By Michelle Hamilton
Photographs by Joshua Simpson and Guido Vitti
In the battle against injury, a runner’s best armour is a strong body. Strong muscles, ligaments, and tendons guard against impact, improve form, and lead to a consistent gait. “If muscles are weak, one footfall will not be like the rest,” says Reed Ferber, PhD, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary. “How your knee turns in, your hip drops, your foot pronates changes with each step. But with strength, these movements are the same each time, so your mind and body know what to expect.”
When a strong body runs, the brain tells the muscles to brace for impact before the foot hits the ground. The glutes and core contract to steady the pelvis and leg. The foot and ankle muscles are activated, providing a solid foundation to land upon.
But if one stabiliser isn’t strong enough or isn’t recruited, other muscles get overworked, and the entire chain of movement is disrupted, says Eric Orton, a running coach featured in Born to Run and the creator of the recently launched B2R Training System, which combines strength training with form changes to reduce injury risk.
Most runners lack strength in at least one muscle group, as well as in their neuromuscular pathways – the lines of communication between brain and body, says Jay Dicharry, who has a master’s degree in physical therapy and directs a biomechanics lab. He’s also the author of Anatomy for Runners. Strong pathways help muscles fire more efficiently and in quick succession, which enables you to run with greater control and stability.
These exercises, adapted from Dicharry’s and Orton’s programmes, strengthen running’s key muscles and those neuromuscular pathways. You can do them as a full routine or insert them into your day while watching TV two or three times a week. If possible, do the moves barefoot.
Donkey Kicks with Bar
You’re also strengthening the transverse abdominus, a stabilising muscle in your core.
- Begin on all fours with the bar across your lower back.
- Lift one leg back, knee bent at 90 degrees, keeping the bar still.
- If the bar moves, perform smaller movements.
- Do 50 reps on each leg.
- Stand with your left side near a wall.
- Bend your left knee 90 degrees and make contact with the wall.
- Push your knee into the wall and hold, while keeping your body stable (i.e., don’t press your shoulder against the wall).
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Do two or three sets on each side.
Single-Leg Balance on Forefoot
- Balance on one leg on your forefoot (barefoot is ideal), heel off the ground.
- You should feel the side of your hip (gluteus medius) working.
- Hold for as long as you can keeping the body tall.
- When you lose balance, rest, then repeat three more times.
Eccentric Heel Drop
- Stand on one leg on a curb or step with your heel off the edge.
- Lift up onto your toes, then slowly lower down until your heel is below the step.
- Start with a set of 10 on each leg.
- Build to three sets of 15.
- Lie on the floor on your side, legs stacked.
- Bend both knees, keeping legs and feet aligned.
- Open the knees like a clam shell while keeping your feet together.
- Do two sets of 30 on each side.
Put a resistance band around your thighs.
Jumping exercises increase elasticity – the springs that give running a light, bouncy feel. But they can also teach you how to minimise your impact on landing.
If you’re not currently strength training, add these moves after performing the other exercises in this programme for eight weeks.
- Use a step at a gym (or find wide steps at a park or building) about midshin height.
- Standing with the step directly in front of you, jump up with both feet landing softly.
- Step back down.
- Do 10 to 20 times.
- Place a pole (or broom) on the ground and jump over it quickly side to side, staying on the ground as little as possible.
- Aim for three sets of 10 jumps.
Switch out the pole for something taller, like a foam roller; the added height creates a bigger challenge.
Stability Ball Bridge
- Lie on the ground with calves on a stability ball, arms extended out.
- Lift your hips up off the floor so your body forms a straight line from ankles to shoulders.
- Once you can hold comfortably – and without your hips dropping – for 60 seconds, move on to a greater challenge.
1) Place your feet on the stability ball and cross your arms over your chest to perform the move.
2) From the lifted position, do single leg lifts, alternating lifting your left and then your right leg into the air.
3) From the lifted position, rotate your body in each direction, with control, to activate more core muscles.
Stability Ball Walkout
- Lie face down, stomach on the ball, palms on the floor in a push-up position.
- Walk your arms out, keeping your abdominals tight, until your shins are on the ball.
- Keep your back straight.
- Hold for 30 seconds; build to two sets of 60 seconds.
1) Walk out until just your feet are resting on the ball.
2) From a plank position with shins on ball, pull your knees to your chest.
Single-Leg Balance and Squat
- Balance on one foot (shoes off, ideally), with your back straight, arms in running motion, and your weight evenly distributed between your fore and rear foot.
- Once balanced, press your big toe into the floor and hold for 30 seconds.
- Aim for three sets on each leg.
1) Standing on one leg, lower your hips back, bending your standing knee. Then push back up.
2) If you can’t keep your hips even and your knee aligned over your foot, stick with just the balance move.