Think that staying injury-free is just about picking the right trainers or running with care? Think again. We need to strengthen every muscle in order to run well – and that means starting with simple bodyweight exercises to build rock-solid quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes.
Whether you took up running during lockdown or you’re a seasoned sprinter, there’s nothing more frustrating than knee pain or shin splints just when you’re hitting your stride. Before you know it, you’re going down the stairs on your bum and you stop moving for fear of making niggles worse.
Researchers believe that almost half of recreational runners are prone to injury and one of the main causes is poor outer thigh strength.
When we think of running, we often associate it with the most obvious muscle groups such as the calves or quads – forgetting the potentially most powerful one of all. “The glute area is often neglected by runners in particular because they aren’t obviously involved in being able to run faster or for longer,” says professor Nicola Phillips of Cardiff University.
Runners tend to neglect strengthening and conditioning exercises
“Runners (especially novice runners) can neglect them but maintaining or improving these muscles also involves additional exercises, which many runners either don’t like doing or don’t have the time to do – so they get left out. Typically, your foot strikes the floor 80-100 times per minute when running.
“This means that the muscles that keep your hips level and therefore your leg in good alignment, have to work 2,400 – 3,000 times during a 30-minute run. Problems easily build up when you start to increase your running distance without working on the conditioning of these muscles.”
Side hip exercises can reduce your risk of injury
It doesn’t seem fair – you’ve got to put the miles in and keep squatting. But if you want to keep pounding the pavement, Nicola Chretien, performance coach at Workshop Gym, is a firm believer in putting the extra work in. “As a runner, you need strong hip abductors and external rotators to ensure the hips can resist the forces from ground impact when running and to also keep your pelvis steady and aligned,” she says.
“They play an important – if not essential – role for injury prevention. When we talk about these muscles, we mean the piriformis, gemellus superior and inferior, quadratus femoris, gluteus maximus, medius and minimus – so there’s a lot more to the area than just the glute muscle itself.”
Although big compound moves like squats will help, Chretien also believes that we should be focusing on isolation exercises as well to hit all areas efficiently – a concept that Professor Phillips also agrees with. “Squats and similar compound moves are great for strengthening muscles in the front and back of your legs which are really important to help increase your running speed but the exercise isn’t in the right plane of movement to target the muscles on the side of your hip and outer thigh.
“Exercises that take your hip to the side (side leg raises, side lunges) recruit this part of your glutes, or exercises that require standing on one leg (single-leg Romanian deadlifts, for example) should be the big focus.”
Rest and recovery can only do so much
While rest, massage and ice are a successful antidote to common running injuries, Professor Phillips is quick to warn that by treating the symptom and not the cause, you’re more likely to have a recurring injury on your hands: “If those muscles aren’t strong enough to keep your pelvis steady, it will drop – meaning that the leg you are standing on has to roll inwards a little every time you take a step.
“This changes the mechanics of how you run, making other muscles work harder which can lead to problems lower down the leg, or even in the back. It’s often why things like shin splints or knee pain don’t clear up if you just treat the painful area.”
5 moves to strengthen and run-proof your legs
Hip extensions with circles
15-20 reps on each leg (dd a mini resistance band around the ankles to progress and increase the difficulty)
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, shoulder blades squeezed together, hands on hips.
- Keep your right leg straight, knee soft, while lifting the left leg straight back behind body, pointing the toes until you feel a contraction in your glutes (don’t arch your back).
- Draw a four-point clockwise circle with your left toes, then repeat the circle counterclockwise.
- Repeat on the right leg.
Single-leg glute bridges
10-12 reps on each side (place a weight over the one leg or hip to progress)
- Lie on your back, feet shoulder-width apart, lower back flat on the floor.
- Transfer your weight onto one leg, keeping your opposite leg raised off of the floor.
- Slowly peel your back off the floor, one vertebra at a time and raise your hips and glutes off of the ground so that they are in line with your thighs.
- Actively squeeze your glutes at the top and hold for three seconds before gently lowering back down and repeat.
20 reps each side (add a mini resistance band around the top of your knees to make the exercise harder).
- Lie on your side, with legs stacked and knees bent at a 45-degree angle.
- Rest your head on your lower arm and use your top arm to steady your hips.
- Make sure your hipbones are stacked on top of one another.
- Engage your abdominals by pulling your belly button in, as this will help to stabilise your spine and pelvis, and will stop your hip rocking backward.
- Keep your feet touching, raise your upper knee as high as you can without shifting your hips or pelvis.
- Don’t move your lower leg off the floor.
- Pause for three seconds, and then return your upper leg to the starting position on the ground.
- Go again on the other leg.
15-20 reps on each leg
- Begin this exercise on your hands and knees in a tabletop position with your back straight.
- Draw in your belly button to engage your abdominal muscles.
- Keep your right leg bent at 90 degrees and lift your right knee out to the right and up, away from your body.
- Hold this position for three seconds.
- Return your right knee to the floor and repeat on the left.
15 - 20 on each side (to progress, add weight by wearing a heavy backpack or perform the exercise one leg at a time). This obviously isn’t an outer thigh move but it’s a crucial one for runners who want to protect against Achilles injuries.
- Place both feet onto a raised surface, such as a step – heels facing the edge.
- In a slow and controlled manner, keeping your toes on the step, lower your heels down from the step so you feel a stretch in your calf.
- Raise yourself back into tip-toe position, contracting your calf muscles at the top and lower back down.
Now that you know what moves to do, why not join our four-week Strength Training for Runners programme?