Imagine that you have been feeling a twinge in your right hamstring muscles. It started with a bit of soreness when you first began running, but recently that muscle group has been taking longer and longer to ease up, and now you are feeling some pain in that area nearly all the time. You react by stretching your hamstrings and applying ice and heat to the affected area. Not a bad strategy, but the injury is not really getting any better. This may be because you are addressing the wrong problem.
The act of running requires the activation of a number of large and small muscles in ordered sequence. The part of the running motion that involves push-off and knee flexion is called the “toe-off, or pawing, phase.” Imagine a lion scraping at the ground with its paw; that’s you as you push against the ground to shove your body forward.
The major muscle groups involved in this motion are the hamstrings (comprising three on each side), which govern knee contraction, and the gluteus maximus muscles of your backside, which control hip extension. These are some of the most powerful muscles in your body, and for you to run properly, they must be fully engaged. The contraction of your hamstrings occurs quickly afterward as you follow though with your movement.
So let’s get back to your tweaky hamstring. Could it be that your gluteus maximus muscle is not powerful enough to do what you are asking of it while running? If that is the case, then the burden of work falls on your hamstrings. But your hamstrings are not strong enough to do all the work, and they eventually are overwhelmed by the effort and begin to break down quicker than they can recover. This could have been the cause of the pain and inflammation you are feeling on your right side.
Weakness in the gluteus maximus can be addressed with strength training; just running will not directly strengthen those muscles. Why? Because the gluteus maximus muscles are already failing to fire properly. Running more will not engage them any more effectively; that will only continue to stress the hamstring muscles, possibly leading to an even more serious injury, such as a rupture.
In sum, the complex motion of running requires balanced strength throughout the body—not just in the obvious running muscles such as the hamstrings and the glutes, which power forward motion, but also in a host of stabilizing muscles throughout the body.
Put another way, to improve as a runner, you need to run. But if all you do is run, you may not be running for long.
This workout introduces you to exercises that strengthen your gluteus medius, which directly increases your lateral stability while running. Strengthening this muscle ultimately results in less strain on your iliotibial bands, hips, and knees.
Adductor Leg Raises | 20-30 reps
Lie on your left side. Bend your right knee and point it at the ceiling while placing your right foot on the floor in front of your left knee. This gets your right leg out of the way so that your left leg can do the target exercise.
Keep your left knee extended and raise your left leg up as high as possible, and then lower it again. (Keep the foot of your moving leg rotated, with your heel pointed upward.) This constitutes 1 rep. Complete the target number of reps, then repeat on the other side.
Windshield Wipers | 10-20 reps
Lie faceup on your exercise mat, with your legs straight up in the air and your knees extended and locked. Place your arms outward, palms down. Keep your legs together and swing them down to your right side as far as you can comfortably let them fall. Aim to keep your shoulders flat on the mat. Swing your legs in one smooth motion over to your left side, then return to the right side. This constitutes 1 rep.
Hip Raises | 20-50 reps
Lie faceup on your exercise mat, with your knees bent, your legs together, and your feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips in the air until you have achieved a straight line from your knees to your upper body. Be sure to keep the raised leg in the same position throughout; only your hips should be rising up.
Leg Raises | 10-30 reps
Lie faceup on your exercise mat, with your hands wedged under your backside and your legs extended. Raise your legs off the floor until they are perpendicular to the ground, then slowly lower them again. If needed, reduce resistance by bending your knees, which will increase your leverage in moving your legs. This makes the exercise a bit easier to perform.
Supermans | 20-100 reps
Lie facedown on an exercise mat with your arms outstretched. Arch your body upward, raising your shoulders and your legs simultaneously, then lower back down. This constitutes 1 rep. Be sure to perform the reps quickly, as pulses rather than as slow movements.
Push-Ups | 10-100 reps
Lie facedown on an exercise mat, with your palms down on the mat slightly wider than your armpits. Raise your body up by extending your elbows. After reaching full extension, bend your elbows and lower down to an inch or two above the mat. This constitutes 1 full rep.
To offer additional challenge, divide your target number of reps by two, and perform half of them with one leg held an inch or two off the floor. Then immediately continue on to the remaining reps with the other leg upraised. This form engages your core more effectively as it struggles to maintain balance and also provides a good workout for your glutes, which will be working to hold the upraised leg off the floor.
Adapted from Quick Strength for Runners by Jeff Horowitz, with permission of VeloPress.