If you run 5K, 10K races, or even marathons, you’re probably interested in improving your performance. Strength training matters even if you’re a running enthusiast. Lower body strength training is important if you sprint or run short distances, but even if you run longer distances, you still need a strong lower body. Many runners are so focused on running that they either don’t strength train or give it a low priority. Don’t be one of them!
One of the best exercises strengthening your lower body and improving your running performance is the squat. Squatting has multiple benefits for runners. They build stronger thigh and core muscles for a more powerful stride, they improve flexibility for better running economy and lower the risk of injury.
Most of your squats should be full squat since doing a full squat maximizes strength development. However, you’ll be well-served by making a portion of the squats you do half-squats.
What’s a Half-Squat?
You’re probably familiar with full squats, where you lower your body until your legs are at below parallel and your buttocks are close to the floor. A half-squat is a variation where you descend to the level that your thighs are parallel with the floor or higher. Therefore, you’re not descending as deeply when you do a half-squat.
Why would you want to do half squats when going deeper maximizes strength development? Adding half squats to your routine is beneficial if you run long distances, as doing them can increase your stride length and frequency. Therefore, you’ll be able to take longer strides and complete more strides per minute, making it possible to cover more distance in the same amount of time.
How do we know half squats are a boon for runners? A study published in Sports and Exercise challenged long-distance runners to do half-squats for two months. Over the two months, the runners did four sets of four repetitions no more than three times per week. When they squatted, they held dumbbells in their hands for added resistance, using a weight that was heavy enough to challenge their muscles but not heavy enough to alter their form.
The results? The runners who did half-squats shaved ninety seconds off their 5K running time. That could mean the difference in where you place in your next 5K. Why is the half-squat so effective? It strengthens the quadriceps muscles, the muscles in the front of the thighs. These muscles must be strong to generate power and maximize stride length. Half-squats help your legs generate more power and that helps lengthen your stride.
As Jason Fitzgerald, USATF certified coach points out, the quads are important muscles because they power your stride. That’s what you need if you’re a serious runner.
Squats Improve Sprint Performance Too
If you’re a sprinter, you need strong quads to generate power for the push-off. Squats are a quad-focused exercise that works multiple muscle groups in your lower body. So, they help build strength and power, and that can make you a better sprinter. Science supports this idea. A study published in PLOS One found that boosting maximal squat strength also enhances sprint performance among professional soccer players. As the players improved their squat performance and built greater quad strength, their sprint times for 5, 10, and 20-meter sprints improved.
The take-home message? Regardless of what distance you run, strength training can help your performance.
Myths about Half Squats
Some people are of the mindset that half squats are inferior to full squats because they don’t work the hamstring muscles as effectively as full squats or deep squats. However, research doesn’t support this idea. EMG studies that measure muscle activation show half squats activate the two-headed biceps femoris, the largest hamstring muscle as much as full squats. However, half squats activate the rectus femoris in the front of the thigh more than full squats. So, you actually get more balanced muscle activation when you do half squats.
Another benefit of half squats is doing them can improve your performance if you jump since you’re in a position that you use to do a vertical jump. It can also enhance your performance when you do plyometric exercises.
Do Half Squats and Full Squats
Half squats and full squats both work the muscles in the thighs with the full squat being a more quad-focused exercise and half squats offer more balanced muscle activation between the front and the back of the thighs. If you’re a runner trying to improve your performance, there are reasons to include both in your routine.
Half squats can help you improve your stride length and frequency so you can cover more territory in the same amount of time. Half squats also give you an edge if you’re a sprinter or play a sport that requires jumping.
You might even improve lower body strength gains by including half squats in your routine. In one small study, men who included both half squats and full squats in their lower body training improved their maximal squat capacity by 8.2%. In contrast, the group who did full squats enhanced squat capacity by 5.1%. So, including both in your strength routine may give you an edge on building strength.
The Bottom Line
Fortunately, there’s no reason to choose between half squats and full squats. Do both! Your muscles respond best when you use progressive overload and vary the stimulus you place on your muscles. Once you’ve mastered half squats and full squats, challenge yourself by adding deep squats, but be sure you’ve mastered your form and start with no weights or light weights at first. Regardless of what type you do, squats are one of the best functional exercises for your lower body and they can make you a better runner and jumper too.
NASM.org. “Research in Review: Full or Partial Back Squat – Which Activates the Muscles More?”
VeryWellFit.com. “Should You Do Full or Half Squats?”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31(6):1688–1693, JUNE 2017
DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001713, PMID: 28538321.
RunnersWorld.com. “The Benefits of Squats for Runners”
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