If you are a runner, don't neglect strengthening your upper body just because running is lower-body focused. Upper-body strength helps take the pressure off your knees, hips and ankles as you fatigue. Even if you prefer a wooded trail to a sweaty gym, commit to training your upper body at least twice a week. Pushups are an upper-body exercise you can crank out anywhere -- even in your own living room -- that will help your running and make you stronger overall.
Pushups train the pectoralis muscles of the chest, but they also target the fronts of your shoulders and the muscles at the back of your upper arms called the triceps. When your arms and shoulders are strong, you can pump them more quickly. Faster arm pumping results in a faster leg turnover – your leg speed naturally follows your arms. Swinging your arms also propels you forward more efficiently. Running becomes a total body exercise, not just a leg exercise, so you take longer to fatigue. Pushups also teach your body to use the abdominal muscles to stabilize, a trick you need to make your runs most efficient.
A proper pushup starts from plank position with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle, keeping them relatively close to your torso. Maintain a rigid torso and tight glutes throughout the exercise -- sagging or hiked hips indicate that you lack the strength necessary to complete the exercise properly. Extend your elbows to come back to the plank position to complete one repetition. If you cannot do a full pushup on your toes, drop your knees to support you. You still want a rigid torso and to feel the fatigue set into your upper body. Improper form may do you more harm than good. When you sag your hips, you can aggravate lower back pain, which will keep you from your run training.
If you are new to pushups, set out to do 12 to 15 repetitions for one set. After a few weeks, add a second and even a third set -- resting about 30 to 60 seconds between sets. Do pushups on nonconsecutive days to give your muscles time to rest and grow stronger.
If you already strength train the upper body, use pushups to provide you with an anaerobic workout. This type of workout is super high-intensity and performed in short spurts. Do a fast round of pushups for 30 seconds and then move on to another intense strength exercise, such as pullups, with no rest between them. The set should leave you breathless. Rest for about a minute and then repeat the cycle two or three times more. You’ll challenge your fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones responsible for speed and explosive power. Training fast-twitch fibers can help you master sprints or a surge uphill.
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.