As we head into the off-season, there are two very important muscle groups which are essential for good form in running and, when strengthened properly, can keep us from getting injured. By dissecting (no pun intended) the core, the transverse abdominus in particular, and the glutes, I’ll explain the importance of understanding the function that these muscles serve in real-world situations, how to activate them properly and finally, two exercises that you can do to train them effectively.
There are four major muscle groups that compromise your core, and the transverse abdominus is the deepest one. Think of your abdominals as a tube around your midsection, with the transverse at the bottom of the layer cake. When activated properly, this muscle supports your back and your pelvis in a neutral position and keeps excessive hip and lumbar rotation while running to a minimum. Basically, this muscle is the scaffolding that forms an anchor point for all the other muscles that cross your back, pelvis and hips. Kind of important.
The way this muscle fires properly is by pulling all sides of the “tube” toward the center. Think about when you laugh or pull your stomach in with tight pants. The key to turning this muscle on properly is that the pull-in needs to be separate from your breathing. Some people might take a deep breath and hollow their stomach, thinking this is using their transverse. Others may hold their breath, using intra-abdominal air pressure to stiffen their core. Neither of these methods is correct. Good core control relies on your ability to pull your stomach in and hold it in with functional activities as well as running, while still breathing, talking and performing other tasks.
When strengthening your core, it is super important that you start any move by first pulling in your transverse abdominus. If you cannot hold the pull-in, the exercise may be too difficult.
My favorite exercise for the core is an assisted sit-up. Lay down on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. This position is important to make sure that you are not using your hip flexors to do the exercise. Next, holding a 10-pound weight in your hands, pull your transverse abdominus in and start the sit-up move, reaching with the weight out and over your knees as you come to the full sit-up position. The weight acts as a counterbalance and eases the difficulty. Now comes the hard part. While keeping your stomach pulled in, bring the weight to your chest and slowly lower yourself back down to the ground. This eccentric control of your transverse will build strength faster. Now, the key to this exercise, as with most exercises, is to get that same feeling in your stomach when you are running. The exercise is training, but you will need to consciously pull the transverse in when running to make sure that you are keeping your back and pelvis stable and neutral. I know I’ve had a good run when my core is sore, and you should too.
Your glutes are super important with just about every facet of running. Not only do they stabilize your hips, but they also help to stabilize your back and control your knees. Functionally weak glutes are at the root of many low back, hip, knee, ankle and foot issues. If your glutes are weak and you are running a lot of miles, you are literally running on borrowed time before injury strikes.
Understanding the role that the glutes play in running and everyday life is super important because that is how they need to be trained and strengthened. Around 95 percent of what your glutes do is stabilize your pelvis and whole lower extremity when your foot is on the ground. Therefore, it is super important to do glute exercises when your foot is down. Doing side-lying hip abduction exercises or hip extension work when your foot is off the ground is not training these muscles to do what they are intended to do. When your foot hits the ground, your glute needs to fire to stabilize the whole chain.
So, to do that, I like to give my patients a very simple exercise that will really make their glutes burn. I call it the penguin walk. For this exercise, use a small circular resistance band. Insert both legs into the band and position it above the knees. Next, stand with your feet hip-width apart so there is tension on the band. Pull your stomach in, bring your pelvis into a neutral position and lock your knees. Then, squeeze your glutes together. While keeping your glutes squeezed, start waddling sideways like a penguin, rocking from one foot to the other, maintaining tension on the band. The motion should be a rocking motion, not a lateral step. After moving laterally for a few feet, you should immediately start to feel burning in your glutes. Keep going about 20 feet, stop and rest, and then head back in the opposite direction to where you started. This exercise is quite simple but really trains the glute muscles for what they are supposed to do: stabilize everything when your foot is on the ground.
There you have it. Two important muscle groups for running, how the muscles should be fired properly and how you can integrate training them into your strength routine. Working on these guys during the off-season will hopefully pay dividends for you once mileage and vert start to increase, keeping injuries at bay and maybe even making you a little quicker out there. See you on the trails.
Medical disclaimer. What I write here in no way substitutes for an in-person, thorough evaluation by a licensed Physical Therapist. As with many body issues, there can be multiple factors involved with your aches and pains, and, in some cases, more serious underlying conditions that can be manifesting as physical symptoms. It is always best to have a PT that you can see when you have concerns, so that you can make sure your personal situation is being addressed appropriately and safely. This column should, in no way, serve as a substitute for seeing a licensed medical practitioner.