Towards the end of the triathlon season, I frequently hear comments from many triathletes (often strong swim-bikers) that they’re planning to really develop their running for next season. This normally equates to a planned increase in running frequency and volume over the winter (over and above usual increases during a “base period”).
Of course, for many athletes improving your running means running more… pretty intuitive really. However, no matter how good your technique and inherent biomechanics, there is one universal truth: Running is hard on your body. Really hard in comparison to swimming and cycling.
The vast majority of triathletes and runners who suffer overuse injuries, do so due to the repetitive impact, strain and load on the body that sets running apart from the other two triathlon disciplines.
So, before you set off on a focussed block of increased running frequency and volume, now is the time to condition your body to be more resilient to the stresses and impacts of running. With an increased level of overall (and running specific) strength, you’ll be ready to take on and conquer the increased milage, frequency and intensity with less injury risk.
Relatively few hours invested now working on the five key muscle groups identified below, will save you from the frustration of injury and when you should be out reaping the benefits of your training!
Key Running Muscle Groups:
The powerful muscles that make up your bottom. As a group, they have a number of roles in providing strength, power and stability around the hip and pelvis in all three planes of motion. 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 and triathletes is for the Glutes to become neurally 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!
Quads & Hip Flexors:
As a muscle group, the Quadraceps are a group of four long muscles that make up the bulk of the front of your thigh. Many triathletes and 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 afore mentioned Glute inhibition). So, keep stretching the fronts of your thighs!
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 mean any muscle that influences Pelvic, Hip and Lumbar position though 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.
These make up the majority of the muscles of the back of the thigh. 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:
Calfs & Muscles of The Foot & Ankle:
No matter what your running style is like, your Calfs are always going to get worked hard. There is very little like the repetitive loading of running to prepare the Calfs 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 injuries, as it takes time to build up the Calf strength.
Conditioning your lower legs isn’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.