-ups into your life? Start with 5 on a side (so 10 total per set) with a goal of 3 sets. Eventually you want to get up to 10 on a side.These are best done after your harder runs; how else will you learn to improve form when you’re tired?! I generally do these three times a week with the rest of my leg work.

Later in the week, I’ll share my 20 minute leg and 20 minute arm workouts that really can fit in your day and are runner-specific. No future in Cross Fit with these routines, but done regularly, they’ll improve form and help you in the latter stages of runs and races.

6 thoughts on “The #1 Exercise for Runners

  1. Derin A.

    I just did some step ups yesterday! Funny, I never think about it as a drill to improve form, moreso just one of my staple leg exercises. I can see how it can help with improving a runner’s stride. Definitely going to be a staple for my athletes in spring track!

  2. charissarunning

    This is really good information, thank you! I’ve never really done much step-ups, but after reading this I may have to incorporate it more. I could probably use some improvement in my form!

    1. runnerunderpressure

      I think we all could! That said, for most of us, we don’t have all day to train so we need exercises that give us the most bang for our buck. Hope you like them; let me know if you share my observation of having better knee drive after a couple weeks.

  3. foxrunsfast

    I’m in. I am sure that these would help – but I am loathe to add one more thing to my routine! 🙂 I’m already doing some PT stuff, but maybe I’ll try to sneak this in as well. Do you think I can get away with using my staircase or do you feel that a box is really what you need to do it right?

    1. runnerunderpressure

      I think stairs are totally reasonable especially to see if you like them for you. I struggle with 3 stairs just with the width but 2 is great! Let me know what you think. I hate adding one more thing too but if it keeps me improving…


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