Supporting Act: Six Underappreciated Muscles

A runner’s body is like a tent on a windy hillside. The poles are your big muscles – the quads, hamstrings, glutes and abs – that keep you upright and moving. But to keep the tent stable, you need ropes and pegs.

These come in the form of your supporting muscles, and they need to be in good nick to tirelessly prop up every stride. “Keeping your posture aligned and working the supporting muscles specific to running, which are found deep inside your torso, hips and legs, will improve your efficiency by helping you cover more miles with less effort,” says strength and running coach Paul Collins, author of Dynamic Dumbbell Training (£14.94, Meyer & Meyer). “A weakness in these muscles is often a precursor to injury.”


To shore up your black spots and make you a more economical runner, we’ve devised a plan to strengthen your most important supporting muscles – so the next time you’re waiting for the starter’s gun you can be confident that your body is hard-wearing enough to weather any storm.

Gluteus medius

Find it  It makes up the upper half of your glutes (your backside), just before your lower back starts.

Claim to fame

Don’t confuse it with the muscle charged with making you look good in Levi’s – that’s its closest cousin, the gluteus maximus. “The gluteus medius muscles stabilise your pelvis while you run, protecting your hip joints against excessive wear and warding off any lower back niggles,” explains strength coach Paul Collins.

They’re weak if…

...you find yourself taking very short running strides, as if you’re running in flip flops. This is your body trying to minimise the time your legs are airborne. “By taking short strides, the gluteus medius muscles don’t have to flex to keep your pelvis stable,” says Collins. And this means you’re covering shorter distances with more steps.

Worship your hidden hero with… Cross-legged bridges

Lie on your back, feet on the floor and arms by your sides. Rest your right ankle on your left knee. Press down with your left foot to raise your hips off the floor. Hold for three seconds. Do four sets of 12 reps on each leg three times a week. “This isolates the gluteus medius and ropes in your abs so you can run with long strides,” says Collins.

Rhomboids

Find them  They’re the back muscles that connect your shoulder blades to your spine.

Claim to fame

“Strong rhomboids help you run with the perfect posture by pulling your shoulders back and lifting your chest up,” says Collins. “This action keeps your body aligned and stops you from getting any upper body twinges or cramps.”

They’re weak if…

...your shoulders are hunched over while you run, making you look like you should be ringing the bells of the Notre-Dame, not running a half-marathon. “Even being hunched over at your desk is a sign that these important muscles need buffing up,” says Collins. To check your posture, just take a glance at your running reflection in a shop window. If you’re at the gym, check yourself out in the mirror while you’re on the treadmill.

Worship your hidden hero with… Pullbacks

Lie face down on an incline bench and hold a light dumbbell in each hand. If you’re at home, lie face down on a reclining seat and hold bags of sugar. Keep a slight bend in your elbows. Pull your shoulder blades together without pushing your neck forwards. Hold for two seconds. “To target these muscles, make sure you keep your shoulders down,” advises Collins. Do three to four sets of 15 reps, one to two times a week, for a strong back and shoulders.

Peroneus longus

Find it  It starts below your knee and passes down the outside your calf, all the way down to your foot.

Claim to fame

These muscles act like your feet’s shock absorbers, stabilising your ankles when you’re running along a sloped road or on a muddy outdoor trail. “Weaknesses in these lower limb muscles will eventually lead to a host of problems throughout your entire body,” explains Mark Coles (m10fitness.co.uk), a strength and conditioning coach.

They’re weak if…

...after a run, you feel a small pain or swelling on the outside of your ankles or heels. This disappears after a day or two’s rest, so it’s often ignored. But it’ll probably flare up again after your next run. “They’re also a likely culprit if you suffer from frequent ankle sprains or if you feel any instability in your lower legs when you’re running,” says Coles.

Worship your hidden hero with… Peroneal Strengthening

Sit on the floor with your legs straight and feet together. Loop an exercise band (try physiosupplies.com, from £4.99) around your toes and move your legs apart until there is tension in the band. Now rotate your ankles outwards, moving your toes away from each other. Perform three sets of 15-20 repetitions with a very slow and controlled movement. “This strengthens the peroneus longus muscles on both legs and bolsters the stabilising power of your ankles,” says Coles. Do this two to three times a week and you can kiss your ghetto-fabulous limp goodbye.

Popliteus

Find it  It’s the muscle that starts at the very bottom of your thigh bone (femur) and crosses over the back of your knees to attach on to your shin bone (tibia) and the inside of your knee.

Claim to fame

“It’s called into play the second you bend your knees and ‘unlocks’ them,” says Coles. “When you’re on the trot, it stabilises your knee to make sure it tracks in the correct position. This protects your knees from excessive wear and tear, and wards off any knee niggles.”

They’re weak if…

...“you can’t always fully extend your knee, if one hamstring is stronger than the other or if your quads are significantly more powerful than your hamstrings”, says Coles. To test for these strength imbalances, do hamstring curls, one leg at a time. “If your bent knee feels tender at the back, then your popliteus is most often the blip that needs fixing,” he says.

Worship your hidden hero with... Hamstring curls

“Runners with this problem have strength imbalances because their quads overpower their hamstrings,” says Coles. “Curls are the fastest way to correct these inequalities by strengthening the popliteus.” Lie face down on a hamstring curl machine with the backs of both ankles tucked beneath the pads. Point your toes outwards and do six repetitions, then point your toes inwards and do eight reps. Finally, let your feet stay in a neutral position and do eight reps. That’s one set. Do three to four sets two to three times a week for   rock-solid, injury-proof knees.

Gracilis

Find it  This thin inner thigh muscle runs from the inside of your groin to your knee.

Claim to fame

“It helps you bend your knees, and it’s one of the few muscles that demonstrates interplay between the knees, pelvis and hips,” says Mark Raynsford (markspt.co.uk), posture analyst, running coach and strength trainer. “It keeps your running gait in good alignment, making you burn less energy and become a more efficient runner.”

They’re weak if…

...”you feel a sharp pain in your groin when you have to suddenly change direction”, explains Raynsford. Yes, even when you weave through the crowd at the train station.

Worship your hidden hero with… Side lunges

“This move strengthens one gracilis, stretches the other and reinforces your gluteus medius,” explains Raynsford. Stand with your legs together. Take a wide step out to your right and bend your right knee as far as you can. Step back, then repeat on the opposite leg. Do five sets of six reps on each leg twice a week before a run.

Obliques

Find them  These are the muscles that flank your six-pack – or belly, depending on the shape you’re in.

Claim to fame

“They help rotate your torso from side to side, but more importantly, they prevent your torso from doing the very same action on the run,” says Raynsford. “A torso that does the hula while you run can destabilise your pelvis, meaning you’ll fatigue quicker, cover less distance and place stress on your lower back and knees.”

They’re weak if…

 ...“you slump forward when you run, or even while you sit in your car or watch telly”, says Raynsford.

Worship your hidden hero with… Medicine ball rotations

Sit with your knees bent and hold a medicine ball in front of you. Twist to your left, keeping your head and upper body facing forward. Pull the ball across the front of your body to the right, then pull back to the left again. Do three sets of this drill for one minute, one to three times a week, and you’ll run strong mile after mile.