In this article, I’m going to be looking at some of the most important muscle groups involved in running. I’ll take a dive into each important running muscle group, and show you some exercises to strengthen each of them.
There are so many aspects of your training you can work on to further develop your running; from improving your running technique to adding specific lactate threshold workouts to your training… and everything in between!
However, for most runners, one of the biggest potential sources of improved running fitness has to be increasing your weekly mileage.
Simply running more will help you improve efficiency as a runner.
If only it was that simple, hey?!
The big problem with increasing your weekly mileage is the increased risk of injury that comes with the elevation in training volume. Most of the injuries us runners pick-up are overuse injuries, such as shin splints, or runner’s knee.
Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t increase your weekly running mileage. In fact, it’s usually a great process for most runners to work on.
However, you need to also develop the strength and resilience throughout your body to help you withstand the demands of running extra mileage.
Workouts that incorporate elements of strength training for runners will help you develop strength and stability in many of the major muscle groups that we as runners need to constantly work on to remain injury free.
Important Running Muscle Groups
The main muscle groups used in running are the glutes, the quads and hip flexors, the hamstrings, the calf muscles and the muscles of the core region.
Let’s look at each of these important running muscle groups in turn…
The gluteals are the powerful muscles that make up your buttocks.
As a muscle group, the glutes have a number of roles in providing strength, power and stability around the hip and pelvis in all three planes of motion. You can learn more about each one of the gluteal muscles (maximus, medius and minimus) in this post: Understanding the Gluteal Muscles.
Looking more globally the effect of maintaining control around the hip and pelvis as the body loads in running affects the position of the spine above, knees, and feet below.
A common dysfunction seen in runners is for the glutes to become inhibited through hip flexor tightness, preventing them from engaging as they should, thus leading to tight hamstrings and lower back, poor pelvic posture, knee injuries and possibly even shin pain.
In my experience, if time is a constraint and you’re looking for a maximum “bang for your buck” muscle group to work on – it would be the glute muscles!
Here’s a quick glutes workout for you to try:
Quadriceps & Hip Flexor Muscles
As a muscle group, the quadriceps (quads) are a group of four long muscles that make up the bulk of the front of your thigh. Many runners are disproportionately strong through their quads compared to their hamstrings.
Frequently, if psoas (one of the hip flexors) is weak, rectus femoris (the only quad muscle that crosses both hip and knee) will become tight and overactive due to it’s increased role in the forward motion (flexing at the hip) of the swinging leg in running gait.
This tightness can cause postural problems and muscle imbalances which can affect the knees, hips, pelvis and lower back (and the previously mentioned glute inhibition).
So, keep stretching the fronts of your thighs!
Here’s a great exercise you can use to develop strength in your quads:
Core Muscles & Abdominals
I like the following analogy:
“Trying to generate force in any direction with a weak core region, is like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe”.
I tend to think of “core strength” rather than “core stability”.
This has a big focus on posture throughout functional movements. Particularly pelvic posture, as this has such powerful implications in terms of lumbar spine position, hip and knee biomechanics.
When referencing “core muscles“, I’m referring to any muscle that influences pelvic, hip and lumbar spine position through functional movement.
What this means in terms of running, is that if we’re trying to generate force to run, we need a strong and stable base (core), so we can keep all the right muscle s firing in harmony and that the force produced goes where we want it!
Without this core strength, we see an increase in unwanted compensatory movements which can cause injury over time.
Here are some of my favourite plank-based core exercises for runners:
As a major muscle group, the hamstring muscles make up the majority of the muscles of the back of the thigh. Their main roles are to extend the hips and flex the knees.
The hamstrings play an important role during a number of the different phases of running gait. However as previously stated, we often see that they are weak in comparison to the quads, their opposing muscle group.
Such weakness can affect muscle balance at the hips and knees and cause potential injuries. As with the glues, improved hamstring strength will benefit you greatly as a runner.
Take a look at the video below for a great hamstring workout:
No matter what your running style is like, your calves are always going to get worked hard. There is very little like the repetitive loading of running to prepare the calves for these demands.
It’s not surprising that in runners who suddenly increase their training load (volume, intensity or frequency), we often see calf or achilles tendon injuries, as it takes time to build up the calf strength.
Conditioning exercises for your lower legs aren’t restricted to calf raises and skipping though. The intrinsic muscles of the foot are also important in maintaining effective foot biomechanics. Take a look at this post on running foot maintenance for more information.