Running breeds weaknesses. Or, rather, if our body had its way with things it would be more than happy to let our stronger muscles pick up the slack of the weaker ones. The human body is a master cheater, relying on what’s already strong because it takes more work to change and improve what is not. Same thing in training, right? Not so easy to keep getting faster!
However, allowing this cheating to occur will always come back to bite you in the—potentially weaker—gluteus maximus. Imbalances lead to over-compensation, and at a certain point the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones being forced to work double time will reach their breaking points, i.e., injury. Further, if you come back from that injury without still not having addressed those imbalances you’ll only wind up hurt again, and thus stuck in a vicious cycle.
The Big Four
While each runner’s body is unique, four of the most common weak areas are, in no particular order, the hips, glutes, hamstrings and ankles. It’s not a coincidence that these areas are all near joints; these regions have a myriad of muscle and tendon insertion points. There are also smaller, intrinsic muscles in these areas that are weak, and the constant stress of a mobile joints eventually lead to issues. Let’s take a closer look at each of these problem areas, as well as exercises for straightening them out, over the following pages.
Problem Area: The Hips
“Weak adductors and abductors affect the whole body!” explains Brad Hudson, coach and founder of Hudson Training Systems. “By having these strong it affects proper running alignment…you can get overuse injuries all over when these are weak or not firing correctly.”
Exercises For Improving Hip Strength And Mobility
- Clams: Lie on your right side, legs stacked, with knees slightly bent; lift your left leg up to 60-degrees and lower. Do a set of ten for both sides.
- Adductor leg circles: Lie on your left side, hips stacked with heels together but toes pointed in a V; this opens your hips up. Lift your left leg up, keeping both feet held in the half-V shape, and slowly draw a circle in the air with your toes. Do 10 circles clock-wise and 10 counter-clockwise. Repeat with right side.
- Abductor leg raises: Lie on your right side with your legs slightly apart so that you may lift your right leg straight up. Start with a set of 10, building up to three, for both legs.
Problem Area: The Glutes
“We have a doctor at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine that does a strength evaluation. We strengthen the glutes with planks and whole body exercises that work [on] firing things together,” explains Hudson. “We also use a circuit that works on a lot of whole body things…[like] planks and burpees or squat thrusts and step-ups with pause for balance.”
Exercises for Improving Glute Strength
- Planks with leg raises: Hold plank, lift your left leg for a set of 10 and then your right leg.
- Back bridge: Lie on your back, knees bent and feet placed on the floor in front of your bum. Squeezing your glutes, lift off the ground aiming to keep your torso in align and lift until only your shoulder-blades are resting on the ground. Lower and repeat for sets of 10-15.
- Step-up: Step up onto a box or stair planting your left foot and drive your right knee forward; pause when left leg is fully extended and then lower and repeat for sets of 10 for each leg.
Problem Area: The Hamstrings
The hamstrings work in a team with your glutes and quads for each stride; this interconnection is a prime example of what happens when weaknesses are present. “[I] have seen a lot of injuries where the glutes don’t fire so [there are] calf and ankle problems,” says Hudson, “but for sure hamstring and a lot of hamstring problems come from back or lower back things.”
- Balance ball pulls: With your back on the floor and arms rested at your side, extend your legs in front and place your ankles atop a balance ball. Lift your bum off the ground as you did with the bridge then pull your knees toward your chest and roll the ball towards your glutes. Roll back out and repeat for sets of 10-15.
Problem Area: The Ankles
Your ankles are quite delicate in design yet they are put in some of the most potentially dangerous situations. Ankle injuries are both highly common and can be some of the trickiest to fully get past. What’s worse is they can arise from simple bad luck; a loose rock on a gnarly trail could end your season.
The best way to reduce your risk of ankle injuries is to strengthen the immediate ankle area as well as the surrounding muscles. By doing so, even if you do step wrong or roll your ankle awkwardly, it won’t come as much of a shock and could be the difference between a bad strain that lingers for weeks or something that is fine with a little post-run ice job.
- Bosu balance: Balance on your right foot atop a Bosu ball or small pillow. Hold there for one minute; you can increase the time spent up to multiple minutes. As you improve, try staying on that right foot and reaching down to touch the ground with your left arm, going across your body. Repeat with left foot.
- Calf strength: Strengthening your calf muscles also safeguards your ankles; do a three-way calf raise cycle: place your toes facing forward on the edge of a step for a set of 10 raises, the second 10 raises point your toes inward, finally, for the third 10 point your toes away from each other.
A balanced body is a better body. Seek out those cheaters and make them work to get stronger.
Originally published on September 26, 2012; updated on August 7, 2018.