Whether you’re an elite marathon runner, training for your first 5K, or just enjoy lacing up your sneakers to put one foot in front of the other, proper strengthening will help prevent injuries and keep you plugging away mile after mile. Many runners believe that running alone will keep your legs tuned up and ready to go; however, muscle imbalance and compensatory activity may occur in the absence of strength training.
A key area to focus on is the hip as hip weakness can lead to conditions such as iliotibial band friction syndrome, trochanteric bursitis, or patello-femoral syndrome just to name a few. Hip musculature is integral to maintain hip, knee, and ankle alignment, keep your pelvis level, as well as provide propulsion during running. These muscles include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and piriformis which provide hip extension, abduction, and external rotation respectively.
Try these exercises:
Squats. When performed correctly, the squat is an excellent exercise for the entire lower extremity. It can be performed with dumbbells, a barbell, or with body weight alone. To properly execute a squat, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and sit your hips down and back without allowing the knees to migrate forward more than an inch. The normal curvature of the back should be maintained as the shoulders lean forward to counterbalance the weight of your hips. Once the thighs are near parallel to the ground press back up to an upright position and finish with a squeeze of the gluteus maximus in the buttocks and quadriceps in the thigh without hyperextending the knees. During the entire movement, the knees should remain directly under the hips and directly over the ankles which you can check by performing the exercise in front of a mirror. If you have trouble maintaining this alignment, try performing the squat with a loop of resistance band or tubing around your knees and press outward into the resistance during both the down and up phases.
Side lunges. The side lung is a great exercise for the gluteus medius. The side lunge is similar to the squat, but the feet begin a little wider than shoulder width apart. The hips are not only brought down and back but also to one side until the hip is directly above the knee and ankle. You know you’ve got the form down when you feel the gluteus medius working along the top and outside of the buttock. Again, once the thigh is near parallel to the ground, press back up to the starting position.
Clam shells. You can specifically target the hip external rotators which includes the piriformis by performing clam shells. To complete this exercise, place a resistance loop around your knees, lie on your side, and flex your hips and knees. The stomach muscles should be contracted, and the heels should remain in contact while the top knee is lifted upward. Note the muscle contraction in the center of the buttock and slowly lower back to the starting position.
These three exercises can be easily integrated into any running program and require little to no equipment. Just a few minutes of strength training a week can drastically reduce your risk of injury and even boost performance.
Stephen Fong, PT, DPT
Fong is a physical therapist with Somerset Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Program, which has five locations in Central New Jersey. For more information, visit www.somersetsportsmedicine.com or call 855-SPRTS-MED.