This one weird exercise could cure all your running ills!
As a physical therapist, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There are a few exercises that every runner could do that could very well keep you from ever having to see me. Not that I don’t want to see you, I’m sure you are awesome. But, needless to say, there are some areas we all neglect in our strength training routine. These weaknesses may not manifest themselves on shorter runs, but more often than not, longer mileage and more time on our feet will exacerbate all of our little flaws! I’ve compiled a list of exercises (strengthening and stretching) that I feel can benefit most runners in some way!
Clamshells – I know you’ve read about these before if you have looked at any of my previous posts. Holy cow, these are definitely a favorite of many physical therapists. They target the gluteus medius muscle (you also have the more well-known gluteus maximus and the other lesser-known gluteus minimus). The gluteus medius is important for providing stability at the pelvis. It acts to abduct (leg kicked out to the side) and internally rotate our thigh. It is crucial in maintaining single leg stance during running and walking. Have you ever seen those runners or walkers whose hips drop during activity? Significant hip dropping is usually a sign of a weak gluteus medius on the stance leg. A weak GM is unable to maintain a level pelvis.
Bridges (all varieties – especially 1 legged) – Hopefully by now, we have drummed it into your brain how important the gluteus medius is for our running. That being said, we also can’t neglect its larger counterpart, the gluteus maximus. Unless you run up hills and inclines regularly, all of our gluteals really are just along for the ride whenever we go for a run. This leads to what we affectionately call ‘dead butt syndrome’. Bridges are a great way to get your maximus in gear. They also get a lot of other muscle groups as well, including your core. There are so many ways you can change up bridges to fit your needs. I like to use single leg bridges to work on pelvic control and isolating each side. You can utilize stability balls and foam rollers to destabilize you a little bit and make your core work harder. The possibilities are endless!
Row (posture work) – We can’t neglect our upper body! I always say that if people worked on their glutes, core, and posture muscles, I would be out of a job! Those muscles between our shoulder blades are very neglected. Take a look around you. How often do you see people sitting around with their shoulders rounded forward, their backs rounded forward, and their chin jutted out? Are you one of these people? We need these to be stronger to hold ourselves upright during our daily activities and when we run. There is an entire series of posture exercises that we have patients work on, but rows are a great way to get some bang for your buck. I like using pulleys/cables or doing a bent over row with my patients, as I feel like they have the easiest time grasping these movements.
Deadlifts – Our hamstrings tend to take a backseat to that other large muscle group in front of our thighs. If you are like me (a former soccer player), you are probably a very quadriceps dominant runner! Weakness in the hamstrings and posterior chain can lead to strains throughout the hamstrings, especially with speedwork and other fast runs. Deadlifts are a great exercise for your backside. They work the hamstring muscles eccentrically. Eccentric strengthening is the strengthening of an active muscle while it is lengthening under a load. Single leg deadlifts are great because they isolate each side, you might notice one side is weaker than another. You might notice your muscles feel a little more sore after eccentric exercises! We are typically weaker when our muscles are stretched out longer, all the more reason to address these deficits!
Plank/Transverse abdominis contraction – Ahhh…. planks. We love them. We hate them. They hit so many core muscles, especially those neglected transverse abdominis muscles. The transverse abdominis is the deepest layer of your abdominals and provides stability to your spine and pelvis. We contract it with the “bellybutton into the spine” type movement that you may have heard about in Pilates. In fact, using this contraction throughout your day can be incredibly beneficial, not just during planks! You can do this while you run and lift. Getting back to the planks, they also are great to work on shoulder and scapular stability. I use them for my athletic (and active!) patients with shoulder injuries frequently!
Single leg Squats – Squats. Yes, they are on the list. A single leg squat tells me quite a bit about a patient’s lower body mechanics. I’m looking for excessive hip internal rotation and knee valgus (thigh rolling inward and knee caving inward). This is a sign of those weak glutes and poor pelvic control that can lead to those common overuse running injuries. Doing single leg squats is a great exercise to work on strengthening your quadriceps and gluteals. It is also a great one to do in front of a mirror to check out your mechanics. You want to make sure you keep your hips level and keep your knee in line with your toes!
Lunges – Ugh. Probably my least favorite exercises for some reason. It is usually because I am sore for 2-3 days after I do them, then I do not do them again for awhile. Then when I try them again, I am sore again for 2-3 days. It’s a vicious cycle. Seriously though, lunges work so many muscle groups. They target your gluteals, hamstrings, and quadriceps. As a bonus, you are also kicking in your calf muscles, abdominals, and back muscles to help stabilize your movement. I guess that’s reason enough to give them a shot! Again, you want to watch your form with these, making sure you do not let your leading leg and back leg cave in.
So these are just a few exercises that can help a runner create a fairly well-rounded strength program. There are also a few stretches that I would add to that program to address some often tight muscles in runners. Stretching for some reason has become a controversial topic. When do you do dynamic stretches and when do you do static stretching? How long should you hold them? In general, it is always best to do a dynamic warm-up before any static stretching when you are getting ready to run. If you are not going to be running, you can do your static stretches. Make sure you hold them for at least 20-30 seconds to allow for muscle tissue elongation. In no particular order:
Hip flexor stretch – There are several different ways to stretch your hip flexors. You can do a kneeling lunge stretch (see featured image!) or hang your leg off the side of your bed. Tight hip flexors can limit your stride, especially hip extension range of motion. This can cause people to hyperextend their backs and create back pain while running!
Hamstring stretch – Ugh. I envy people with flexible hamstrings. Who are those magical unicorns? A great and easy way to stretch these bad boys is to lay on your back, bring your leg up to about hip height, and then extend your lower leg as far as you are able. Don’t worry if you can’t get too far … you are in good company.
Calf stretch – The calf is actually comprised of 2 main muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Another muscle called your plantaris is is back here. It helps to plantarflex your ankle and flex your knee, like the gastrocnemius. Your soleus helps to plantarflex your ankle. These muscles are important for that push off or toe off during your running gait cycle. You want them to have a little bit of stiffness for this push-off, you don’t want totally floppy muscles down here. However, if these muscles are too tight, they can cause some of those dreaded plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendon pains. The soleus is stretched a little bit differently than the gastrocnemius. A standing wall stretch for the gastrocnemius looks like a lunge-type movement, whereas the soleus involves a little bit more of a squatting movement. The soleus does not cross the knee, so there is no need to keep the back leg straight. The soleus is often much more neglected than the gastroc. Do not be surprised if you feel it a little more!
Gluteals – How can a muscle that does not seem to do much on a regular run (remember that dead butt syndrome?) get so stinkin’ tight? Usually that culprit falls on work and other lifestyle factors, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting in one place! This is an area that always hurts so good when I stretch it out. There are multiple ways to stretch the glutes, whether it be sitting, standing, lying down, or in pigeon pose. Pigeon pose is one of my favorite yoga poses! Tight gluteals can cause issues with muscle tightness in hamstrings and the low back, so stretch that booty!
Iliotibial band/Tensor Fascia Latae – The ITB and TFL are constantly getting worked throughout the day, especially with activities that involve a lot of knee flexion (like running!). The ITB is actually a very thick piece of connective tissue that does not really have a lot of pliability. You can stretch it and roll it with the foam roller, but it isn’t going to really move much for you. What you should focus on is flexibility in the musculature that surround your ITB. These include your previously mentioned TFL, gluteals, lateral hamstrings, and medial quadriceps. So if you are experiencing that dreaded IT band syndrome, make sure you include these muscles in your stretching routine!
A great way to work on soft tissue mobilization is also to include that foam roller that you may love/loathe. You can get all of the above areas with your foam roller. The foam roller is actually a good way to warm up those tissues before a run, as well, as a form of dynamic tissue mobilization. So for those of you who really love your foam roller, you can use it before and/or after your run!
So there you are, a comprehensive list of many of the things we all could do a little better and help keep us off the injured reserve list! Let it be known, that every runner is not a “one strengthening/flexibility program fits all” type of thing. Never push through any exercises if they cause pain (not just the muscle soreness that comes from a good workout) or if you cannot complete them with good form. NEVER! If you do find yourself dealing with aches and pains that won’t go away, do not hesitate to visit a trusted medical professional or friendly neighborhood physical therapist.