When looking at strength conditioning for runners, there are 4 key strength aspects which should be trained.
- Pelvic Stabilisation
- Plyometric Power
In this article, I am going to explore large muscle strength. This is quite a popular topic and is what most people associate with strength training for runners.
The five large muscle groups that are used by your body in the running stride phases are the Abdominals, Glutes, Hamstrings, Quadriceps and Calves. In this article, I’ll focus more on the Glutes, Hamstrings, Quadriceps and Calves.
Why do we need to strengthen these muscle groups as a runner?
The aim of strengthening the body is always two-fold:
- To minimise the risk of injury
- To enhance the athlete’s performance
Let’s investigate the large muscle groups and the impact of strength in a bit more detail.
In addition to having a role in pelvic stabilisation and core strength, Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus also play a large role in how alignment of the knee is controlled, because the standing leg takes our body weight during the running stride phases. If the Glutes do not engage properly, this could very possibly lead to tight hamstrings and excess stress on the lower back, poor pelvic posture, knee injuries and shin pain.
The Quadriceps are one of the largest and strongest group of muscles in the body and are located on the front of your thighs. The Quadriceps are made up of four muscles, namely Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, Vastus Lateralis, and Rectus Femoris. Both strength and flexibility in the Quadriceps is important for runners.
The Quadriceps extend the knee and propel the runner forward, so excessive tightness in the Quadriceps can cause postural problems and muscle imbalances which can affect the knees, hips, pelvis and lower back. Weak Quadriceps can lead to inadequate stabilisation of the knee joint in the running stride and result in the condition known as “Runners Knee”. It is the role of the Quadriceps to work against gravity and stabilise the knee (even more so when you are running downhill) and act as shock absorbers to protect your knees and hips.
The Hamstrings group of muscles make up the muscles of the back of the thigh and is comprised of three muscles, namely Biceps Femoris, Semitendinosis and Semimembranosis. As with the Quadriceps, the Hamstrings need to be both strong and flexible. It is the role of the hamstrings to effectively support hip extension and knee flexion in the running stride.
When the Hamstrings are too tight, they may pull on the hip bone causing a slight rotation, which can affect the natural curvature of the back and cause pain and tightness in the lower back. Weakness in the Hamstrings can contribute to knee pain and increase the possibility of a Hamstring strain.
It should be noted that the Quadriceps and the Hamstrings support each other’s function and movement in the running stride and strengthening and balancing both muscle groups are therefore equally important to runners.
Calves, Tibialis Anterior and Peroneus Longus
The Calves are made up of two main muscles, namely the Soleus and Gastrocnemius. The role of these two muscles is to extend and flex each foot as you land and push off. These muscles also help to absorb impact and provide rebound energy for your stride. Tough connective tissue at the bottom of the calf muscle merges with the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon inserts into the heel bone (calcaneus). Weak Calves can result in a number of injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis, compartment syndrome, calf sprains, strains or tears and stress fractures in the foot or lower leg.
While talking about the Calves, I also want to mention the Tibialis Anterior muscle, which runs down the shin in front of the Tibia bone and supports the function of the Calves. Pain along the path of this muscle is often referred to as “shin splints.” The role of the Tibialis Anterior is dorsiflexion of the foot, which is important for correct foot strike and contributes to injury prevention. Dorsiflexion as you run puts your foot in an ideal position to absorb the shock of the landing and tenses your muscles to rebound forward into the next stride. Poor dorsiflexion may result in striking the ground through the toes, resulting in poor force distribution that contributes to injuries such as shin splints and runner’s knee.
Another muscle that needs to be mentioned here is the Peroneus Longus muscle, which is located on the outer side of the calf area. The role of the Peroneus muscle is to evert (pronate) the foot and this is predominantly active during the stance phase of the running stride. This pronation action ensures the big toe is positioned correctly to push off in the stride phase. This muscle also plantar flexes the foot at the beginning of the push-off during the running stride phase, together with the Soleus and Gastrocnemius. The two peroneal tendons in the foot run side by side behind the outer ankle bone. One peroneal tendon attaches to the outer part of the midfoot, while the other tendon runs under the foot and attaches near the inside of the arch. The main function of the peroneal tendons is to stabilise the foot and ankle. Weak Peroneus Longus and Peroneus Brevis muscles can result in injuries to the peroneal tendons and injuries related to foot over-supination.
The following diagram shows the large muscle groups that are used in the running stride phases:
- Gluteus Maximum
- Gluteus Medius
- Gluteus Minimus
- Vastus Medialis,
- Vastus Intermedius,
- Vastus Lateralis,
- Rectus Femoris
- Biceps Femoris,
- Semitendinosis and
- Tibialis Anterior
- Peroneus Longus
The following three exercises target the required large muscle groups to strengthen the athlete for running. These exercises can both be performed without weights as functional body-weight exercises, or for those who require more resistance, with added weights.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Muscles used: Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves
Step 1: Find yourself a step, bench or any surface that you can rest your foot on, that is about knee height for you. Move into a forward lunge position with your torso upright, core engaged and hips square to your body, with your back foot lifted onto the bench. Your leading leg should be half a metre or so in front of bench (this should be a comfortable step length for you, not too long or too short).
Step 2: Lower your torso until your leading leg is bent 90 degrees at the knee, keeping your knee in line with your foot. (Try not to let your knee move forward beyond your toes).
Step 3: Push up through your front heel back to the starting position, again keeping your movements measured. This is one full rep of the exercise.
Muscles used: Back, Glutes, Hamstrings
Step 1: Stand straight with feet hip-distance apart. Use the bar of a barbell (or a broomstick) to place over your shoulders and hold.
Step 2: Hinge forward from your hips. Push hips back, knees slightly bent. Lower torso until your spine is almost parallel to floor, maintaining a slight arch in your lower back. (Be careful not to hunch your upper back)
Step 3: Keeping your core engaged, lift your torso to return to the starting position. This is one full rep of the exercise.
Plie Squat and Calf Raise
Muscles used: Quads, Calves, Glutes, Hamstrings
Step 1: Stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out, and hands on your hips. Bend your knees and lower your body into a squat. (You may wish to add a weight. If so, hold it in the middle of your body with arms hanging down.)
Step 2: Hold the squat position and lift your heels up off the floor, then push straight upwards until your legs are straight and your feet are plantar flexed.
Step 3: With the feet flexed, return to squat position and only drop your heels back to the ground when you are back in the squat position. This is one full rep of the exercise.
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Elsabe is a strength coach at Fit.STRONG Coaching. She is a fully qualified, REPSSA registered Personal Trainer who believes that age is irrelevant and fitness is for everyone. She specialises in sports specific training and conditioning, weight loss, rehabilitative exercise and functional fitness. Read more about Elsabe here