by Lealah Fremuth, DPT
Running has become an increasingly popular form of exercise over the past several decades. In the United States alone, almost 60 million people currently participate in running, jogging and trail running. And it may come as no surprise that virtual racing is one of the fastest-growing trends in the running world. Most recently, there has been an upsurge in people taking up jogging and running, especially while most gyms remain closed. It is not uncommon for beginners to experience pain or injury when starting, and even the most seasoned runner has occasional flare-ups in their regiments. Why does this happen and what can you do proactively to avoid injuries?
Ultimately, injury prevention for runners comes down to building strength and stability. Without proper control and muscular support, overuse and injury can occur. Running requires the execution of a complex series of physical and mechanical actions to maintain pace and stride. To start, there is a tremendous amount of force distributed throughout the body with each runner’s stride. When loading each leg, your body experiences load of up to seven times your body weight! You can see why it is important to build a strong lower body, a stable core, and controlled movement patterns to effectively manage that force as you run.
Power is primarily generated through hip extension when running, i.e., utilizing your glutes to push your body forward. Many lack sufficient range of motion and strength to achieve the optimal push from behind to propel themselves forward. Some are unable to use their core adequately to control their pelvic position during the push-off phase of their strides. There are three exercises that address all these concerns and together, they can improve your overall running efficiency.
1. Single leg bridge. Lie on your back with one foot on the ground, knee bent; the opposite leg can be crossed over the bent knee or suspended in the air. Next, use the muscles in your buttock to push your hips off the floor and up towards the ceiling. You do not need to lift very high to get the benefit of this exercise! Make sure you feel fatigue in your buttock, and don’t lift so high that you experience discomfort in your low back. It is important that your pelvis remains level, so avoid letting your hips dip or your trunk rotate.
2. Donkey kicks. Start on your hands and knees. Draw your belly button in, maintaining a neutral spine and an active core. Make sure you are able to breathe deeply and comfortably! From this position, kick one leg towards the ceiling with a bent knee and flexed foot. Be careful not to let your back arch. You will feel the muscles in your buttock start to fire. Be sure to change sides.
3. Single leg deadlift. Place your hands on your hips while standing on one leg, ensuring that your hips are level across the face of your pelvis. Your opposite leg is slightly bent behind you. While maintaining an even pelvis, slowly hinge forward at the hip. Your back should remain straight and your knee engaged so it does not collapse inward or buckle. This exercise requires a great deal of balance and control! Use the musculature of your feet to prevent your arch from collapsing and to maintain a stable ankle. Then, slowly control the lift of your trunk as you rise back up with core engagement. You should feel the muscles in the back of your straight leg working.
Start by doing a circuit of these three exercises, with 2-3 sets of each, with 10-12 reps per set. Emphasize quality over quantity, however! Hip and core control is an essential foundation for any runner, and can take time to build.