With the London marathon looming, thousands of runners across the country will be ramping up their training to make sure that they’re ready for the big day. But even if you’re not a “serious” runner, and only dig out your trainers for the occasional weekend jog around the park, it’s always a good idea to think about how you can develop a more effective technique.
Here at Grow, we offer strength and yoga classes – and both of these can help to strengthen and stretch the key muscles needed to optimise running form and prevent injuries. So, whether you’re a seasoned runner or just thinking about getting started, read on to discover how we can help…
Put simply, the posterior chain refers to the muscles that make up the backside of your body, running all the way from your feet to your head. It includes the largest and most powerful muscles of the body and is responsible for holding us upright and supporting the spine, so it is often referred to as the “powerhouse” or foundation of the human body. Muscles that make up the posterior chain include the calves, hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae muscles, posterior deltoids, trapezius and rhomboids.
Strengthening the posterior chain is critical for running success, because it is these muscles that control the stride to propel your body forward. Most importantly, back muscles like the erector spinae group of muscles straighten and extend the spine, the glutes work to extend the hips, the hamstrings allow for hip extension and knee flexion and the calves extend the ankles. These muscles also have a key role to play in stabilising the knee joints.
The posterior chain should fire in the following sequence. First, the multifudus, the deep core stabiliser that attaches to the vertebrae. Next, the glutes should contract, followed by the hamstrings and calf muscles. Leading a sedentary lifestyle, spending most of the day sitting down, means that we run the risk of weakening these posterior muscles, causing them to “forget” how to fire properly. Consequently, other muscles have to pick up the slack and compensate, causing sub-optimal running form and, in turn, injuries. Late-firing glutes, for example, can trigger a range of injuries, including hamstring strains, that can seriously impede your running progress.
Learning how to activate your posterior chain muscles is really important for good running form – and luckily there are some really simply ways to do this. One exercise you can do wherever you are is to contract your glutes and squeeze, holding the contraction for 5 seconds. Aim to do this 10 times a day. Another good way to reinforce correct posterior chain firing sequence is practicing prone hip extension. Lie down on the floor facing up, and draw your navel towards your spine to activate your multifidus. Next, contract your glutes on the right hand side of your body, as you lift your left leg a few inches from the floor. Repeat 10 times for each leg.
As well as activation work, regular strength training is essential to strengthen these muscles and prevent them from weakening and firing in the wrong order. Below, we delve into how we can strengthen some of the key muscles that make up the posterior chain.
Your glutes are made up of three main muscles, the largest being the gluteus maximus, which is supported by the gluteus medius and minimus. The latter two move the leg away from the body, while the gluteus maximus is primarily responsible for extending the hip, bringing the knee behind you when you push off with your foot as you run. Strengthening this hip extension movement is key for good stride and speed.
Glutes also provide your body with the stability it needs when running, keeping your pelvis and knees aligned to promote a neutral posture. In this way, energy is directed forward, not wasted on a side-to-side motion, meaning that you can run faster without exerting any extra effort.
Weak glutes are often caused by being sedentary – and with so many of us spending our days hunched over a desk from 9 till 5, it’s no wonder our bodies can find it difficult when we ask them to run and jump around. Having weak glutes can cause a myriad of problems, from lower back pain, runners knee, IT band syndrome and Achilles tendinitis.
Taking part in just a couple of lower body sessions every week can be hugely beneficial in terms of building the strength of your glutes and reducing the risk of suffering from the problems mentioned above. Strengthening the glutes will ensure they do not lose the ability to fire properly and will prevent hip flexors from shortening and becoming uncomfortably tight (check out our blog here to test if you have tight hip flexors). In turn, this promotes efficient hip extension, which you should notice improves your running form considerably.
Yoga classes can also help massively, by working deep into the psoas to stretch your hip flexors. Poses like held lunges and hip extenders can help to lengthen the hip flexors and prevent the tightness that so often leads to inefficient running form. If you’re new to yoga or if your hip flexors are especially tight, these poses are likely to feel a little uncomfortable at first, but stick with it – it’s well worth it once you release that tightness and see the impact it has on your running.
Your quadriceps are made up of four main muscles. Every part of the running stride will involve at least two of these muscles. The primary role of the quads is to extend and stabilise the knees. If your quads are weak, then they may fail to stabilise the joint as you run, causing the knee to fall out of alignment and cause pain – this is one of the primary causes of so-called runners knee that stops many runners in their tracks. The VMO (Vastus Medialis Oblique), known as the fifth quad, is also responsible for knee alignment and is crucial for support during running.
As well as stabilising the body, the quads also act as shock absorbers, helping to protect your joints from overuse injuries, so it’s vital to keep them in strong and flexible. One key way of doing this is regular strength training that incorporates exercises like squats and lunges. Grow’s signature strength sessions include these, as well as variations like weighted drop lunges, jump squats and lunge to jump squats, to challenge your body in different ways.
As you run, your hamstrings extend your hips and flex your knees. As with glutes, these muscles are at risk of becoming weak if you lead a sedentary lifestyle and spend much of your time sat at a desk. Chronic hamstring tightness is most common in people who spend most of their day sitting down. To keep them strong and supple, regular stretching is essential, so yoga has a really important role to play here. Forward folds, for example, are a really great way to work deeply into this powerful muscle.
Running doesn’t just require strong legs; much like rowing, it’s a full body exercise that requires strong core muscles. Regular strength classes at Grow drive good core strength, not only through the rower, which recruits your abdominal muscles, obliques and lower spine, but also through targeted exercises using dumbbells and body weight – examples include plank punches, jack-knives and mountain climbers.
Yoga is also a fantastic way to strengthen your core – in your classes, your instructor will often guide you into positions that play with gravity, encouraging you to support your own body weight and “float”, which really challenges your core. Muscles that attach to key parts of the spine are strengthened and helped to fire more efficiently, which helps to strengthen key abdominal muscles, promoting proper running form and preventing common injuries.
In addition to strengthening the key muscles involved in running, regular strength training and yoga practice can benefit your running training in different ways, including enhanced cardiovascular fitness and an ability to get “in the zone” on more challenging long runs.
Rowing is a high intensity sport, that offers all the benefits of running without any of the impact. So, if you want to give your knees a break from pounding the pavements, without losing the cardiovascular fitness that running has given you, look no further. Rowing has been shown to help enhance heart structure and efficiency. In our strength sessions, we combine rapid bouts of rowing with resistance training, which will stimulate your metabolism for many hours after you’ve left the studio.
Yoga isn’t just great for your flexibility and core strength – it also helps to provide you with the mental focus and clear headspace needed as you start to build up your distance and go on longer runs. Put simply, it can help to get you “in the zone”, that state of mind where you are fully immersed in energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment in exercise. Longer bouts on the rower can help you to tap into this, too.
Whatever your goals are, running-related or otherwise, Grow is here to help you achieve them. All of our instructors would be more than happy to chat about your objectives with you and make sure that you reach them!