An efficient running stride is observed in the well placed and identical nature of their stride pattern. If the muscles are all well-trained and functioning correctly every stride will be near identical with speed and rhythm naturally following. An inefficient stride pattern is often observed in new runners where due to poor muscle engagement every stride is different from the last, making pacing irregular and often eventually leading to injury.
Even in experienced runners neglect of strength and conditioning work can lead to an increased risk of injury through weaknesses in the stabilising muscle groups around joints such as the knees and ankles or due to imbalance between muscle groups such as the quads and hamstrings.
Below follows a description of the various muscle groups active during a run and the role they play.
The Hip & Upper Leg
The Glutes are arguably the single most important muscle group for long distance running and due to modern-day lifestyles are often heavily neglected. Sitting all day can lead to stretched, inactive and in turn weak Glutes which in turn causes poor posture and adversely affects our running ability. Strengthening the Glutes should therefore be a staple part of your strength and conditioning regime.
Example Exercise: Glute Bridge
The Quadriceps are key during the support phase of the stride, functioning in the extension of the knee and with Rectus Femoris acting as a hip flexor. Also notably all 4 heads of the quad are connected to the Patella having a key role in stabilisation of the knee during the running stride. Strengthening the quads can therefore have a key role in reducing potential injury especially in new runners.
Example Exercise: Leg Extension
The hamstrings have a major role in hip extension and therefore in conjunction with the Glutes providing forward propulsion whilst running. They also have a major role providing a counterbalance to the quads during hip flexion and knee extension and are particularly vulnerable when decelerating the body such as running downhill. Strengthening the hamstring provides benefits including increased speed and reduced injury risk.
Example Exercise: Hamstring Curl
The Adductors play a key role in stabilising the leg during the running stride ensuring the leg does not excessively rotate outwards. When suddenly subject to increased speed or distance these muscle groups can become susceptible to injury which is often felt as “groin pain”.
Example Exercise: Adductor machine or Side Leg Raise
The main role of the Illiopsoas is to act as a hip flexor bringing the leg forward and primarily works at faster speeds. Problems are often caused by under use in everyday life weakening the muscles with injures then connected to downhill running where the hip is naturally tilted backwards.
Strengthen the muscle group for a reduced injury risk
Example Exercise: Side Plank
The Lower Leg
Gastrocnemius, Soleus & The Achilles Tendon (The Calf Muscles)
The primary role of Gastrocnemius and Soleus in running is to absorb the impact force as your foot lands and then return this energy into the next stride. The Achilles Tendon links these muscles to your foot pulling the heel off the ground as you accelerate away.
In terms of performance gains strengthening these muscle groups provides benefits in terms of increased joint stiffness meaning more speed as well as a reduced injury risk.
Example Exercise: Eccentric Calf Raise
The Tibilalis anterior runs down the front of the shin and absorbs much of the force when landing with the heel prior to pushing off with the toes. This repetitive force is a major contributor towards shin splints and therefore strengthening this muscle is advisable to reduce injury risk.
Example Exercise; Dorsiflexion with a Resistance Band
The role of the core in running is crucial to providing a string stable stride, good hip stability, speed and breathing control. It is therefore especially crucial for endurance athletes of all disciplines and especially runners to focus on these muscles.
Example Exercise: Sit Up
Example Exercise: Scissor Kicks
Example Exercise: Sidebends
Example Exercise: Dorsal Raise