The very act of running produces “relative muscle imbalances” in every runner. The more we run, the more certain muscles in the body become stronger and inflexible, and at the same time others become relatively weaker. This necessitates certain stretching and strengthening exercises for the runner to restore balance to the body.
This is how it works
When running we push off the ground (using the calf and quadriceps muscles), bend our knee (hamstrings), propel ourselves forward (buttocks and quadriceps), while maintaining an upright posture (back muscles). All this tends to strengthen and shorten the back half of our body and front of the thigh, leaving a relatively weak front half of the body, i.e. the front of the lower leg, as well as the stomach muscles. In addition, the knee is never fully straightened while running and so the muscles that are responsible for locking the knee straight are not fully strengthened.
Which muscles need to be stretched and which need to be strengthened?
Although in some way we really use all the muscles in the body while running and should therefore make sure that we put all the muscle groups through a full range of movement each day, we runners should concentrate on stretching the calf (gastrocnemius, soleus), thigh (quadriceps, hamstrings), groin (abductors), buttocks (gluteals), outside of knee, thigh (Iliotibial band) and back.
1. The Calf Stretch
Use a wall or tree for support and lean on it with your forearms, your head resting on your hands. One leg is bent, the other straight behind you. The heel is flat on the ground, the toes pointing forward. Slowly move your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the calf of the straight leg. (This can also be done with both legs simultaneously).
2. Additional Calf Stretch
From the above position, simply bend your knee while still keeping the heel on the ground. You should now feel the pull lower down in the calf.
3. Hamstring Stretch
Sitting with one leg bent and the other straight, lean forward (keeping the back as straight as possible), thus stretching the hamstrings of the straightened leg. (This can also be done with both legs straight).
4. Additional Hamstring Stretch
The above position can be maintained while gently drawing the ankle of the outstretched leg towards the forehead while you sit upright.
5. Quadriceps Stretch
Sitting with one leg straight and the other in the hurdle position, slowly lean back to stretch the quadriceps. Make sure that your back is fully supported with your hands and arms.
6. Groin Stretch
Sit with the soles of the feet facing each other. Tuck the feet in well and keeping a straight back, grasp the feet with your hands. Stretch the groin by pushing the knees outwards towards the ground.
7. Buttocks Stretch
While sitting, pull your leg up towards your chest with both hands. The stretch is felt in the buttocks.
8. Iliotibial Band Stretch
Sit with the right leg straight and the left placed flat on the ground on the outside of the right knee. The left hand resting on the ground. Your right elbow rests on the outside of the left leg. Now turn your head to look over your left shoulder, your upper body (but not hips) following. Gently push your right elbow against your bent leg to stretch the Iliotibial band.
There are three muscle groups that need to be strengthened. They are the shins (tibialis anterior), the stomach muscles (abdominals) and the quadriceps (thigh).
1. Shin strengthening exercises
The best one is a weighted shin lift – Sit on a table with your thighs supported. Attach a weight to your foot. Bend your foot up, and then lower it slowly.
2. Stomach strengthening exercises
Exercise 1: Partial sit-up (straight abdominals)
Lie on your back with both knees bent. Do a pelvic tilt to flatten the “hollow” of the small of the back.
Holding the tilt, reach with straight arms, slightly past the top of your knees, slowly “curling” your back and lifting your head and shoulders off the floor.
Hold this position for a few seconds and then slowly relax, “uncurling” your spine until you’re in the starting position.
Remember to maintain the pelvic tilt until your head reaches the floor and then relax your tilt.
Exercise 2: Oblique sit-up (oblique abdominals)
This exercise is identical to the previous one except that both arms are directed past the outside of one leg.
For example, with the left leg, the torso twists to the left and works the left oblique abdominals.
The exercise is then repeated past the outside of the right knee.
3. Quadriceps strengthening exercises
There are 7 exercises, divided up into two groups, non weight bearing and weight bearing:
Non weight bearing
Exercise 1. Bilateral Static Quads
Sit on a flat, firm surface. Bend both feet up and tighten the muscles on the front of the thighs, pushing the back of the knees into the underlying surface. Try to lift the heels off the surface. Hold for 5 seconds, and relax.
Exercise 2. Straight Leg Raise
Bend one foot up, tighten the thigh, keep the knee straight and lift the leg up. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat with the foot pointing outwards, then inwards.
Exercise 3. Knee extension over a pillow
Place a rolled pillow under your knee. Bend one foot up, push the back of your knee into the pillow and straighten your knee, lifting your heel off the ground. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat with the foot pointing outwards, then inwards.
Exercise 4. Full knee extension
Sitting over the side of the bed with feet just off the floor. Bend one foot up, tighten the thigh, and straighten the knee. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat with the foot pointing outwards, then inwards.
Exercise 5. Bilateral Wall Squats
Stand leaning against a wall with feet apart and slightly away from the wall. Tighten the thighs, and slowly slide down the wall to a comfortable position. Hold for 5 seconds, and return to starting position.
Exercise 6. Single Leg Squat
Stand on one leg, with the foot pointing slightly outwards. The raised leg is kept slightly in front of the other, with the knee straight. Bending the leg you are standing on, lower yourself to a comfortable level. Hold for 5 seconds and return to starting position. This exercise is best done in front of a mirror.
Exercise 7. Single Leg Lunge
Stand with one leg forward (knee bent), the other leg behind (knee straight). Lunge onto the front foot by slowly shifting you weight forwards, keeping the knee bent over.
Gary is a physiotherapist based in Linksfield West in Johannesburg. He has a special interest in treating sports injuries, running injuries and orthopaedics. He has also assisted a number of top Comrades and Iron Man athletes with treatment. Read more about Gary Sobel here.