Have you been frustrated in the past that you’ve taken up running or you started a new training cycle and you just get injured and must stop? In today’s blog & podcast episode, we’re going to be talking about how to strengthen your muscles to train, to run.
Click the video below to hear the LIVE training I did on this topic within the Healthy Runner Facebook Group
Well, we’re going to be talking about the first principle that I talked about with the SPARK Blueprint, (click HERE for that LIVE!) training to run! We discussed a foundation and the five principles of starting out to run stronger and healthier. Today, we’re going to dive deep into the first principle: strength training to run.
Let’s get into it! Strength training. We know the big principle you need is to train in order to run, right? We’re not just going to go out there and run as our only form of exercise. You need to do exercises and train your muscles in order to be able to run and be healthy so you can hit those race goals.
Two main reasons!
Trust me, I always like a good challenge of getting an injured runner back on the pavement and out of pain recovering from an injury. The key is when I talk to a runner months down the road, years down the road and I find out that their pain does not come back…That is GOLD! That’s the long-term goal we’re trying to achieve here.
Remember, I’m an adult onset runner. I’ve been running for eight years now, and I pretty much have had every injury that we’ve talked about in in our previous blogs and a lot of the injuries that you guys are battling with, so I’ve been there before. I know what you’re feeling as I’ve gone through it myself as well as recovery and helping many other runners. So, this is not theoretical, but this is from experience. The goal, as well, is blending in the research that’s out there, the new research that comes out for running related injuries. That’s where you want to strengthen our muscles and strengthen ourselves in order to prevent injuries.
The stronger you are as a runner, the better your performance will be. You’re either going to be able to run longer or be able to run faster. Do you want to get a PR? Then you want to run faster (and everyone’s got PR goals).
In order to run faster, you must have stronger muscles and specifically for you as a runner, you want to develop this strength for endurance as opposed to strength for power. It’s going to be different than a power lifter who’s going do one rep and do an overhead press than what you need as a runner. The strength and endurance you need is in your leg muscles! One of the big things we don’t want to do is ONLY run in order to get stronger. Especially if you are a novice runner just starting out, your body goes through some adaptations.
There are a couple adaptations. The biggest one that you’re going to find initially is cardiovascular benefit right to your cardiovascular system – your heart, your respiratory system.
You’ll start to see changes, adaptations, and benefits. So maybe your resting heart rate is a little bit lower. That’s great and I’m pretty sure everyone is aware of those changes!
You will also get a little strength benefit for your running muscles. You will get a little stronger and your muscles will get more firm, and you’re going to get a little toned up in your legs. Those are going to be initial benefits.
However, if you run and you don’t do any strength training, then you’re going to eventually just level off because you’re not adding the stimulus into those muscles in order to get stronger and develop that strength for endurance that you need as a runner to prevent injuries and improve performance. This is kind of the rationale to why you should add in strength training into your exercise program as a runner.
Adding in strength training will allow you to increase your mileage again and not be fearful that you will suffer that running injury again.
Let’s talk about the five muscles we discussed in the SPARK blueprint but dig a little deeper! Let’s get into each of those muscles. These muscles are not your “gym muscles” or your beach muscles. If anyone thinks back to when they first hit the gym, probably many years ago, it was all about working your mirror or beach muscles. When I first started working out in college, it was all about the beach muscles…anyone else? We did LOTS of sets. Lots of reps for our biceps. You did bicep curls and we did bench press and every single type including incline bench, decline bench, flat bench. We did barbell bench, we did dumbbell bench, we did every variation of the chest press or a bench press!
Now, those muscles are not going to help you prevent injuries or improve performance as a runner. That’s first and foremost.
A total body approach is a good thing that will help improve your metabolism and make you stronger. Overall, from a health standpoint, however, they’re not going to improve your running specific injury needs. That’s why we’re going to be focusing on those five key muscles tonight.
I want to make sure you are strengthening the number one important muscle…
The glutes! Everyone knows the glute max, the big muscle in the back of your hip! That’s the biggest muscle that we have in our bodies. It is the most powerful.
Your glutes are super important, especially if you are a runner who has had a history of back pain or hamstring pain. That top of the hamstring pain that means that your hamstrings are dominant, meaning you’re using your hamstring a lot and you’re not turning on your glutes. To find out more about treating hamstring pain in runners click THIS BLOG ARTICLE
You need to be re-educating those glutes! Turning on the glutes is a very important thing to work towards healing from injury. And then making sure you’re strengthening your glutes is important going forward from an injury prevention and maintenance standpoint.
So – what are some exercises that you can do?
First thing that I highly recommend is you turn them on or isolate those muscles. Figure out how to contract those muscles, because when you’re doing your leg press in the gym, you’re seated in the extension and you’re not using your glutes at all.
When you’re doing some of your other muscle exercises, you’re probably not fully actually contracting that muscle in your dominant with their hamstrings.
How do you get the signals from your brain? Send them to the glutes to be able to contract. I have a series of exercises that I put together that has worked well with the runners that I help. Here is the exercises that may help you!
They don’t look very hard, but they’re hard because you need to concentrate when you’re doing them to feel good. You want to feel the burn in your glutes. And if you don’t feel that burning your glutes, you’re not doing it properly, so it’s a matter of turning them on, activating them and then strengthening from there.
Now we want to add your lunges and reverse lunges. You could be doing a dead lift picking up bar from the floor, or if you’re doing a deeper lunge or deeper squad. Those are all hip dominant exercises, meaning your hip muscles actually work more so that would actually work your glutes because your glutes work from your hip joint! That is why you should be contracting and activating your glutes when you are training in order to run.
Glutes are first and foremost! They are very important to exercise and a very important muscle!
Your gluteus medius is a fan shaped muscle that comes on the side of your hip, so that’s the muscle that keeps your pelvis level.
When you’re contracting this muscle it kicks your leg out to the side, raising your leg up. Every time you’re standing on one leg as a runner, your gluteus medius is contracting. If you’re only doing exercises in one plane, like knee extension on the knee curl machine in the gym, you might not be activating the gluteus medius. If you are doing the seated hip abductor machine in the gym, you may not be using this muscle like you do in running because your hip is in a flexed position and you are probably activating more of your TFL (tensor fascia latae) muscle in the front of your hip. This muscle connects to your IT band.
Those of you who have that chronic IT band syndrome, chances are you’re dominant in your TFL muscle, and you’re not activating the gluteus medius muscle on the side and toward the back part where it connects to your gluteus maximus.
The first exercise I would recommend to activate this muscle is called “The humbler”. It looks very easy, but it’s suprisingly very hard if done correctly. I call it the humbler because you can take someone who thinks they are strongest person out there, and they do that exercise and are instantly humbled by how weak they are 🙂 . Check out the video below to see how to perform this exercise correctly.
Another way you can work your gluteus medius muscle is doing a side-step (almost like a crab walk) with a band around your knees or your ankles. You’ll feel a great burn with this too! Click THIS LINK to view how to perform this exercise
Your external rotators are the guys deep in your butt area. These muscles go deep under the glute max.
The bigger one of the external rotators is the piriformis muscle. I’m sure you’ve heard about this muscle. It’s going to be a key muscle to strengthen especially if you get front of the knee cap pain or what we call patellofemoral syndrome. This is also a key muscle to strengthen if you tend to get shin splints or posterior tibial tendonitis. This is ankle tendonitis on the inside part your ankle and honestly, even planter fasciitis and achilles tendinopathy. For any ankle tendonitis issue, this muscle is very important because this is your anti-pronation muscle. Read my previous blog article on 3 tips to combat ankle and foot pain by clicking THIS LINK.
Remember when your foot goes flat and it flattens out when you run, especially for those that have super flat arches, or you overpronate a lot. You may have been told to use orthotics or us a stability running shoe. If you have been told that in the past, then chances are you would benefit from strengthening your hip external rotators. You need to use these muscles to prevent that excessive motion. By strengthening these hip rotator muscles you will decrease the stress down lower in the chain and will prevent those injuries we’ve been talking about.
There are some great simple exercises that you can do to strengthen this muscle at home. Hip activation wise, the clamshell lying on your side, where you’re opening like a clam shell is a great starter. You can add a little resistance by using a band around the knees but make sure you don’t add the band too fast. A lot of times I see people jump to the band when they’re not actually activating the muscle correctly. You want to make sure you’re activating, turning that muscle on, and then progress your resistance. Add the resistance band and then you can do some standing progressions which we will get to in a later blog 😉.
Our fourth muscle is going to be the quads. The quad muscle group is going to be on the front of the thigh. I think you guys know where your quads are probably by now. There are four muscles involved and that’s why they’re called the “quads”.
Keep in mind the rectus femoris is a two-joint muscle. This muscle is hip flexor as well as a knee extensor. A lot of time this muscle can be short and tight because of those actions.
Let’s get to strengthening the quads. Why is it important to strengthen your quad? To have proper tracking of your kneecap! So again, if you are someone who has had a patellofemoral pain and issues with your kneecap with tracking, then strengthening your quads can improve tracking as well as improve your performance. Let’s be honest here, the stronger your quads are then the easier it is to control your body weight with downhill running. Here is a great exercise to work on strengthening your quads:
A great example of the function of the quad muscles when you run downhill is if you think back to when you finished your first long race and you get that delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), that peaks at 24- 48 hours after your race. I know everyone’s been there before, right? Have you been there before, especially as you’re going down stairs? You know where your quads are in the front of your thigh, and you feel them burning when you’re coming down the stairs, because your quads are controlling your body weight as you go down. This same concept applies when you do downhill running and you are doing some hills and you’re going downhill; your quads are contracting over and over again!
Therefore, you as a runner should improve your turnover time as you’re going downhill to minimize and not fight the hill. This way you’re not having to use that rapid quad contraction. A lot of people who have done the Boston marathon can speak to this. I hear that for the downhill running you really need to train your quads to be able to tolerate the rigor of the Boston course. Quad strengthening not just running hills in of itself, but also strengthening your quad muscles would be important, especially those that are considering doing a hilly race such as Boston.
Next up we have our calf muscles.
The calf is made up of 2 muscles that are very important because they connect to your Achilles tendon. A lot of runners I see do not have the endurance of their calf muscle, meaning as a runner, you should be able to perform 25 single leg calf raises up and down nice and slow. You want to make sure you’re keeping your knee straight when you do this quick test on your own. If you don’t have the endurance of that muscle, then that could lead to compensations and usually more stress to the Achilles and the planter fascia.
So, think about doing some calf raises, even though it seems so easy and silly. But if you test yourself, see if you can do 25 calf raises, you just might be surprised that you can not complete 25!
If you can’t, you need to work on the endurance of these muscles. You don’t need a fancy machine to do that. You literally just use your body weight as resistance, and then you can progress. Perform on the floor to start and then off the edge of a step like THIS VIDEO as a nice progression. And then you could add resistance by either holding a kettle bell, holding a dumb bell or doing it in a machine at the gym.
What we do know with the biology of aging is that as we age, we do tend to lose muscle, so losing muscle has been associated with a lot of the comorbidities and decline in function in the elderly population. There’s a big push in medical professions now, especially PT, and I wouldn’t say a big push, but it’s more of the recent push is to strength train for the elderly. The old philosophy was you don’t want to do strength training, you don’t want to have elderly patients lift weights because they’re going to get hurt. However, we now know that the negative consequences of not building muscle as we age is far greater than anything that you can hurt by lifting weights. So, if you do it progressively and safely, then that’s going to be a great benefit to not only your muscle, but also your bone health. Then think about us as runners!
I’m sure everyone has heard of a runner who has had a stress fracture before, right? If you’ve had any broken bones in your history, if you’ve ever fallen and broken a bone or broken multiple bones, if you’re a postmenopausal, female and you might have some low bone density, if you have a little osteopenia or if you have osteoporosis: then strength training is essential for you as a runner to build-up tissue and prevent the decline in bone density as we age. As we age, those things (bones and muscles) will get weaker and that leads to fractures with a trivial fall. If you want to look at bone health as well as muscle health, that’s where strength training really comes in.
So again, like everyone thinks of running as only a cardiovascular type of activity in which it is great for your heart. It’s great for your cardiovascular system. Maybe you have high blood pressure, maybe you have a history of family related cardiac disease. I know I do. All the males on my mom’s side of the family have a very big cardiac history. So, I love that I’m staying healthy and I have exercised since I was a kid and in college and took up running because that’s hopefully going to help prevent me from suffering one of those cardiac issues later in my life. Running is great for cardiovascular, muscular, and bone health! The things that I talked about today are really to teach you what muscles that you’re probably not using in the gym, and these are your running specific muscles.
Those are your five running specific muscles! They are going to help you get stronger as a runner to prevent injury and improve performance.
Remember, this is in the context of you training in order to run! Also remember the other principles that we talked about. This is the first principle of the SPARK Blueprint: Strengthening!
The SPARK Physical Therapy Commitment
No long waits or multiple trips to providers’ offices every week. We see you either onsite at a partnering gym or in the comfort of your home when it is convenient with your schedule.
One on one for a full hour with your Doctor of Physical Therapy, every visit. We provide you with a customized plan specifically designed for you, based off your unique injury and goals.
Full transparency in what you pay. You will never get a bill from us a couple of months after your visit.
Access and availability to you! Have a question about your pain or exercise program? Get an answer from your therapist directly.
If you’re in the greater Hamden, CT area and are a runner that has been dealing with injuries we can help. We’d love to chat for a few minutes and see if you are a good fit for what we do. Fill in this CONTACT REQUEST LINK and we’ll set up a free-minute phone consultation with a doctor of physical therapy
Thank you for taking the time to read,
– Duane Scotti, PT, DPT, PhD, OCS
A special thanks goes out to Allie Eldridge, SPT for her contributions to this article
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