Today I was having a conversation about strength and stretching, stability and mobility for runners and I thought I’d bring it here to share with you. Please chime in and ask questions if you have any.
Strength is important in running but more important and often over looked is stability.
Stability is especially important to us runners because in our sport we spend quite a bit of time on one leg. In our running gait, we’re essentially hopping from one leg to another leg and if our foot, leg, hip or our core is unstable in that phase of our running gait (the one legged phase), it can put great strain on the surrounding muscles who are being recruited to pick up the slack.
Throughout our body, there are muscles that help keep us stable throughout a number of movements that include getting on or riding a bike, squatting down onto a chair, walking, running, and standing on one leg.
Strong stabilizers are especially important when we run on an uneven surface, for example, over a curb, on cobblestones, on an uneven trail, or on a mountain. I highly recommend running on all sorts of surfaces to get variety in your training and to train these stabilizer muscles. Running loops on a flat asphalt path or laps on a treadmill isn’t likely doing the trick.
The muscles that perform these actions and keep us stable while running are called stabilizers. When we train to improve our stability, we’re focusing on these muscles.
We can work our stabilizers by first creating an unstable surface for performing an exercise.
Doing an exercise on one leg or placing one leg on a stability cushion or bosu ball are examples of an unstable surface. Doing an exercise in our bare feet (as opposed to wearing shoes that stabilize our foot and sometimes ankle joints) causes our feet to be less stable, therefore recruiting and training important stabilizer muscles in the foot and lower leg.
When I do my own training, and when I work with runners 1:1 in strength sessions, I primarily focus on exercises that work one side of the body at a time or that focus on strengthening these important stabilizers.
For example: single leg dead lifts, single leg squats, step ups, hip hikes, clam shells, lateral walking squats with mini bands… Just to name a few.
The reason it’s important to focus on one side of the body at a time is because we often favor one side of our body in all of our movements. When we exercise both sides of our body at the same time (such as in standing squats), we might still be (and often are) favoring that one side, leaving the other side behind and causing a greater imbalance in our strength from one side to the other.
This can work for a lot of people as we don’t need perfectly balanced bodies to function, walk or run.
Over time, however, (and with repetition, such as in running) imbalances can lead to underuse, overuse, misuse or abuse of our muscles, also called “body blind spots.”
Instead of reinforcing these imbalances in traditional strength exercises, I highly recommend focusing on stability training in your exercises.
Get on one leg, exercise one side of the body at a time, and take off your shoes and let your feet and stabilizers work.
Get to know these two muscles: the piriformis and the tensor fasciae latae
Two frequently overused muscle in runners are the tensor fasciae latae (TFL) and the piriformis.
The piriformis attaches to the anterior side of your sacrum and to the greater trochanter (the top of your femur bone). It helps stabilize your SI (sacroiliac) and hip joint when you’re standing, walking, or running, and especially when we’re on one leg.
This is an important stabilizer for runners as we spend so much time on one leg at a time but is also helpful with everyday activities, such as getting on and off a bike.
THE TENSOR FASCIAE LATAE (TFL)
The TFL attaches to the anterior, lateral portion of your pelvic bone (the iliac crest and the anterior superior iliac spine, a.k.a. ASIS — the bony front part of your hip). From there it connects to the iliotibial band (the IT band or ITB), which then runs down the outside of your leg, next to the outside of your knee and connects to the top of your tibia bone, just below the knee.
When other stabilizer muscles in our hip are underused, overused, or misused, these small muscles tend to pick up the slack.
If our piriformis or TFL pick up the slack for other important hip stabilizers, we can quickly overuse and irritate these muscles leading to a number of problems. Piriformis syndrome, sciatica, lower back pain, ITB problems or knee pain, for example.
To remedy or reduce the risk of this, I strongly training your hip, leg and foot stabilizers.
Another important muscle to know: the gluteus medius
This muscle attaches to the lateral side of your pelvic bone (the top back side) and the top of the femur bone, the greater trochanter. It sits underneath the gluteus maximus, the largest butt muscle.
The gluteus medius muscle is an important hip stabilizer and is often underworked. It is also a common cause of various running injuries. For those of you who sit at a desk or stay seated for several hours a day, it’s likely that this muscle is under activated and underused.
Strengthening this muscle can help relieve an overworked TFL, the muscle that picks up the slack for other weaker, underused muscles and provide much more stability for your hips while running, walking, and in other activities.
Exercises to stabilize your hips and strengthen your gluteus medius
Here are three exercises that I’d recommend, taken from the recent Yoga Tune Up teacher certification that I did:
The exercises train our hip stabilizers, focusing on one side of the body at a time and can be done at home, after a run. I’d recommend doing these on any run day and preferably every run day, aiming for 2 to 4 times a week.
These should only take a few minutes to complete and are easy to do with minimal equipment.
Did you find this helpful? Got questions or comments? Would you like to know more? Let me know in the comments below or in our House of Running Community Facebook group. I’d be happy to share more if you’re interested.