Glutes are arguably the most important muscle group for runners. Unfortunately, they are also the most neglected in terms of maintenance and strength. Studies link glute weakness to achilles tendinitis, runner’s knee, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome and other common injuries.
If you glutes are so important and their weakness contributes to many injuries, why are they neglected. Simply put, most athletes of all ages are unaware of the role their glutes play in their running performance. The goal of this article is to create a better awareness of the function of glutes for runners, what causes glute weakness or imbalance, how to identify if you have a problem and how to stretch & strengthen your glutes.
Your gluteus maximus is your butt, the two smaller, glute muscles (called glutes) are located on the side of your butt, near and slightly above your hip joint. When we run, the glutes’ job is to hold our pelvis level and steady. The gluteus maximus is responsible for hip extension, or raising your leg behind your thigh and knee behind you after pushing off with your foot. Good hip extension creates the energy of that leg swing into forward motion.
The problem is, without good hip extension you won’t have a powerful stride, which means your speed will be limited. The other key role of glutes for runners is providing stability for the pelvis and knees and keep our legs, pelvis and torso aligned. If you have strong glutes, side-to-side motion will be limited and you will be a more efficient runner because your energy is directed forward. Basically you can faster at the same effort level.
Also, when the glutes aren’t working properly, some of the impact forces are transmitted elsewhere down the legs. It’s common for many runners to have strong abs and back muscles but weak glutes.
How does this Glute dysfunction occur?
It’s common for the gluteal muscles to become inhibited which will prevent them from properly engaging and being able to perform their role.
Part of the problem is that glutes aren’t as active as other running muscles during routine activities. This leads to your hamstrings, quads, and calves becoming disproportionately stronger (also called an imbalance).
This imbalance limits the effectiveness of the glutes. The end result is that if we aren’t aware of this imbalance and subsequently correct it, typical movement and habits will place increased emphasis on the stronger muscle groups such as the Quads, rather than allowing the glutes to contribute properly within the running motion.
This kind of strength imbalance can cause injury problems over time as the body learns not to use the glutes as it tries to favor the stronger quads. If not properly identified, a glute weakness/imbalance typically doesn’t get corrected on it’s own because most runners don’t perform strength training exercises that isolate and strengthen the glutes. Exercises you can complete to fix this problem are listed below.
Additionally, excessive sitting can cause tight muscles, in particular the hip flexors, which will then inhibit the glutes, making them weak and ultimately pulling your pelvis out of alignment.
Bottomline, you need to work the smaller glutes to stay injury-free. The following video helps to explain the issue.
Glute Strength Tests
To see if you have weak glutes, you’ll need to perform the following glute strength tests.
Standing Glute Test – Left
Standing Glute Test – Right
Stand with your hands over your head, palms together. Lift your right foot off the ground and balance. Watch the left side of your hips to see if it dips down. If it does, it’s a sign of glute weakness.
In these photos, I’ve inserted a YELLOW HORIZONTAL LINE, to help identify whether or not my hips are dipping. You can have a friend take a photo while performing this test or you can complete the test while in front of a mirror to observe results yourself.
I recommend the photo, so you can look at the results more closely.
Try it on the other side, too. Next, do this: While in the same position, lean to the right of your body, checking to see if your left side dips. Move your hands to the left of your body and see if your right side dips. If your hips dip, it’s a sign that your glutes need work. Try this test also after a long or hard run to see how your glutes perform when fatigued.
Glute strengthening and stretching exercises
For each exercise start with 10 reps the first week and then progress to 15 reps (switch legs), rest for 30 seconds and complete 3 total sets.
Watch this video for a modified lunge stretch using a chair:
Tight hip flexors can inhibit the firing of your glutes. Complete this stretch after every workout (crossfit/conditioning or run)
Step forward and lower your back knee. Keep your knee over your ankle. Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
Glute & Hip Strengthening Exercises
This video shows some exercises that are completed with a stretch cord. Stretch cords may be available at your gym. If you don’t have access to a stretch cord, you can complete the exercises below (see photos and descriptions).
Kick Backs – This exercise engages the middle-butt and low back.
Start on all “4s” by placing your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
Extend your right knee and hip to even your right leg with your torso. Be sure your foot is flexed and your neck is neutral by looking down towards the ground. Hold momentarily. Return to starting position.
This exercise is a variation of kick backs. While your elbows and right knee are on the ground, lift your left leg until it is parallel with the ground. This is your starting position. Lift your left leg up about 6-12 inches while keeping it straight and then return to your starting position.
This exercise strengthens the gluteus medius and minimus (smaller muscles in the butt).
Start on all “4s.” Next, make a 90 degree angle with your right leg and then lift your right leg up 6-12 inches while keeping your knee bent. Hold momentarily, then return to starting position.
Lie flat on the ground with your hands by your sides and your knees bent. Pushing up mainly with your heels, keep your back straight and raise your hips up off of the floor. Hold there at the top for a few seconds and then go back to where you started and repeat. For an added bonus, try this exercise with only one foot on the ground at a time!
Single Leg Squat:
Stand on your left leg. Lift your right out in front of you. Stand tall (don’t round your shoulders), and keep your left knee over your ankle as you lower down into a squat. Your hands can extend out for balance.
Modified Single Leg Squat:
Stand on edge of curb as shown in image. Raise right leg slightly and squat slightly with left leg (note how right foot is higher in 1st photo, side view). Start with 8-10 squats/leg and after completing this exercise 3 times/week for 2 weeks, increase to 15 squats/leg.
Last year when I surveyed hundreds of runners who visit middleagemarathoner.com, to no surprise, I found that injuries were the biggest obstacle faced by middle age runners. Coach Greg McMillan is currently conducting his own survey and he shared with me that his initial results showed a similar finding.
The purpose of this article is to provide four different strategies to help you avoid injuries. These aren’t the only four strategies you should use and you may already be using a few of these strategies yourself, but hopefully I can share something new that you can try to further injury proof your body.
Background: For the longest time, I felt like I was a slave to nagging injuries. It was one of my biggest challenge that was preventing me from regularly racing 1/2 and full marathons. Being a busy professional, I simply didn’t have time to implement a comprehensive injury prevention routine. About 99%+ of the middle age runners whom I coach don’t have a lot of time either. However, it’s important for any runner to engage in some kind of program that involves some of the strategy that I discuss in this article.
Over the years, I worked with my primary physician, physical therapist, athletic trainers and running coaches in addition to completing a lot of my own research and trial/error to finally develop my own injury proofing regime. There’s not a “one size fits all” solution when it comes to middle age runners and injury avoidance.
Bottomline, I eventually “cracked the code” of injury-free running. Since 2012, I have been injury free.
Note, that I didn’t say I have been pain free. There’s a difference and it’s how you manage your pain that greatly contributes to remaining injury free. It’s remaining injury free that allows runners to build consistency and reach their goals.
Following are four of the strategies that I use in parallel to remain injury free.
1. 3 Too’s – I’ve read this from a few sources as the leading cause of running injuries.
a) Too much – mileage – depending on your base, athletic ability and running experience, running too much weekly mileage can lead to injuries.
b) Too soon – weekly increases should be limited to no more than 10% of the previous weeks’ total mileage. Increase your weekly and monthly running totals gradually.
c) Too much – change – although it’s important to vary your weekly workouts (discussed below), going from the couch to running every day and also completing heavy conditioning workouts will likely lead to injury. It’s important to gradually (over several months) increase the intensity of your training. Your body needs to be ready to increase mileage, run intervals or perform intense conditioning workouts.
2. Vary the intensity, mileage & route of your workouts. This is essential in my training plans. Changing pace, intensity and duration of runs will help ensure you improve. You can’t expect to improve if you run the same route at the same pace, day after day. Simply varying the routes or running surfaces is one of the best ways to spread out the various forces on your lower body so that no one tissue or tendon gets overworked.
3. Practice proactive recovery – along with the 3 too’s, you should regularly use a foam roller and an occasional ice bath. I use compression socks to help me recover from both hard and long runs. However, to truly be proactive, you need to complete workouts at a level where your body is ready. This means scheduling workouts based on other workouts you will or have already completed that same week or in previous weeks. Coach Jay Johnson says, “keep the hard days hard and easy days easy.” I also recommend taking at least 1 day off (no exercise) per week.
4. Listen to your body – along with being proactive you need to also be reactive with your recovery. If something you’re doing is resulting in pain that forces you to alter your running form, I strongly recommend stopping that particular activity, identifying the root cause of the pain and seeking professional medical advice to eliminate the issue. If the rigors of training for a particular race like a full or half marathon become too painful, you may need to postpone the race or simply run a shorter race like a 5 or 10k.
BONUS: 5. Use a coach – A good running coach can provide you with a training plan that meets your athletic ability, goals and helps to prevent injury. Sometimes I adjust scheduled long runs, speed work and some of the scheduled high-intensity training. This allows more time to rid yourselft of the pain and get healthy so you can get back to your training.
If you’re not doing so already, implementing these strategies will make a big difference to your performances over time. Although each strategy isn’t a “cure-all.” If after working these strategies into your plan and you still are fighting the injury bug, then I would replace one of the days you run with a cross-fit/aerobic (eliptical, stationary bike or swimming) and conditioning workout. If after making this change you still continue to get hurt, then I would visit with a medical professional and if you’re not with one already, I would speak with a coach who can take a look at your training and suggest some alternative workouts that may help you train injury free.
To improve your time in the marathon, you need to include at least one weekly workout that helps you build both endurance and speed. The key to improving is to vary your workouts. This means intensity and distance must both change throughout the plan, so you can gain both the physiological and psychological benefits from completing these workouts.
Following are 7 different types of runs that you can plug into your training plan. As best as possible, I’ve tried to recommend pacing and at what point in your schedule you should be running each type of workout.
8 – 16 X 1-2 min with 1-min recovery. Start reps at 10k pace and progress to 5k pace.
FARTLEK workouts are a great way to build your speed. I like to schedule these at the beginning of my training plan, but I also have 1 longer workout with 16 x 2 minute bursts about 3 weeks out from the race. The benefit of running this workout is that not only does it make you faster, it also makes marathon pace seem easier. The result is that this will help to ensure you can run at an easy effort during the early stages of the marathon. After completing a 10-15 minute warm-up, start the fartleks at 10K pace, then about 1/4 way through increase to 8k pace and then at halfway point to finish, run the repeats at 5K effort.
GOAL PACE RUN
Typically 4-12 miles at MARATHON PACE.
These runs are the best practice for your race. Including marathon goal pace runs throughout your marathon training plan is vital. These workouts will help you with your race-day pacing, but more important, they help you become more economical at marathon pace. This means you become more efficient at burning carbs, which will help you later in your race. I like to build up the distance of workouts throughout my plans. The 12 mile run is typically 2 weeks before the race. I also complete a 7 miler 1 week before and a 4 miler about 4-5 days before.
8-10 X 800m WITH EQUAL RECOVERY
First developed by RunnersWorld’s Bart Yasso. Yasso 800s are included in many training plans, because they work. They build stamina and really give a great indication of your fitness. After your warm-up and strides, run the 800s at the minutes and seconds of your goal marathon time. Take an equal time for recovery between each 800. For example, if you want to run 3 hours, 25 minutes for the marathon, then run your 800s in 3 minutes, 25 seconds, taking a 3:25 jog between each rep. I recommend completing this workout twice during your marathon training. About half way through your plan complete at least 6 reps. About 5 weeks out from your race complete 9-10 x 800s.
Ensure you pace yourself evenly. This workout is only a good predictor of your race time if you complete a minimum of 8 x 800s. For example, if you’re running the 800s in 3:30, this then translates to a 3:30 marathon. Sometimes people think the recovery is too long at first, but trust me, you’ll be glad later in the workout that you took the additional seconds to stay on pace and to complete the workout.
FINISH FAST LONG RUNS
One of the keys to success in any race is teaching your body how to run faster on tired legs, late into the race. One of the best ways to do this, is to complete what Greg McMillan calls “finish fast long runs.”
When you get to near the end of your race, whether it be 10 miles or 22 miles, you’ll have the confidence gained from completing your finish fast long runs to push hard and keep increasing the effort. The reason this workout helps, is you train your body to burn fat more efficiently while running at marathon pace or faster. I like to schedule a finish fast long run every other long run starting about halfway through the plan or once my clients have established a good running base. Typically we start on 14 mile runs. The first 10 miles are at easy pace and then the next 3 are at race pace. The last mile can be at easy as a cool down.
When we get up to 18-20 miles, the first 10-12 are at easy and the last 6-8 are at race pace. Again, leave some room at the end of the run to cool down at easy pace.
6-9 miles with Progressive Pacing
Tempos are included in every marathon training plan, because they work so well. Near the beginning of each plan, I start these runs at 4 miles. Later in the plan we extend the workout to 8 miles. There’s many variations to tempos. My favorite is to divide the workout into thirds. Start the tempo run at 20-30 seconds/mile slower than marathon pace and progress in the second third to marathon pace and then finally to 20-30 seconds/mile faster than marathon pace during the last third.
As a general rule, I instruct those that I coach to go slower at the beginning of the workout so they can finish at the prescribed faster pace and finish the entire workout. Depending on the ability of the runner, when these workouts are included later in a plan, we call for the longer distance (9 miles) and faster pacing (1/2 marathon pace and slightly faster).
Time based ladder. Run at 5K race pace.
After completing warm ups and strides, run 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 minute reps. Recovery is half the time for the preceding rep between intervals. For example, jog 30 seconds after the one minute interval and jog one minute after the two minute interval, all the way until the end. Then complete your cool down.
Descending distance ladder
1600m (1/2 time recovery), 1200m (2 min recovery), 800m (90 second recovery) 400m (1 minute recovery) 200m (30 sec recovery).
This workout is typically completed near the end of your marathon training when we’re trying to put a little speed and leg turnover into our workouts. It will test your fitness as the recovery gets shorter after each interval. The goal is to concentrate on form and running smooth and quick, but under control, even as you tire with the decreasing rest. After your warm-up and strides, start the intervals at 15k pace, light jogging for recovery between each repeat. Increase pace slightly with each interval, finishing the last 400m and 200m strong, but controlled (not an all out sprint).
LONG INTERVALS also known as strength runs
As with Tempo Runs, Strength Runs develop your anaerobic threshold. We are improving our endurance with these workouts and teaching our muscles to work through the discomfort of lactic acid build-up. These runs are in the last 4-5 weeks of my plan. At this point we’re really in marathon or 1/2 marathon race preparation mode and getting our bodies ready to handle the fatigue associated with completing the long race by training our bodies to use less oxygen at the same effort. In other words, hold the optimal marathon pace longer.
3 x 2 miles and 2 x 3 miles run at progressively faster pace. Start at marathon pace for the first set, then complete the 2nd (& 3rd) set at 10 seconds faster than marathon pace.
To get the best benefit, it’s really important to run each set at the correct pace and not too fast. Especially not too fast on the first set, because it may cause you to go too slow on the last set. Also, the recovery is 1/2 mile between sets at easy pace. I typically run strength runs on marked bike paths. It’s much less monotonous than running countless circles on a track.
In summary, I have identified 7 different types of runs that you should incorporate into your marathon or 1/2 marathon training. As discussed above, training with variety is essential to your success as a runner, so you need to incorporate all of these workouts into your plan. Each workout not only has a specific purpose and position within a 16-20 week plan, but each should be run at a specified pace. How to determine which pace is dependent on your goal time and specific athletic ability.
I can help with identifying proper pacing and putting together a personalized training plan. If you’re interested or have questions, please contact me.
Training for and then successfully completing a race is a fantastic achievement. Regardless of age, reaching your goal time, getting to the starting line healthy or simply finishing the race can make you feel so accomplished. This is because of all the hard work that must be completed over months of training. The challenge faced by many runners is the risk of losing motivation and stalling somewhere along the way. I have found that Runners who are consistent with good habits almost always enjoy success.
I work with a lot of competitive people who must balance a busy work, family and commitment filled life along with managing their running. Following are some of key components of their lifestyle that keep them motivated to train and enjoy running success year after year.
Make It Routine
Successful training and staying motivated to train is about finding the right balance in your life. When you’re nailing your workouts, this will lead to greater motivation, which in the long run leads to successful racing. There’s tons of articles discussing how marathon training tears down your body. Although long runs, speed work and marathon paced workouts among other workouts are necessary components of a good training plan, one of the key elements of a good plan is rest. With proper rest, your body will build itself back stronger than before.
Once you identify this balance between hard and easy workouts and rest, you need to make it a routine where each week serves a purpose. If you start experiencing frequent poor workouts or races or if you find yourself often sick or injured, then your training or even your life stresses may be too much. This can be demotivating and is a sign that you aren’t allowing sufficient recovery. Speak with your coach or if you don’t have one, try to include more recovery into your training.
The most important ingredient of success and staying motivated to train is confidence. Having a positive mindset is important. If you’re an experienced runner, you likely know the workouts that give you confidence. I strongly recommend completing these in your training throughout your year to keep you motivated. Greg McMillian and others suggest including “confidence-building” workouts close to your key races. In my experience, I feel great when I’ve been able to run a marathon paced longer tempo within a few weeks of a race.
If you’re a beginner runner, I recommend using the services of a coach who can personalize a training plan with workouts and rest days for you based on your athletic ability. As you progress through the plan, you need to have confidence in the coach’s system.
Even when you don’t have successful workout or race, it’s important that you don’t dwell on it. This is important for all levels and ages of runners. If you’ve put in the work, you still may have a bad day. You can’t let one bad workout or race knock you down. Successful runners are ready to move on to the next day’s training or another race because they know that bad days aren’t a true indication of their fitness.
This goes back to life’s stresses. I’ve learned and often remind my clients that you have to take control over what you can, and stop worrying about what you can’t.
Training consistently month after month and year after year will lead you to your full potential. Avoiding overtraining and the resulting injuries and sickness will allow you to focus on long term goals. Years ago, I trained with the Hanson Method and I recall Luke Humphrey stating that a year of running without injury or illness was much better than a month or two of awesome training. When you train long enough with a smart plan and trust in a proven system, you reach your goals as long as you stick with it.
I believe that morning runners are productive people. Being productive can certainly help your motivation and remove a reason often used for not getting out to run (“I’m too busy). I don’t run every morning, but when I do, I usually plan every hour of my day. In this way, I’m more motivated because of how productive I’ve been throughout the day.
If you’re not used to running early, test the waters and start with one or two days per week. Knowing you have other mornings to sleep a little later can make getting up early less painful. Also, to make running in the morning easier, it’s important to go to sleep earlier or you risk suffering the effects of insufficient sleep.
Strength Train Regularly
Building muscle not only improves your health, but also helps to reduce injury risk and I believe helps your overall running performance. When your performance improves, you’ll be motivated to continue to train. There’s numerous studies documenting endurance athletes and the impact of strength-training programs (either plyometrics or weights) on boosting fitness and improvement of runners’ times in 3K and 5K races.
I detail an effective 15 minute plyometric workout on this site. It’s a tough workout and it’s not for beginners, but I think it’s been effective at keeping me injury free and maintaining my level of fitness. Additionally, I continue to video numerous strength & flexibility workouts on my YouTube channel.
My recommendation is to complete strength training on your hard days. If you have the energy after a track workout or long run, perform a 15-20 minute strength & conditioning workout. In this way, you keep your hard days, hard and your easy days, easy.
It can be challenging to stay motivated to train throughout the year, especially if you typically workout on your own. Work these strategies into your plan. They key is to develop a routine and stay consistent. Try to complete a few workouts each week with others and if possible, use a coach to develop a plan that’s suitable to your abilities and with whom you can discuss modifications for instances when injuries, sickness or life just gets a little too hectic. In the end, motivation is really about having confidence in what you’re doing and how you feel.
For many runners, one of the most common challenges impeding their ability to train for a long race such as a 10k or especially a marathon, is simply finding the time to workout. Following are some tips that my clients use to make running and exercising a habit.
If it’s hard to figure out when you could possibly schedule a workout, try tracking your time in a planner or use an app. If you are struggling to fit in a 30-45 minute workout, you may find that you spend that much time doing tasks that you could easily rearrange. This is appropriate for household chores like laundry, house cleaning, etc that you could do in the evening.
When you find a good time to exercise, I suggest marking it on your calendar and keeping it like you would any other appointment. Alternatively, to stay consistent, use that time in your routine every day.
Break up your runs. Sometimes you might only have 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes later in the afternoon/evening. Trying running during both time frames to get in 6-8 miles.
Find a training plan that’s appropriate for your physical abilities and follow it. Oftentimes, I find that the real reason people don’t seem to have time, is they don’t know what to do. Think of a personalized training plan as a blueprint for your success. Simply follow the workouts prescribed.
Make running a priority. This means that you should plan when you run. Every Sunday, I look at my training plan and determine where/when I will get each workout completed. I plan around my workday, family activities and other commitments.
Take full advantage of downtime. Unless you’re sick or injured, make sure that you get out for a run or get to the gym for some kind of workout. Even if you don’t have time to complete the run that’s on your training schedule, get something completed during downtime if it’s the only time you’ll have to exercise.
Run in the morning. Make sure you get to bed early enough, so you can get up early and run. Completing your planned exercise prior to breakfast is one of the best ways to start your day.
Train during lunch. This one’s for those that work out of an office or from home. I think it’s easier than identifying a separate workout time (like early in the morning or after work). This is a good strategy because you’re exercising during a time that’s likely least important to you. Don’t go to a restaurant for lunch, instead pack your lunch and eat it at your desk after your workout.
Complete a 20 minute High Intensity Circuit Workout using Body Weight. This workout, detailed in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, promotes strength development for all major muscle groups of the body. This sample workout, is a series of exercises that are performed in quick succession, with proper form and technique Exercises are performed for 30 seconds, with 10 seconds of transition time between each. Total time for the entire circuit workout is approximately 7 minutes. Repeat the circuit 3 times for a 20 minute workout. See the image below for details.
ACSMs Health & Fitness Journal (May/June 2013)
Train alone if you need the time to clear your head.
Keep your weekly training routine consistent regarding when you go.
Run to/from work or to/from the bus stop. This works great if you have a place to shower/clean-up at work.
Invest in a jogging stroller. Most middle age runners don’t have kids, but as we approach our mid 50s and early 60s, grandkids come into the picture. If you’re helping to care for your grandkids, consider using a jogging stroller so you can complete your run while your grandkid gets some fresh air or a nap.
Find a gym with childcare. Same as above. If your kids have graduated from child care, this may not be an issue. However, if you’re old enough to have grand kids, don’t let their presence keep you from working out or going for a run. Check them into the childcare for 60 minutes.
Partner with another parent. For runners with younger kids, this is a great strategy. The concept is simple. You run while your friend watches both yours and her kids. Switch places and allow your friend to run while you care for the kids.
When you make time for exercise, you’re likely to keep up with exercise that has value for you. Either the workout’s enjoyable or you benefit from the results you get out of it. When you find a workout has a place in your schedule and a reason to keep coming back, then you’ve created a habit.