Trying to fit running into a hectic lifestyle can be challenging. If you’re like many runners, you try to squeeze your run in around work, family, and social commitments. You may get up early, run to or from work, or shorten your run to try and fit it into your busy day. Unfortunately, while you may get your actual running done with this approach, it means you often skip the running stretches and strength exercises for runners that need to be incorporated into every running program to help keep you injury-free.
I know what you’re thinking. How are you ever going to find the time to do a whole stretching and strengthening program? The truth is that if you do the right exercises, a basic runner’s exercise program can take up as little as a few minutes every day and another 10 minutes twice a week. And the program can be performed easily at home, with no special equipment.
The following six simple running stretches and strength exercises for runners will help to improve the flexibility and strength of troublesome muscle groups. They target the most frequent causes of running injuries. And of course, improving strength will also help improve performance.
1. Calf stretch. Tight calf muscles are a big problem from runners. They are major contributors to several running injuries including shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and achilles tendonitis. Thoroughly stretching both calf muscles takes less than two minutes and is one of the most important running stretches you can do.
To stretch the calf muscles:
- Stand on a step, holding onto something for support.
- Let the step support the balls of the feet while the heels hang off the back, unsupported.
- Keeping the knees straight, slowly lower the heels down below the level of the step, until a stretch is felt in the calf muscles.
- Hold for 20 seconds.
- Then bend the knee slightly until you feel the stretch move to the lower half of the calf and the achilles tendon.
- Again, hold for 20 seconds.
- Rest and repeat both stretches again.
- Do at least twice every day.
2. Hip flexor stretch. The muscles at the front of the hip that lift the thigh upwards are the hip flexors. If you sit for extended periods throughout the day, you’re regularly holding these muscles in a shortened position, which results in tightness. Running with tight hip flexor muscles can cause injuries such as iliopsoas bursitis, rectus femoris tendonitis, and low back pain.
To stretch the hip flexors:
- Kneel on one knee with the front knee bent and that foot flat on the floor.
- Keep the back upright and push forward through the hips until a stretch is felt at the front of the hip.
- Hold 20 seconds.
- Then add a stretch of the rectus femoris by lifting the foot of the back leg off the floor, using the hand on that side to pull the heel towards your body.
- Beware that this is a very strong stretch, so stop as soon as you feel a gentle stretch.
- Repeat the hip flexor stretch for a second time, before swapping legs and repeating the same stretch.
- Do hip flexor running stretches twice a day.
Strengthening exercises for runners
3. Core strengthening exercise. Core strengthening exercises aim to support and stabilize the core of the body—the muscles found deep inside the abdomen, including transversus abdominus, multifidus, the pelvic floor muscles, and the diaphragm. These muscles form a box around the lumbar spine and help stabilize the spine and the whole body when functioning correctly.
The first thing to do to develop core strength is to learn how to contract your core muscles. Once you’ve mastered this, you move through a series of progressions that challenge the contraction and build strength. Eventually, these exercises train you to activate your core muscles every time you move to support the body.
To contract the core:
- Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Find your transversus abdominus by placing two fingers on each of your pelvic bones, then moving in towards the belly button 2 cm and then down 2 cm. Press in quite hard to feel the deeper muscles.
- Take a deep breath in and then slowly breathe out.
- On the outward breath, try to gently tighten your deep abdominal muscles and pretend you are trying to stop yourself from peeing.
- Don’t hold your breath!
- If you are doing it properly, you will feel a gently contraction under your fingers, but you shouldn’t be able to see the superficial stomach muscles contract.
- Hold the contraction for 10 seconds, rest, and then repeat the entire exercise 10 times.
Once the contractions above are mastered comfortably, you can add movements to challenge this contraction.
To do the first progression of this core strengthening exercise:
- Perform a contraction exactly as described above.
- Once the contraction is achieved, lift one foot just an inch off the floor.
- Hold for 2 to 3 seconds, lower the foot, and then relax the contraction.
- Aim for maintaining contraction strongly throughout the movement.
- Perform 10 reps.
- Do this core strengthening daily, along with the running stretches.
Once you’ve mastered this first progression, you can go to the Sports Injury Clinic website to find the next progression, here. You only need to do one variation at a time (you don’t have to continue with all progressions), although it’s helpful to do a few contractions alone at the start of each session.
4. Squats. Squats are by far the best strengthening exercise for the entire lower body. Squats specifically strengthen the three most important muscle groups that must be strong to avoid running injuries and improve performance: the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
Here’s how to do proper squats:
- Stand with the feet shoulder width apart and toes facing straight forwards.
- Imagine there is a chair behind you which you are going to sit on.
- Start to bend the knees, ensuring that they move directly over your feet but stay behind your toes.
- Keep your back straight as you squat and don’t allow the knees to fall inwards.
- To ensure you work the glutes and hamstrings, squat as low as you can.
- Hold briefly before returning to the starting position.
- Repeat 10 to 15 times, rest, and repeat the set once or twice more.
- Perform twice weekly.
After a while, you can progress by adding weight in the form of either a dumbbell in each hand or barbell over the shoulders. You can even try single leg squats.
5. Clams. The clam specifically targets the difficult-to-target gluteus medius muscle, a very important muscle for runners. Gluteus medius is the main muscle responsible for hip abduction (taking the leg out to the side, away from the midline of the body). If it’s weak, the knee falls inwards each time your foot hits the ground. This can cause numerous knee injuries including patellofemoral pain syndrome and IT band syndrome, both common in runners.
To perform the clam:
- Lay on your side with the knees bent to a right angle, feet in line with the spine, and top hip positioned directly over the bottom one.
- Slowly lift the top knee up, away from the bottom one (like a clam-shell), keeping your feet touching and your back still.
- Ensure the movement is coming from the hip only—don’t lean or swing backwards.
- It doesn’t have to be a very big movement. Small movements with no cheating are better than big movements performed incorrectly.
- Slowly lower the leg back down and repeat 15 to 20 times.
- Rest and then perform a second set.
- Perform twice weekly.
6. Bridge. The last essential strength exercise for runners is the bridge—ideal for strengthening the big glute muscles (namely the gluteus maximus) and the hamstrings.
To do the bridge:
- Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Raise the buttocks and lower back up off the floor.
- Really squeeze the buttocks upwards and hold for 10 seconds.
- Relax and repeat 15 to 20 times.
- Perform twice weekly.
Progress by simply straightening one knee once in the bridge position (switching to a single leg). To make it even harder, lift one foot just off the floor before even starting the exercise, so you push-up on one leg only.
Just a few minutes a day, plus 10 minutes twice a week, helps prevent injuries
Runners often experience tightness in the calf and hip flexor muscles, weakness of the quads, glutes, and core muscles. These are some of the most common issues underlying chronic pain and running injuries. But now you know the most important exercises you can do as a time-strapped runner to help develop flexibility, core stability and strong legs. If you take a few minutes a day to do the running stretches and core exercise, plus ten minutes twice a week to do the strength exercises for runners, you can continue to enjoy running, avoid injuries, and improve performance for years to come.
Share your experience
Do you stretch before running or doing other exercises? What are your favorite stretches? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Sportsinjuryclinic.net. Accessed Dec 23, 2014.