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4 Muscles That Runners Should Strengthen; The Best Exercises To Do It

Posted by Simon Bowman on January 22, 2021

Runners need to have strong muscles, easy to say but definitely a goal to achieve. And one of the many reasons to do this is to prevent cramps and injuries, may it be minor or major.

Just like any other physical activity, running also involves coordination among a group of muscles to propel you forward. Certain muscles play more important roles than others when you are running, and most of them you might not even expect to be part of those that should be strengthened the most.

For this blog post, we will highlight the 4 muscles that play the biggest roles in runners, and even those who are in sports that involve great leg performance.

1. Glutes

The butt muscles initiates hip extension, which is the essence of running.

Running engages a group of muscles called the posterior chain. The driver of the posterior chain is the gluteus maximus, also known as your butt muscle. This initiates hip extension, which is the essence of running.

3 Best Gluteus Maximus Exercises

2-Leg Bridge: Lie on your back with your hips flexed. Your feet should line up with your shoulders.  Execute the bridge by lifting your hips away from the floor.  Hold for 2 seconds before you can return to your starting position in a controlled and slow manner.

Cook Hip Lift: Lie on your back, hips flexed, and make sure that your feet are lined-up with your shoulders. By holding one knee right next to your chest, flex your hip. Lift also your toes away from the floor and then execute a bridge from one leg. 

Prone Plank with Hip Extension: With your face down, do a plank position, while making sure that your hips, trunk, and knees are all in a neutral alignment.  Lift one leg, while your knee is bent.  Slightly extend your hip past neutral through bringing your heel to the ceiling.  Hold the position for at least 2 seconds. Try to steady the plank position all throughout the repetitions on one side. 

2. Deep Abdominals

The abdominals wraps around and stabilizes the core.

Effective running requires amazing posture, and a prime muscle responsible for maintaining good posture is the transversus abdominus, or your deep abdominals. This muscle wraps around and stabilizes the core like a corset. The deep abdominals give stability so that your chain muscles can work effectively while you walk or run. This prevents the forces that are created by the posterior chain from reverberating through the joints up to your spine.

2 Best Exercises for Deep Abdominals

Dead Bug: Lie faceup with your arms extended toward the ceiling and your legs in a tabletop position, meaning your knees should be bent 90 degrees and should be stacked over your hips. This should be your starting position. Slowly extend your right leg out straight, while you drop your left arm overhead parallel to the floor simultaneously. Keep both a few inches off the ground. Then squeeze your butt and keep your core engaged the whole time with your lower back pressed firmly into the floor. Slowly bring your arm and leg back to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. 

Forearm Plank: The Forearm Plank is a great way to learn to properly engage your core, especially if you are more into shorter and intense holds. Place your forearms on the floor with the elbows directly underneath your shoulders and hands facing forward so that your arms are parallel. Slowly extend your legs behind you with feet hip-width apart. Then tuck your tailbone and engage your core, your butt, and your quads and hold it there for a set amount of time. 

3. Big Toe

The big toe muscle works to stabilize your foot during each foot landing.

Your big toe plays a very important role in walking and running. The big toe muscle, also called flexor hallucis brevis, bends the part and it works to stabilize your foot during each foot plant. Shoes with a narrow and elevated toe box place the big toe in a hyperextended position and it prevents the toes from spreading while you run, it can cause imbalances that can lead to injuries like shin splints.

3 Best Exercises for Big Toes

Toe raise, point, and curl: The toe raise, point, and curl exercise has three stages and can help you strengthen all parts of the toes and feet. First you need to sit up straight in a chair, with your feet flat on the floor. Keep your toes on the floor and raise your heels. Stop when only the balls of your feet remain on the ground. Hold this position for 5 seconds before lowering the heels.  For the second stage, slowly raise the heel and point the toes so that only the tips of the big and second toes are touching the floor and hold it for five seconds before lowering. For the third stage, raise the heel and curl your toes inward so that only the tips of your toes are touching the floor. Hold this position for at least five seconds. Build this flexibility and mobility by repeating each stage at least 10 times. 

Big toe stretch: The Big toe stretch can help you keep a wide range of motion as it is very important for your big toe. This exercise has three stages, and it was made to stretch and relieve pain in toes that have been squished in shoes the whole day. Sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Bring your left foot to rest on the right thigh and using the fingers, gently stretch the big toe up, stretch it down and to the side. Remain in this position for at least 5 seconds. Repeat this movement for at least 10 times before you switch to your other foot. 

Toe splay: The toe splay was created to improve control over your toe muscles. It can be done on both feet at once, or on alternate feet, depending on your comfort. First, sit in a straight-backed chair with your feet gently resting on the floor. Spread your toes apart slowly as far as possible without straining it and hold the position for at least 5 seconds. Repeat this motion 10 times. Once some of the strength has been built up, try looping a rubber band around your toes. This will then provide resistance and make the exercise more challenging. 

4. Hips

Strong and stable hips also help to make a runner run faster.

Strong and stable hips will help reduce adverse loads on your body and lower limbs, and this will reduce your risk of suffering from an injury. Moreover, strong and stable hips also help to make a runner run faster. Each hip movement can be targeted and made stronger by the runner completing specific running strength exercise.

3 Best Exercises for Hips

Side Plank With Knee Drive: The Side Plank with Knee Drive is a dynamic action of the moving leg, adding an even greater challenge to the bottom glute working to isometrically hold your body weight in a solid position. You need to start in a side plank with your left elbow under your shoulder, your legs extended and your hips, knees, and ankles all stacked. Engage your core, tuck your butt, and make sure that your lower back is flat. Then slowly drive your right knee up toward your chest and pause for a second, then slowly extend the leg back out to the starting position. Do this for 5 to 8 reps on each leg. 

Step Up to Reverse Lunge: The Step Up to Reverse Lunge is a compound combination move. It is a term that involves stacking together two multi-joint exercises and combining them into one movement. Stand facing a box, step, bench, or a chair. Step onto the box with your right foot and drive through your right heel and glue in order to bring your left leg up to meet the right one. Let your left foot hover and keep most of the weight in your right foot.  Slowly step back down with your left foot and then step your right foot back about two feet behind the left and then lower into a reverse lunge. Push through your left too to stand back up and move right into the next step-up. Do this for 12 to 15 reps on each of your leg. 

Bulgarian Split Squat: The Bulgarian Split Squat is also a great exercise for your hips. Stand with your back to a bench or similar elevated surface. With your left foot on the floor just a few feet in front of the bench, slowly place the top of your right foot on the bench with the shoelaces down. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.  Brace your core and bend your knees to lower down into a split squat. Your left knee should form a 90-degree angle so that your thigh is parallel to the ground and your right knee is hovering above the floor. While driving through your left heel, stand back up to a starting position. Do this for 12 to 15 more times on each leg. 

Running is a great form of exercise, and it can be done for both general health reasons and as a sport. Remember to warm up and do exercises to strengthen your muscles and prevent injuries.

Disclaimer: Always contact a physiotherapist for which exercises are best for you to do. These exercises can either benefit you or trigger further symptoms of underlying conditions when a physiotherapist is not consulted.

If you are a runner and need clarity with all these matters, or need help with training, you can reach out to me and we’ll talk about how we can best plan your training.

Simon Bowman | Lead Sports Physio & Practice Owner

Other related articles:

  1. 5 Things Every Runner Should Remember
  2. 5 Most Common Running Injuries You Should Know
  3. Quad Strain: What To Do If You Experience The Injury?

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