5 Alternatives to Heavy Squats for Distance Runners

Ask a distance runner what his or her training includes and the answer will likely involve vernacular like miles per week, speed and frequency of running. Rarely will the athlete mention how often he or she spends time in the weight room. Misguided as it may be, many runners spend little, if any, time with resistance training.


Runners should lift weights. Lifting makes the body stronger, more resilient to injury, and improves performance.


So, if it’s clear that distance runners should be resistance training, then the question becomes, what should they be doing? Is there any utility to upper body training? Given the volume of training, should they be squatting heavy or are there alternatives to heavy lifting? In this piece of writing, the last question will be expanded upon.


Should Distance Runners Ever Squat Heavy?


The conventional barbell back squat is not for everyone. Though it has been and continues to be a staple in the strength and conditioning world, there are several reasons to omit it from training.


  • The athlete has pain when performing it

  • The athlete has poor mechanics with the movement

  • The movement has poor carryover to athletic performance


The first two bullets may be applicable to athletes of any sport while the last bullet has particular relevance for distance runners. Practically speaking, barbell back squats are not akin to sets of greater than 6-8 repetitions. There are always special circumstances that warrant circumventing the norm, but by and large, distance runners require sets of higher repetitions.


Further, just because the barbell back squat isn’t the optimal choice for distance runners does not mean they shouldn’t squat. At its core, squatting is simply knee and hip flexion, or bend, happening simultaneously. There are several exercises meeting these criteria that are quicker to learn, easier on the body and which have better carry-over to distance running.


The 5 Alternatives to Heavy Squats


Goblet Squat


The goblet squat is useful for distance runners because in addition to strengthening the quadriceps and glutes, it requires strong abdominals and low back extensors to execute appropriately.


To perform this exercise, hold either a dumbbell or kettlebell in the hands at chest level. With the head facing forward and torso upright, squat to a depth that allows the heels to maintain contact with the floor.


Dumbbell Step Up


Step ups are wonderful for distance runners because they train the quadriceps and glutes in a significant tandem stance, much like running. Further, single limb squatting has perhaps the most carryover to running given its requirement for both strength and balance.


To perform this exercise, hold dumbbells or kettlebells by the side. Step up to a plyo box or bench while keeping the lead foot, knee and hip in a straight line. Push through the heel to allow the lagging leg up to the box.


Dumbbell Lateral Lunge


Getting out of the sagittal (front-to-back) plane of motion is imperative for runners given breadth of time they occupy it. Well-rounded athletes should move strongly within multiple planes of motion. Dumbbell side lunges offer significant strengthening of the quadriceps and adductor (groin) muscles.


Hold dumbbells or kettlebells by the side. Step in a sideways fashion with the lead knee moving overtop the lead foot. Step the lead foot away from the body for as long as is comfortable, not as is possible. Lean into a squat and then return the lead foot to the body.


Trap Bar Squat


While the barbell back squat may place the shoulders and spine in a precarious position, the trap bar squat does neither. Further, the range of motion is self-limiting in that the weight plates will touch the ground prior to the athlete reaching a likely unnecessary depth.


Standing within the trap bar, retract the shoulder blades and stand up with the weight until the knees and hips are fully extended. Return to the starting position as if sitting down in a chair.


Dumbbell Single Leg Split Squat


The split squat is bane of many athletes’ existence. That’s not because the exercise is invaluable. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This movement trains the squat pattern in a true single-legged stance, requiring strength from both your prime squatting muscles and those stabilizing the hip and ankle, much like running.


Hold dumbbells or kettlebells by the side. Elevate the trailing leg on a bench with the lead leg in front of your body. With the torso upright, squat down while keeping the lead knee overtop the toes.


...well done