It’s 6pm and you’re still chained to your desk, wondering how you’re going to make time for a run. Welcome to the club. According to research from Weight Watchers, long working hours are one of the most common reasons for not exercising. But, while you can’t stop the clock from ticking – or the boss from demanding – there are spare minutes hiding in your day. We’ll show you how to find them and make every second count for your running.
‘When you can’t run, you can focus on flexibility and strength,’ explains Joshua Schouten, endurance athlete and personal trainer at My Momentum (my-momentum.co.uk). ‘Through combining conditioning work with running, you become a faster and healthier athlete.’
The following simple moves are easy to do at work and won’t make you sweat or look like an idiot. Better still, they don’t even require you to use your lunch hour – you can slot them in throughout the day in your brief windows of downtime.
The move: Isometric holds
- Find a waist-high ledge such as a bookshelf or desk.
- Face the ledge and hold the edge with your palms facing upwards (A).
- Crouch into a semi-squat (B). Push your feet into the ground, pushing upwards against the shelf to increase intensity.
- Hold for six seconds.
- Release and repeat 20 times.
The payoff: ‘This isometric version of the double-leg squat is great for reaping explosive strength gains,’ says fitness coach, Mark Rahaman (markrfitness.com). By putting the muscles in your lower body under maximum tension for several seconds, you’re recruiting almost all of the motor units needed to boost speed – and giving your biceps a workout, too.
The move: The vacuum
- Stand up and inhale deeply.
- Exhale slowly, drawing your belly button into your spine. This causes you to squeeze your pelvic floor muscles and push your diaphragm downwards. Hold for three to four seconds, forcing every bit of breath out.
- Inhale. Do 10 reps.
The payoff: ‘This exercise activates your inner core, which is made up of the transverse abdominis, diaphragm, multifidus and pelvic floor muscles,’ says Rahaman. ‘The inner core is required to stabilise the body when reacting to undulating terrain, turns and missteps.’
The move: Chair squats
- From a sitting position, push yourself up until your hips are hovering over the chair.
- Hold the position for three seconds.
- Stand up, sit down and repeat 16 times.
The payoff: Squats build the strong buttock muscles that trainer Papillon Luck (libertefitness.com) says will ‘put bounce in your stride’ and boost forward propulsion.
The move: Leg raises
- Sit tall in your chair with your feet flat on the floor, and engage your abdominals.
- Straighten one leg until it’s hip level.
- Squeeze your upper leg muscles, lower back down and repeat on other leg.
- Do 16 reps on each side.
The payoff: These develop the four quad muscles, which will help your knee track correctly. ‘They also build the glutes and hamstrings – crucial for runners,’ adds Luck.
The move: Crossover stretch
- Sit in your chair with your back straight and cross one ankle over the opposite knee.
- Pull that knee across your body with the opposite hand.
- When you reach the point where you feel a stretch in your glute, hold the stretch for one minute. Repeat twice on each side.
The payoff: ‘The glutes do a lot of work when you run and can easily tighten up,’ says running specialist physio Scott Mitchell (moveclinics.com) . ‘This can lead to lower back stiffness that can then cause pain to radiate into the legs.’ Sitting, particularly slumped sitting, for long periods of time can also lead to tightness in muscles such as the hamstrings. This stretch helps reduce tightness, allowing the muscles to function better when running.
The move: Peterson step-up
- Place one leg (your ‘exercising’ leg) on a 2cm platform, like a book, with your resting leg on the floor (A).
- The foot of your resting leg should be positioned slightly ahead of the toes on your exercising leg.
- Keep the exercising leg bent, heel raised, with your weight on the ball of your foot.
- Push through the ball of your exercising foot, so the heel touches the platform and your resting leg lifts off the floor (B).
- Bend your exercising leg to lift the heel again and repeat. Do 25-30 reps on each leg.
The payoff: ‘Runner’s knee is often caused by an imbalance between the lateral and medial quadriceps muscles,’ says Schouten. ‘This exercise wards off knee problems by strengthening the teardrop muscle on the medial side of the knee joint.’
The move: Leg lifts
- Sit in your chair with feet hip-width apart on the floor in front of you. Engage your core by pulling your navel to your spine.
- Lift both feet slightly off the ground, keeping your knees bent at 90 degrees.
- Breathe in as your contract your abdominals. Then breathe out and lower your legs back to the ground.
- Repeat as many times as you can.
The payoff: ‘This move is a simple way to carve your core,’ says Luck. ‘It’s designed to build lower abdominal strength, which will improve your running efficiency by helping to stabilise the pelvis. Without adequate abdominal strength, your body recruits other muscles to do the work when you run, which can lead to poor posture and lower back problems.’
The move: Ankle flexors
- Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor.
- Keeping your heels on the floor, raise your toes towards you. Now, slowly, point your toes away from you.
- Repeat this 15 times, secure in the knowledge that your ‘concentrating face’ will be interpreted by colleagues as focus on that tricky market analysis report.
- Now move your ankles round in circles to the left and to the right, repeating 10 times in each direction.
The payoff: ‘This exercise not only works the muscles of the lower leg, but also mobilises the ankle joint, which makes it a good move for runners recovering from lower leg or ankle injuries,’ says Asics Pro Team podiatrist Clifton Bradley.
The move: Foot fists
- Take your shoes off – go on, no one will know – and place both feet flat on the floor.
- Keep your heels in contact with the floor and curl your toes back under your feet, making a ‘fist’ with your foot.
- Extend your toes again. Do 20 reps.
The payoff: ‘This strengthens the foot muscles,’ says Pilates instructor Dawne Likhodedova (be-pilates.co.uk). Especially useful if you wear minimalist running shoes.
The move: Calf raises
- Place both feet on the floor, a platform such as a ream of paper or a step if you can sneak out to the stairs.
- If you’re on a platform/stair, shuffle back until only the balls of your feet are on it.
- Push up high on to your toes.
- Pause, then lower your heels down (to the floor, or as far as you can if you’re on a step/platform). Repeat 20 times.
The payoff: This should be a staple of every runner’s routine because rapid heel action is an important component of running. ‘This move recruits the gastrocnemius, which is crucial for ankle stability,’ says Schouten.
The move: Thigh squeezes
- Sit tall in your chair and tighten your abs.
- Place a water bottle or an empty cup between your knees.
- Squeeze it for three seconds.
- Reduce the tension by 50 per cent.
- Squeeze to maximum tension for three seconds, then relax. Repeat 16 times.
The payoff: By contracting your inner thigh muscles isometrically – that is, tensing the muscles without lengthening or shortening them – this exercise builds strength in the adductor muscle group. ‘Strengthening your adductors will help you avoid knee pain and adductor tendinitis,’ says Luck. Strong adductors also decrease side-to-side movement when running, making you more efficient – and yes, faster.
The move: Nerve glides
- Sit back in your chair so your thighs are supported. Lean forwards and tuck your chin down.
- Raise the toes on your right foot.
- Slowly straighten your right knee until the back of the leg tightens. Return to the start. Repeat for one minute on each leg.
The payoff: ‘Tight calves and hamstrings are every runner’s nemesis,’ says Mitchell. ‘By increasing nerve efficiency, this exercise reduces the tightness that can cut a run short.’ The result is a lower injury risk and greater range of movement when running.