The Best Upper Body Exercise for Runners

Two runners high-five.

Your legs take most of the pounding when you run, so many runners let out a disappointed sigh when they learn they should be strengthening their upper body, too. But having a strong upper body can help you reach new distances (literally) or chase down that next PR you’ve been working towards.

Having a strong upper body helps you run more efficiently by improving your posture, arm swing and overall form. As you fatigue during the later stages of a run or race, your upper back and shoulders hunch forward, altering your form, slowing your cadence and ultimately decreasing performance. Focusing on upper body exercises just a couple of times a week can delay that fatigue, keep you running upright and get you to the finish line feeling strong.

Coach Nate takes us through the single best upper body exercise for runners (hint: it’s push-ups). Push-ups are great because you don’t need access to a gym or weights to do them. They’re easy to squeeze into your daily or weekly routine, and tracking your progress is simple.

How to perform a push-up

  • Get into a plank position on the ground, with your hands and feet holding you up off the ground. There should be a straight line from your ankles, knees and shoulders to your ears.
  • Your feet should be hip width apart and your palms shoulder width apart, spreading your fingers out over the ground for some extra balance and stability.
  • Squeeze your core, glutes and quad muscles to create a tight, straight line. Squeezing your quads and glutes is super important for creating tension and maintaining your position. Otherwise, your hips might drop and your low back might excessively arch.
  • Bend your arms and lower your chest to the ground by leading with the shoulder. If you do this correctly, your forearms will be vertical at the bottom of pushup. However, if the elbows bend first (which most of us tend to do) your elbows will slide off the top of your wrists at the bottom.
  • Push yourself back up by extending your arms, all while maintaining a stable plank position.
  • Avoid “chicken-wing” elbows–make sure your elbows are pointed towards your feet rather than sticking out to your sides.
  • Make sure your back isn’t arched and your hips aren’t sagging. Did we mention to squeeze those glutes?
  • Repeat your desired amount of reps.

How many push-ups should you do?

Just like with running, strength training is a gradual process. You should start with a manageable amount of reps and work your way up. It’s important to focus on quality over quantity, meaning you should be able to complete all reps with proper form before adding on more reps. Quality means maintaining a rigid plank position, developing full range of motion in the movement and developing the proper movement patterns (leading with your shoulders first versus your elbows).

For beginners, we recommend starting with three sets of one to five push-ups. If you’ve already been doing some strength work in addition to your running, try for five to 15 reps. Advanced athletes can do 20 push-ups or more!

Two runners run side by side on a residential street.

Switch it up! Try these different types of push-ups

If you’ve nailed the basic push-up and are ready for another challenge, check out these different types of push-ups from Coach Nate.

  1. Hand release style push-up
    • Begin with the same motions as you would for the basic push-up.
    • Lower yourself fully onto the ground.
    • Lift your hands and arms off of the ground before resuming the basic push-up position. This will ensure full range of motion and it will eliminate any “bounce” at the bottom.
    • Lift yourself back up into a plank position.
  2. Play around with hand placement
    • Perform one basic push-up with your fingers in the 12 o'clock position.
    • For the next rep, rotate your hands outwards with your fingers facing the 9 and 3 o'clock positions.
    • Lower yourself down towards the ground, then back up.
    • Finally, for the third rep, rotate your hands further with your fingers facing your feet at the 6 o'clock position.
    • Lower yourself down towards the ground, then push back up.
    • Playing with your hand position in this way forces you to lead with your shoulder first. It’s a great way to check your form without a coach or a mirror handy.

If you’re having trouble with the basic push-up and need modifications to get started, check out these beginner push-up styles from Coach Nate.

  1. Modified negative push-ups
    • Begin with the same motions as you would for the basic push-up.
    • Slowly lower yourself towards the ground.
    • Instead of pushing back up, first allow your body to fully touch the ground, then drop to your knees and press back up from the knee position.
    • Once the elbows are extended, straighten the legs, get tight again and repeat. This movement focuses on the downward movement of the full pushup, while allowing you to decrease the load of the way back up.
  2. Plank
    • Begin in the same plank position as you would for a basic push-up.
    • Rather than lowering yourself onto the ground, hold yourself in this position for ten to 20 seconds.
    • Focus on keeping your wrists strong, your core engaged, your shoulders stable and your legs straight.

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