As a runner, your quads, calves and hamstrings may be powerful, but you are lacking buns of steel. A common ailment among even the fastest of runners is that the stronger muscles of the legs fire, but the glutes just come along for the ride. Ideally, your glutes should stabilize the pelvis. If the pelvis isn't stabilized, you may experience Achilles tendinitis, knee pain or illiotibial band syndrome. Getting the glutes to fire while you run requires you to work on them outside of the track or trail.
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Gluteal Muscle Overview
The gluteus maximus, the largest of the three gluteal muscles, forms the rounded shape of your buttocks. The gluteus medius and minimus are located at the outer hip and enable you to abduct the hip, or move the leg away from the body, as well as assist in stabilizing the pelvis. The glutes do not propel your body forward during a run. The glutes serve the seemingly benign action of keeping the hips centered while you run. But centered hips means that your knees, ankles and feet are all in alignment, too.
The first step in getting your glutes to fire during running is to become aware of them. If you don't know what it feels like when they contract, then you won't be able to notice if they are firing or not. Learn how to contract your glutes by sitting on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your back straight. Squeeze your buttocks as you feel the back of your thighs lift gently from the floor. Then, contract one side of your glutes at a time. Repeat the seated gluteal contractions for a minute or so and then try to create the sensation while you are standing up.
Exercises to Strengthen the Glutes
As long as your glutes are weak, the stronger muscles of the quads and hamstrings will take over during your run. Do resistance-training exercises in the gym to build up glute strength. For example, the single-leg deadlift builds the glute muscles. Stand with a dumbbell in your right hand, allowing it to hang in front of your right thigh. Hinge forward from your hips and lift the right leg behind you as you lower the weight to mid shin of your left leg. Squeeze your glutes to return you to a stand. Glute bridges and quadruped hip raises -- done by getting onto all fours and lifting one leg up toward the ceiling as you squeeze the buttocks -- are other exercises runners can do to build glute strength. The single-leg squat helps activate all of your gluteus muscles.
Prescription for Your Glutes
Do strength-training exercises targeting the glutes at least twice per week on nonconsecutive days for one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions. If you suspect your glutes are weak and you aren't seeing any difference after a month or two of glute-specific training, seek out the advice of a physical therapist or a personal trainer. These specialists can tell you if you are doing the exercises correctly or if, indeed, the root of your problems are weak glutes. You may have other form issues or muscle imbalances impeding your running performance.