Runners: Target the Muscles that are Often Overlooked

by Rachel Entrekin, DPT, OCS

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For runners, it’s easy to forget to do literally anything other than get your miles in! Runners typically are good at one thing: running. Half the time, we’ve never even picked up a weight, let alone owned a set of dumbbells. But multiple studies have shown that doing resistance training can be extremely beneficial towards running economy and injury prevention.

As a runner myself, I try – at the very least – to do 2-3 days of hip exercise/mobility work, such as standard leg lifts and squats. But below are a few that I always pepper in that target muscles often overlooked. I especially like them because they’re done with close to zero equipment and in a closed chain – AKA your working leg is in contact with the ground… which is what you’re also doing when running!

Standing Airplane

Personally, this is my favorite exercise of all time. It highlights and strengthens so many areas that are vital to maintaining an injury-free stride, and it doesn’t require a single piece of equipment! This exercise focuses primarily on strengthening your glutes, namely hip external rotators, but allows them the opportunity to work throughout their entire available range. Though it may appear easy at first, there’s a few key areas to focus on to ensure you’re doing this properly.

  1. Weight-bearing through your foot: Think about three key points of contact through your foot: the ball of your big toe, the outside of your foot near the pinky toe, and the heel. Try to really focus on sinking down into these areas and letting your weight distribute evenly throughout them. Don’t roll towards the inside or outside of your foot when performing this exercise! Strengthen those feet too!
  2. Knee position: The knee should be slightly bent, and stay slightly bent. You aren’t doing a one-legged squat! The motion here is at the pelvis. Make sure you keep your kneecap facing forward throughout the exercise – don’t let your leg rotate inwards or outwards.
  3. Trunk position: Try to keep your trunk and the leg you’re not standing on as close to horizontal as possible. As you fatigue, you’ll likely drift more vertically, or drop your back leg completely, so focus on keeping your low back and glutes working by staying horizontal!

Hip Hike on Step

This exercise targets the all-important gluteus medius while also helping actively lengthen the quadratus lumborum, a commonly substituted (and subsequently overworked) muscle in the low back. Again, this exercise may look easy, but there are some common mistakes that can lead to improper muscle substitutions.

  1. Knee position: Again, knee is slightly bent, and stays slightly bent. We’re still not doing single-legged squats! The motion is in the hips and pelvis, not the knee.
  2. Pelvic movement: Try to keep the motion in the frontal plane – the plane that separates the front and back sides of you. Your hips are moving ONLY up and down – there is no rotation component.
  3. Step height: Starting with too high of a step is a common mistake. You don’t need a ton of height to really feel this one. Imagine if you did your very first bicep curl with a 300lb dumbbell! For this exercise, even standing on a 2” hardback book can be enough to really feel like that glute is engaged. Don’t let your quads take over this exercise by standing too high up.

Runner Step Up

This exercise is extremely functional, especially if you (like everyone!) struggle with running up hills! During uphill running, ideally, you are using mostly your backside – not your quads! This exercise helps reinforce that neuromuscular control of your glutes and train out that quad-dominant motor pattern. Here are some usual mistakes and how to avoid them.

  1. Trunk position: You will start this exercise with your nose over toes. As you step upwards, really make sure you come to full standing height – don’t stay slumped forwards. Staying forward-slumped ensures that your glutes stay in passive insufficiency, meaning they are too stretched, so they won’t fire. To combat this movement fault, stand up straight!
  2. Push, don’t pull: Think about powering yourself upwards by pushing from your backside, not pulling yourself up using the front of your thigh or hip.
  3. Knee position: As always, keep the knee facing straight forwards. Also, don’t let the knee drift too far forwards over your toes which would put a lot of stress on the anterior knee and can sometimes cause painful patellar compression. Try to keep your leg (anatomically, the area between your knee and ankle) as vertical as possible throughout the exercise.

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch (static) (15 sec hold x 1-4 reps/day; every day)

Hip extension is super important in running! If you lack hip extension, your glutes are prevented from firing because you’re not mechanically giving them any advantage to do so. In turn, other muscles will compensate, which can lead to a multitude of problems such as IT band syndrome, hip impingement, anterior knee pain, and many others. Improper stretching, however, can lead you to spend lots of time doing something painful for no reason. Below are a few common mistakes to avoid with hip flexor stretching.

  1. Trunk position: Keep your torso upright!! Don’t just thrust your pelvis forward while keeping your head in the same place. This can cause you to overload the delicate joints in your low back, and it can be quite painful. Keep the torso upright and shift your weight forward until you feel a pulling near the top of your back hip. Do not arch your back!
  2. Hold times and frequency: Be sure you actually get benefits from this stretch by performing it every day, holding for at least 15 seconds. Multiple studies have shown that this is the minimal amount of time required to see lasting change in range of motion when done consistently! Aim for between 1 and 4 repetitions per day.
  3. Trunk position: If you want a bit deeper of a stretch, try rotating or side bending your torso away from the stretching leg.

Try these exercises out, especially if you’re a runner! If you experience any pain, discomfort or simply want to develop your running program, please reach out for a consultation.

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