If you're a runner, there's no question about it: You have strong legs. That's because you need and use them in order to propel yourself forward and successfully log miles. Muscular calves and thighs can be a telltale sign that someone is a runner. But there are more muscles involved in running that are often forgotten about – namely the glutes.
"Many runners neglect strength training in general, mostly due to the misconception that strength training will make you slow or inefficient," explains Cameron Yuen, PT, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy and Fitness in New York City. "The glutes especially tend to get overlooked as there isn’t an intuitive connection between increased hip strength and running performance."
The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, both located on the side of the hip, most often get the cold shoulder. And while the glutes are not inhibited by other muscles, they can be under-conditioned compared to other leg muscles, explains Yuen. The result: These muscles need to pick up the slack.
Still not convinced? The glutes are important for several other reasons for runners. First, they contribute to the total amount of force you are putting into the ground with each step. "More muscle recruited with greater force directed into the ground results in increased speed," explains Yuen. "Similarly, increased hip capacity, assuming the other muscles of the leg are well trained, increases efficiency at slower speeds."
The glutes are essential for hip extension, too. This is the part of your stride where your leg passes behind you. "If you don't have strong glutes to drive the leg backwards, you are missing out on a critical component of the running gait," says Yuen.
Lastly, the lateral glute muscles are extremely important for single leg stance. Think about your run: With every step, one side of your pelvis gets pulled down by gravity, and the lateral glute muscles, prevent this downward pull, explains Yuen. "Training these muscles will improve efficiency, and will help with many of the overtraining injuries that most runners face," he says.
We asked Yuen to share five quick exercises to help you fire up the glutes before you hit the ground running.
1. Lateral Toe Touch
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Lift one leg up to hip height with knee bent 90 degrees, thigh parallel with the floor and foot flexed, in a “marching position.”
Bend standing leg slightly as you step lifted leg out laterally and tap toes to the ground. Don't allow standing knee to track past grounded foot. Push back up to marching position. Repeat. Perform 10 reps, then switch legs.
"This is a great exercise for training the lateral hip muscles in single leg stance," explains Yuen.
2. Standing Hip Airplanes
Place your hands on your hips, and lift one foot up behind you with your knee bent and your shin parallel to the floor. Keeping leg lifted, turn hips outwards, opening them up. Slowly squat down a little, and as you squat down, close the hips towards the ground, allowing the lifted leg to track behind the standing leg. Stand back upright keeping the foot lifted. Repeat. Perform 10 reps.
"We have multiple glute muscles, and each one has a slightly different function," says Yuen. "In this exercise, the glutes are trained to control internal and external rotation. This rotational capability is essential for controlling the knee during the running gait."
3. Lateral Lunge
Stand with feet hip width apart. Step one leg out laterally, and sit back and down into a lateral lunge, keeping the knee of your standing leg in line with your feet. Push forcefully through your heels, extending both your knee and your hip of the extended leg to stand back up into starting position. Repeat. Perform 10 reps, then switch sides.
"This exercise emphasizes both strength and motor control in the hips," says Yuen.
4. Single Leg Toe Touch
Stand with feet hip width apart, one knee slightly bent. Bend from the hips to touch your hand towards your foot of the bent leg, while letting the other leg lift up and back behind you. Push through the heels to return to the starting position. Repeat. Perform 10 reps, then switch sides.
"Here you're focusing on the gluteus maximus through hip extension," says Yuen. "With this exercise, try to keep your back flat, as if you are performing a deadlift."
5. Side Plank with Hip Extension
Come to the floor and lie on your side, elbow bent 90 degrees directly under your shoulder, knees bent 90 degrees with feet behind you. Push up onto your forearm, hips lifting up and forward into a side plank, pause for two seconds, then lower back down to the starting point. Repeat. Perform 10 reps, then switch sides.
"This last exercise will integrate all the hip muscles with the trunk muscles," says Yuen. "Our muscles and joints do not work in isolation, so it is important to ensure that these muscles can coordinate to create effective movement."
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