It is no doubt that runners need strong legs and glutes to power up hills, run roads and stay injury free. But how important are our glutes really!?
Through getting injured and seeking out treatment I have learned a lot about running and our muscles. After spraining my knee and then learning to run wrong without getting proper treatment for the sprain I developed a lot of problems. First, my sprained knee once it had held developed scar tissue which prevented me from fulling straightening my leg. My hamstrings kicked in to compensate and my pelvis started to lean to the right to compensate for the “shorter” leg. Thanks to the pelvic tilt I developed mild scoliosis (unnatural curvature of the spine) and a pelvic lock. I ended up with lower back pain as well…sounds fun right!? All thanks to this and proper physiotherapy and form analysis I have learned a lot! The most important thing is how important our glute muscles are! I never really thought I had weak or under developed glute muscles, but turns out I do!! Here is why our butts are so important:
The gluteus maximus (your butt!) is the strongest and biggest muscle of the body. The gluteus maximus creates extension at the hip and also plays an important role in pelvic and spinal stabilization. The gluteal muscles consist of three muscles, the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, all these muscles stabilize the hip by counteracting gravity’s hip adduction torque, maintaining proper leg alignment by controlling adduction and internaly rotatating the thigh. During activites like running, our glutes play a huge role in stabilzing our trunk against flexion.
The gluteus maximus allows us to maintain an upright position, stabilizes the trunk while standing and counteracts the high impact forces that can flex the trunk anteriorly during running. As a result of a life-style laden with chair sitting (ie office jobs) our glute muscles sadly loose tone and function. The less active we are, the weaker our glutes get which causes inhibition and delayed activation of the gluteal muscles. Gluteal inhibition negatively affects performance and lower body strength and is a root cause for many injuries and chronic pain, which is exactly what I found out. Low back pain and lower body injuries result in delayed and reduced glute activation which forces compensation of the hamstrings, quads and lower back.
What can happen as a result of this delayed activation of the gluteal muscles is your other muscles start to compensate, like previously mentioned. Many athletes do not actually know how to activate their glutes and compensation becomes engraved. When I had my form analyzed it was found that instead of engaging my glute at the beginning of the stride which is what we are supposed to do, I was using my quad so my glutes were not engaging at all. Because of this and the pelvic lock my left leg was turning in and my knees were nearly touching. When I started running properly, I found it so awkward at first, but by engaging the glute, you are able to run more effectively. I highly recommend analyzing your form. Get on a tredmill or a flat place to run and have your friend video you running beside you and behind you. Then have a look at how you run. Your glute muscles should engage at the top of the stride, lifting your leg up. Your leg should stay pointed ahead of you and should not bend in or out. On the extension of the stride your leg should straighten nearly all the way. Analyze whether you are a heel stricker or a toe stricker. When you land, you should be landing on the front of your foot instead of the ball of your foot to prevent your knee from locking up when you strick which causes a lot of impact to the knee joint. If you think you have an injury, take this video to your physiotherapist and he can better diagnose your injury. (I recommend going to a sports doctor)
Here is a list of injuries that weak or inactive glute muscles may contribute to:
1.Hamstring strains: Due to delayed gluteus maximus activity, the hamstring muscles become dominant during hip extension, which can cause hamstring strains.
2.Low back pain: Gluteus maximus activation plays an important role in stabilizing the pelvis during lifting. Delayed gluteus maximus activation also causes excessive compensation of the back extensors.
3.Anterior knee pain: The excessive internal rotation of the femur(my problem) as a result of glute weakness increases the pressure on the cartilage in the knee joint.
4. Frequent ankle sprains
How can we strengthen our glutes? There are different exercises to target each of the three muscles that make up the glutes seperately. The best way to engage the glute is to do one legged exercises where gravity is invloved. By forcing your leg to balance, your glute will engage better since it has to work to stabilze you more.
Here are some of my favourite ways to strengthen our behinds:
1. Hill or stair repeats.
For stairs, imagine your legs are a sewing machine, you want to bring up your leg as much as you can to engage all of the glute. Keep the movements quick and the extension of the leg short. Try 5 sets of stairs up and down.
For hill repeats, pick a hill that is a manageable distance for your to effectively run up with good form and posture. Your gait will change to shorter strides to climb up the hill, use your arms to propel you forward and really imagines those gluten contracting.
2. Donkey kicks and fire hydrants
These two exercise low impact on your joints and really target the glutes. Make sure your hips and and knees are aligned as well as your wrists and shoulders. You start both these moves in a stable table top position.
There are so many variations of squats but this move is really the most basic and easiest way to target those glutes!! Just make sure that your knees aren’t tracking over your toes and you are lowering down with a straight torso!