At the gym, where bare legs reign, it’s easy to spot the runners. They’re the ones with skinny legs and 3D quads who are doing squats, hamstring curls and calf raises. There’s only one problem: they’re working the wrong muscles.
“Since the quads, hamstrings and calves are responsible for propelling you forwards, they’re adequately strengthened through running,” says Dr Robert Wilder, medical director of the University of Virginia Centre for Endurance Sport in the USA. “Other muscles, like your abs and glutes, aren’t typically engaged when you run, but should be. They’re the ones that need attention.”
These underappreciated muscles provide the foundation for a strong pelvis. “Almost all common overuse injuries are related to a lack of pelvic stability,” says Jay Dicharry, director of the University’s Centre for Endurance Sport.
Here’s why. Picture a weak, wobbly pelvis. As you stride, one side rotates forward as the other drops down, forcing your back to overarch and your striding foot to rotate inwards. Wilder says these events cause muscular imbalances and tightness, which can lead to iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), shin splints, lower-back pain and other muscular issues. On the other hand, if your pelvis is stable, your legs spin beneath you like wheels, your energy is directed forward, and your stride is light, efficient and biomechanically correct.
The good news: you can get there with targeted training. The following routine, designed by Wilder, builds a capable pelvic platform by teaching you how to engage your transverse abdominals (the deep abs that stabilise the spine and pelvis) and your gluteus medius (the muscle on the side of your glutes that minimises side-to-side rotation). The regime begins with simple exercises that focus on abdominal bracing – pulling your belly button up and in – and get progressively harder. Be sure to do them in order and maintain braced abs as you progress. “Powering through these will do you no good,” says Dicharry. “If you can only do five correctly at first, do five, take a break, and then do five more.”
Wilder recommends doing this routine, which takes just 20 minutes to complete, at least three times a week before a run, so you reinforce the correct muscle engagement before you’re in motion. The movements may seem subtle, but the results you feel as you run (and run and run) will be dramatic.
1. Prone march
Why: To imprint the feeling of braced abs and a stable pelvis, and to teach your muscles how to fire the deep core stabilisers before you engage your leg muscles.
How: Lie on your back with your hands on your hips, both knees bent at a 45-degree angle, and your feet flat on the floor (A). With braced abs (belly button pulled in and up) and a neutral spine (your lower back flat on the floor), lift your left leg until your calf is parallel to the floor (B), then return to the starting position. Repeat 15 times with each leg.
Make it harder: As you get stronger, lift both legs at once, then alternate lowering each leg.
2. Prone drive
Why: To lengthen your hip flexors without moving your pelvis.
How: Lie flat on your back with braced abs and a neutral spine, and lift both of your feet off the floor so your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle and your calves are parallel to the floor. Then, keeping one leg stable, extend your other leg forward (A) as though you were driving off it during a run. Tap your heel on the ground for an instant (B), then return to the starting position. Alternate legs and aim for 15 reps on each side.
Make it harder: Maintain your form and slowly increase the speed of your drives.
3. Side lift
Why: To promote a stable pelvis as the gluteus muscles engage and the hip flexors extend. This can help prevent issues with patellofemoral (cartilage under the kneecap) pain and your IT band (a band of tissue down your thigh).
How: Lie on your right side, hips in line with your shoulders, right knee bent 60 degrees, left hand on left hip, head resting on right arm (A). Flex your left foot and raise your left leg, toes angled slightly off the ground, a few inches off the floor. With a stable pelvis – use your left hand to check it isn’t moving – lift your left leg back and rotate it slightly (no more than 45 degrees) towards the ceiling (B). Repeat 15 times on each side.
4. Inverted bridge
Why: To engage your deep core muscles as you strengthen the gluteus medius, reinforcing correct muscle-firing pattern.
How: Lie on your right side, with your head resting on your right arm and your left arm extended along your left side. Stack both feet on a block that is eight to 14 inches high (A). Brace your abs. Keeping your hips in line with your shoulders, imagine pushing your right leg into the block as you raise your pelvis off the floor (B). Pause for a second, then lower. Aim for 30 reps on each side.
5. Hip hike
Why: To mimic proper gluteus function during touchdown while running, strengthen hip mechanics and improve balance.
How: Stand on a step or box with your right foot on the edge and your left foot off it, arms by your sides, abs braced. Keeping your right knee bent slightly, lower the left side of your pelvis so that your left foot drops a few inches below your right (A). Then hike your pelvis up so that the left foot is above your right foot (B). Continue lifting and lowering for 30 counts on each side.
Make it harder: Do this movement before – and during – your runs. “I often tell my patients to stop mid-run, find a curb, and do this exercise,” says Dicharry. “It helps remind them how their glutes should feel while running.”
6. Drive through
Why: To teach optimal alignment and engagement for the propulsion stage of running, and to target all lower-body muscles and improve balance.
How: Stand on your left foot, arms at sides, abs braced. Keep your back flat and your weight over the ball of your left foot, assume a position as if you were running – bend your left knee and extend your right leg behind you, knee bent at 90 degrees, your right arm in front of you (A). In one smooth motion, drive your right knee and left arm forward as you come up on the ball of your left foot (B). Pause, then repeat. Do 30 on each side.
7. Upper star
Why: To develop stability, strength and balance in each leg.
How: Lay five objects in a semicircle in front of you (on a clock, they’d be positioned at 9, 10:30, 12, 1:30 and 3). Stand two feet behind the 12:00 object on your right foot, left calf bent 90 degrees behind you. Place your right hand on your right hip (A). Keeping a straight back and braced abs, bend forward from the hips, so that your right knee is over your toes. Reach out with your left arm toward the 9 object (B) – don’t reach down, but rather to the side so your hand is over it – then, keeping your left foot off the ground, return to upright. Reach towards the object at 10:30, then return to standing. Repeat until you get to 3. Then start with your right arm at 3 and work toward 9. Switch legs, and repeat sequence.
8. Lower star
Why: Develops stability, strength and balance in each leg.
How: This time, line up the five objects in a semicircle on one side of you (on a clock, they’d be positioned at 6, 7:30, 9, 10:30 and 12). Stand about two feet across from the 9 object, balancing on your right root. Keeping your hands on your hips and your back straight, brace your abs. Bend your right knee so it is lined up over your toes. Then reach back with your left foot towards the 6 object (A) – be sure to make this movement by hinging at your hips. Without touching your toe down to the floor, stand back up. Aim for the object at 7:30 (B), then return to standing. Repeat until you get to 12, then go back to 6. Turn around and repeat the cycle on the opposite leg.