As a runner, your glutes are some of the most important muscles in your body. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to stand up and walk around, let alone run. Despite their importance, many runners neglect their glutes and are potentially losing some significant performance gains without even realizing it. We spoke with runner and physiotherapist, Emma Vaillancourt of Fanti & Associates Physiotherapy in Thunder Bay, Ont., who explained why our glutes are so important, and how we can keep them strong to run faster.
What do our glutes do?
According to Vaillancourt, there are two main “glutes” when it comes to running: the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius. The primary function of the glute max is to extend the hip (bringing your leg behind you), and the primary function of the glute med is to abduct the hip (bringing your leg out to the side). During running, the glutes also work together to absorb load and help stabilize your pelvis when you have all of your weight on one leg.
Can your glutes really “turn off”?
Vaillancourt says no, this common belief is not supported by research. “We know our glutes work the moment we stand up,” she explains. “Without them, we would be unable to walk and we would fall over!”
While your glutes don’t turn off, she adds that we do know sedentary behaviour can result in muscle atrophy (loss of muscle bulk, and therefore strength), which can result in poorer running economy (i.e. we run less efficiently). “A lot of runners have weak glutes because they may not incorporate strength training into their routine and rather focus all of their time on running,” she says. “When running, the glutes don’t have to work at 100 per cent, so if you are only running and not strength training, they can lose strength.”
Why are weak glutes a problem for runners?
Running puts a tonne of load on your body, so having good overall strength, including glute strength, is important to be able to tolerate these forces. “There are several studies that have found a correlation between weak glutes and certain running-related injuries, including patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), IT band syndrome and gluteal tendinopathy,” says Vaillancourt.
Aside from injury prevention, the biggest reason glute strength (and overall strength in general) is so important is because it can improve performance. Vaillancourt cites a 2008 study by Yamamoto et al which showed a 4.6 per cent improvement in running economy following a heavy strength and plyometric program. “That’s better than the super shoes, currently!” she points out.
Vaillancourt recommends runners try to fit in two or three strength sessions per week, if possible, noting that consistency is important, because it takes time to build muscle and have it influence your race times. If you have difficulty finding the time or motivation to strength train, she suggests working with a coach, trainer or physio, who can tailor your strength program to your daily routine and what you have time for.
Exercises to improve glute strength
Push through the foot on the step rather than the foot on the floor, and lean your trunk forward slightly to increase the load on glute max. You can add load by holding a weight in your opposite hand to challenge the glute med more. Aim for 3 sets of 10-15 per side.
To make it more challenging, you can add hip abduction (lifting the top leg up). Try to build up to 3 x 30 seconds.
Side-lying leg raises
Try rolling an exercise ball up and down a wall with your leg to help you get the right pattern. Then you can add a resistance band around your knees or ankles to make it more challenging. Work through 2-3 sets to fatigue.
Sideways band walks
Runners can put a band around their knees to start and progress to putting the band around their toes to challenge the glutes more. Work through 2-3 sets to fatigue.
Pre-run glute activation
With or without a band around your knees, hold for 30 seconds.
Stand next to a wall on one foot (the foot furthest from the wall). Push your knee and thigh of the opposite leg against the wall and hold for 30 seconds.