Picture a strong runner racing toward the finish line of a race. Her arms are pumping front to back, her knees are driving and she’s probably leaning slightly into her stride as she fires off the ground with each step. At first glance, her power and forward progression look to be coming from the force with which she pushes off the ground. Her foot strikes the ground, her calves flex and she fires up and forward.
If you were to look at that runner in slow motion, however, you may notice that the real power comes from farther up the kinetic chain at the hamstrings, hips and glutes. Those are the muscles that are truly essential for running strength and efficiency. This may come as no surprise when you consider the fact that the gluteus medius, minimus and maximus make up the largest muscle group in the body. Those, along with the surrounding hip and hamstring muscles, make for a real powerhouse when it comes to running.
When any or all of those muscles lack strength, other areas compensate, which can lead to injuries. Research has shown that everything from shin splints and IT band syndrome to runner’s knee can be traced back to deficiencies in the hips and glutes. Studies have demonstrated that there’s a decent chance that many lower-leg overuse injuries in runners are a result of weaknesses in these higher-up areas. So whether you hope to thwart injury or you’re simply looking to score a big PR, focus on strengthening these powerful muscles; it’s well worth your time.
To get you started, try working in this short strengthening routine 2–3 times per week. Complete 10–15 reps of each exercise for 2–3 total sets.
Get on the ground on all fours with your hands and knees shoulder-width apart. Lift your right knee off the ground as you kick your foot upward so your thigh is in line with your back and the bottom of your foot is facing skyward. You should feel your core, especially your glutes, engaging during this motion. Bring your leg back down, repeat and switch legs.
Lie on your back on the ground with your arms at your sides, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift your backside off the ground until you form a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Push your heels into the ground, and feel your glutes stabilizing your body. Hold for two seconds, lower your body back down and repeat.
Side Leg Lifts
Lie on your right side with your legs straight and stacked on top of each other. You can rest your head on top of your right arm, and put your left hand on your hip or on the ground to help balance your body. Lift the top leg straight up as far as is comfortable, then lower back down. Repeat and switch sides.
Stand with your arms extended in front of your body and your feet a little wider than shoulder width with your toes angled somewhat outward. Lower your backside down toward the ground as if you were going to sit. Lower until your quads are parallel with the ground, then stand back up and repeat.
Lie on your right side with your knees bent on top of each other and your right arm under your head to support it. Keeping your feet together, open the clamshell by lifting your top knee up. While your hips will rotate during this exercise, your pelvis and core should remain stable. Close the clamshell, repeat and switch sides.
Single Leg Squats
Stand with your arms extended in front of your body and your feet a little wider than shoulder width. Pick your right foot up off the ground, and extend that leg straight out in front of your body. Squat down as far as you can while balancing on the left leg, keeping that knee and foot aligned. Bring your body back up, repeat and switch legs.