While strong, well defined quads, hamstrings and calves help runners, the strength and reliance on these muscles results in under active glutes.
When the glutes are under active, they're likely to also be weak. Because of the glutes' role in stabilizing the hips, as well as producing hip extension -- driving the leg down and back when running -- under active and weak glutes can lead to a myriad of negative side effects. These include less than optimal performance, as well as overuse injuries of the hips, iliotibial (IT) band, knee, ankle, achilles tendon, foot and plantar fascia.
Work on activating and strengthening the glutes at workouts in addition to your runs.
Three muscles make up the glute complex: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.
The gluteus maximus extends the hip (driving the leg down) and externally rotates the hip. The gluteus medius and minimus abduct the hip (bring the leg out to the side) and prevent adduction of the hip (when you bring the leg in towards the midline of the body.)
When all three of the glutes function properly and are strong, you can stabilize the hip joint and get it to work properly.
With the hip stabilized (centered) and the gluteus maximus working to extend the hip, the hip, knee, ankle and foot are in a better position to work properly and stay healthy.
Getting the Glutes to Fire
Getting the glutes to fire, or turn on, is the first step. You must be able to feel them contracting, as you would feel your bicep contracting when you flex the arm.
To start, lie on your stomach with your legs straight. An effective cue is to imagine a walnut between your butt cheeks, and your cheeks as a nut cracker. Squeeze your glutes to crush and break open the walnut. Focus on the feeling of the contraction in your glutes.
Try the same thing from a standing position. Simply stand and try to contract your glutes to “crush” the walnut. Doing this often throughout the day helps to reinforce the activation of your glutes.
Next, activate the glutes in a more “functional pattern” that relates more to running.
Achieve this by performing the wall glute iso march exercise.
To do: Start with your hands on a wall and feet about 3 to 4 feet away from the wall so that your body makes a 30- to 40-degree angle to the floor. Contract your glutes (again crush the walnut) and focus on maintaining that contraction on one leg as you lift the other leg to 90 degrees. Drive the heel of the down leg hard into the ground and squeeze the glute. Hold this position for 1 to 3 seconds before switching to the other side.
Once you become efficient with this exercise, pick up the speed and stay more on the toes, switching quickly from leg to leg while still feeling the glute of the down leg contracting. This movement is similar to striking the ground when running.
Time to Strengthen the Glutes
Now it's time to strengthen the glutes to continue progress and reduce injury.
Glute bridge variations are a great way to start to strengthen the glutes. Start by lying on your back. Bring your feet back towards your body so they are about 4 to 6 inches from your glutes. Keep the feet in line with the hips.
Engage your abs to prevent the pelvis from tipping forward. Contract your glutes and drive through your heels as you bridge your hips off the ground, squeezing hard at the top for 1 to 3 seconds. Lower your hips back to the floor under control and repeat for two to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
From the standard glute bridge you can progress to a single leg glute bridge. The set up and execution is the same but this time you will have only one leg in contact with the ground.
Also focus on preventing the hips from rotating, which requires more work from the core and glutes. Complete two to four sets of six to eight reps per side.
To target the gluteus medius and minimus a bit more, perform band walks. Stand and place a looped resistance band around your legs just above the knees. Keep the abs engaged and push your hips back slightly as you soften the knee joints.
Take a slightly wider than hip-width stance as you feel the resistance of the band. Take a small steps to the side, never coming closer than hip width apart. Focus on feeling the top back side of the hips and glutes. Repeat 15 to 20 steps in each direction. Complete two to four sets.
Classic Lifting Exercise
Once you're proficient with these exercises, exercises such as deadlifts and single leg deadlifts are great for glute activation and strength. Your focus must remain on driving through the hips and contracting the glutes hard at the top of the movement.
For the deadlift, start using a trap bar or a barbell from a rack support. Place the feet about hip width apart and keep the abs engaged as you push the hips back, soften the knees and fold over at the hips.
Grab the bar and keep the back flat as you push through your heels to activate the glutes and extend the hip. Stand tall at the top squeezing the glutes hard. Lower the bar back down in a controlled fashion, always keeping the abs engaged. Go for two to four sets of four to eight reps.
For the single-leg deadlift, stand and hold a pair of dumbbells. Keep the abs engaged and hinge forward over the right leg, extending the left leg behind you in a balance. Keep the knee of the non moving leg soft. Once the dumbbells reach roughly midshin of the down leg, return to a standing position as you squeeze the glute of the working right leg hard at the top. Go for two to four sets of six to 10 reps per side.
Your Action Plan
To get the glutes to fire during running takes time and dedication outside of the track or treadmill. Spend 10 to 20 minutes every day to tune into and activate your glutes.
After becoming efficient with activating your glutes, the lower level strengthening exercises such as the glute bridge, iso march and band walks can be completed daily. Perform the trap bar deadlifts and single-leg deadlifts two to three times per week with at least one day off in between.