Runners need to be STRONG to be able to run efficiently, run pain-free, and to prevent injury. Studies have shown that each heel strike produces a force about 3-4 times your body weight. Think about how many steps you take during a run! That's a lot of force on your body and your joints. We need to train and strengthen your body to be able to withstand those loads and forces to keep you running injury-free!
Let's break down the job of some of the important muscles at work during running & discuss some examples of exercises that will help target those muscles.
The Flexor Hallucis Longus (FHL) is a muscle that helps to create the arch of the foot (medial longitudinal arch) and is important for helping to slow down the foot as it strikes the ground with each step. It also helps to propel you forward during push-off. The small muscles of the foot are often over-looked, but they are so important for runners. Give this FHL/Big Toe Flexion with Band Resistance exercise a try to improve the function of your big toe for more efficient running!
The Tibialis Posterior muscle is a deep muscle in your calf that runs across the bottom of the foot also and helps to control the arch. It is very effective at storing and returning energy for running and it is important when your foot is on the ground (midstance) as it helps to control and prevent excessive pronation. Try this Tibialis Posterior Heel Raise variation!
The gastrocnemius muscle of the calf crosses both the knee and the ankle and thus, during push off/propulsion, the gastrocnemius helps to drive the knee up and forward. Having a strong gastrocnemius muscle can actually help reduce strain on the hip flexors, which have a tendency to overwork and feel "tight" in many runners! The soleus muscle of the calf also demonstrates peak activity at propulsion to lift the heel while it also prevents forward motion of the leg. Both of these muscles also play a role during initial contact. Heel raises with knees straight bias the gastrocnemius, while heel raises with the knee bent bias the soleus muscle.
The hamstrings play a role in improving efficiency during the swing phase of gait (when your foot is in the air). The hamstrings isometrically tense just before your foot hits the ground. This allows you to store some of that energy that was used to swing the leg forward. Give this Foam Roller Bridge a try to get your hamstrings on fire!! The goal would be to work up to being able to hold a double leg foam roller bridge for 45 seconds. Then, progress to a single leg foam roller bridge. Start with just 10-15 seconds and progress up to 45 second holds each side gradually. Isometric contractions for the win & strong hamstrings!!
Glute max (the largest glute muscle) is very important during early stance phase to prevent the limb from rotating inwards too far. The glute max inserts into the iliotibial (IT) band and thus, it provides stability to both the hip and knee during the stance phase of running. Hip thrusts are a great way to train the glute max.
The adductor muscles as a group (inner thigh muscles) show peak activity during toe-off as they flex the hip forward as well as control rotation of the femur. The adductor magnus muscle fires almost constantly throughout the running cycle. One of my favorite way to incorporate adductor strengthening into workouts is through Copenhagen plank variations. Try this variation & feel your inner thighs and obliques working!
The glute med plays a role by smoothly lowering the opposite pelvis to the ground during slower speeds of running to help absorb shock. But, as speeds increase, the glute max plays a more important role in absorbing shock and providing stability. Hip airplanes are one of my favorite ways to work on controlling the pelvis on a stable femur (thigh bone).
These are just some examples of ways to train and strengthen these important muscles for running! If you are someone who is overly flexible, your body especially needs strength to control the excess range of motion you may have in your joints to prevent injury. Here's a quick test to evaluate your flexibility -- Bend your thumb backwards towards your wrist and measure the distance between your thumb and wrist. Excessive flexibility is present when your thumb can be positioned within 1 inch of the forearm. Thumb flexibility is a marker for whole body flexibility. So, if you find you are overly flexible, you would greatly benefit from a strengthening program if you don't already have one!
Let's touch on Returning to Running Post-Baby briefly in regards to strength training and running. When working with someone who is postpartum and wishes to return to running, I want to make sure we have gradually and progressively built up their strength program prior to hitting the pavement. I don't recommend jumping right back into running when you are 'cleared' for exercise at your 6-week check-up. Current research recommends waiting until at least 12-weeks postpartum to begin high impact exercise like running. I highly recommend seeking out guidance from a pelvic floor therapist (PT or OT) or prenatal/postpartum exercise specialist to take the guess work out of training and return to running!
Here is an example of what rehab might look like up to that point:
Week 0-2: Rest, Walking around the house, Diaphragmatic breathing, Pelvic floor muscle connection, Gentle mobility/activation exercises
Week 2-4: Short walks, Gentle pelvic floor/core rehab, Gentle mobility work, Introduce squats, lunges in line with daily activities (getting off the floor with baby, lifting baby)
Week 4-8: May begin low impact exercise and increase as tolerated, short walks 10-20 minutes daily as tolerated, progress core rehab to more challenging positions, continue functional strengthening, scar massage/mobilization can begin once fully healed
Week 8-12: Continue progressing core rehab (progress load and resistance as tolerated), Add load to functional movements, Progress to single leg exercises, Walking daily 20-30 minutes
We want to ensure you have rehabbed and strengthened your deep core system (diaphragm, transversus abdominis, and pelvic floor) as well as progressively strengthened your entire body. In terms of lower body strength, start with double leg exercises and progress to single leg exercises as running is basically a series of single leg hops. We also want to incorporate jumping and plyometric type activities to ensure your body is ready for return to running. When returning to running post-baby, monitor for heaviness/pressure in the pelvic/vaginal area, any leaking of urine or feces, any pelvic or low back pain, or any other symptoms that just don't feel right!
If you have more questions about strength training for runners or return to running post-baby -- Feel free to email me at email@example.com !