Run Easier Right Now!
Five ways to unlock the power of your glutes
THE THRILL OF RUNNING CAN distract us from the reality of what is happening to you with every stride. Your heart beats harder, pumping blood throughout your body. Sweat drips down your forehead as your body temperature rises. You feel the wind on your face as you turn up the trail or down the road. These are the images running conjures up in our heads and they are real, but while your heart and lungs are driving your engine, your chassis is under a lot of stress. Like it or not, your body must deal with two-and-a-half to three times its weight with every stride.
Think about this. If you stand on both legs, you have half your weight on each leg. If you stand on one leg, that’s 100 per cent of your weight on one leg. Now take a barbell, add about 150 per cent of your weight to it and hoist the load onto your shoulders; then stand on one leg.
Like it or not, this is how much stress your bones, tendons, muscles, cartilage and ligaments support with every stride you take. As runners, we’ve been told distance running is a small amount of stress applied to your body for a long time. If anything, we could say that running is large stresses acting on our body for a long time.
Further complicating matters is the fact that running isn’t just a single-plane sport. In addition to these vertical forces, we have to deal with braking and acceleration forces that amount to 40-50 per cent of our body’s weight. And that’s while our body is kicked laterally by forces of around 15 per cent of our weight just from the effort of running. Running creates huge amounts of stress that acts on the body from all sides.
This load acting on your body is absolute and rather mechanical. But your body’s response isn’t just mechanical. Imagine a rubber ball. If you throw a rubber ball off the roof, it will first accelerate to the ground. When it collides with the ground, the energy of the impact will flatten the ball out a bit and then the ball will rebound off the ground and spring back up again. The ball is passive – it compresses and rebounds based on the density of the rubber from which it is made. This is a simple illustration of how a passive object responds to load.
Now imagine you are soaring through the air in mid-stride and the same gravity that accelerated the rubber ball takes you back to earth. That’s where the similarity ends, because the body isn’t passive. It’s a complex system of parts, with a neuromuscular system that actively moves, adjusts and coordinates these parts in response to the mechanical forces of running.
Don’t neglect the glute
When you run, especially as your speed increases, more and more oomph needs to come from the muscles that extend the hips. But it’s likely that years of overstriding have wired your muscle memory to favour the quads and neglect the glutes. Put simply, the typical runner is quad-heavy and glute-light.
Most runners overstride. The lab data I’ve collected over a decade reveals that most runners don’t know how to fully use the muscles in their backside. It would be much easier if muscle control was balanced around the body, but the reality is most people are out of balance, a problem that is not exclusive to running. Dr Vladimir Janda, a pioneer in muscular therapy, coined the term ‘lower crossed syndrome’ to describe the imbalance that occurs when the hip flexors, quads and lower back muscles are tight and overused, and the deep-core and gluteus maximus are asleep at the wheel.
The best way to inhibit the muscles around your hips is to screw up your posture. And then there’s the issue of tight hips. If those muscles are tight, your hip won’t have full extension to both sides of your pelvis. This imbalance isn’t a running problem; it’s a body problem. But if it’s not corrected, you’ll never be able to correct your stride. About 80 per cent of runners will need to do a lot of hip flexor stretches to improve this.
Your quads are big muscles, capable of producing a huge amount of force. No matter what your running form, you need your quads to work hard. But muscles don’t act alone, and we certainly don’t want the quads to carry the torch when running. Changing your dominant muscles for moving and running is critical to improving joint health and performance.
WHEN YOU RUN, ESPECIALLY AS YOUR SPEED INCREASES, MORE OOMPH NEEDS TO COME FROM THE MUSCLES THAT EXTEND THE HIPS
The problem with quad dependency
Being overly reliant on your quads creates three big problems. First, it can wreck your knees. Nearly every study on running injuries ranks patellafemoral pain in the top three injuries affecting runners. Your patella (kneecap) is basically a pulley for your quad. When you overstride, the torque – mechanical load – on the knee is greater. The quad has to work harder, creating more shear across the surface of the patella, which isn’t the best thing for the long-term health of the cartilage underneath it. Changing your muscle dominance will reduce stress on the knee.
Second, there are performance implications for our bias toward the quads. Your quad has a greater percentage of fast-twitch fibres. So, for a given running pace, your quads will be working closer to peak capacity and enter into a fatigued state – or acidic state – sooner. When the muscle gets too acidic, the ph level drops and the muscle can’t contract and relax as well, so you end up hitting the wall. Since the glute has more slowtwitch fibres, it produces smaller amounts of acidic waste products and can last longer before building up a lot of waste. This means you can maintain a harder pace for a little longer without falling apart.
Finally, your quads simply can't match the total body control your glutes are capable of setting in motion. Your gluteus maximus has three primary functions, all of which benefit your running:
1. It is an incredibly powerful, fatigue-resistant muscle that drives your hip from the front of your body to the back. Your quads do the opposite.
2. It is also your primary hip external rotator; in other words, it prevents your knees from crashing in when you run.
3. Finally, your gluteus maximus plays a huge role in postural control; if your glute isn't firing properly, your torso will pitch forward and cause you to overstride. Overstriding means very high loading rates with each step, putting the body under more stress with every stride.
This stuff matters. See right for three glute-activating moves from the 83 exercises in Running Rewired.
IF YOUR GLUTE ISN’T FIRING PROPERLY, YOUR TORSO WILL PITCH FORWARD AND CAUSE YOU TO OVERSTRIDE