Several years ago, when I began taking my running more seriously, I was surprised to learn that so many physical therapists and running instructors emphasized strengthening and stretching gluteus muscles. I even remember the first time I heard this; it was from a Youtube video featuring musculoskeletal therapist Phil Wharton. That seemed odd to me at first because most running injuries that I knew about had to do with knees and ankles, and wasn't it the leg muscles that did all the work? What did my butt have to do with it?
Why are the Glutes So Important?It didn't take long for me to realize the importance of using those butt muscles properly for a healthy run. Your glute muscles, composed of the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus, altogether are much stronger than the leg muscles below them, and if they are in balance and working well then your legs will feel a lot less strain. If they are not being used to their full potential, however, then quads, hamstrings, calves and even muscles in the feet could move out of balance and become overworked to the point of injury. The tricky part is that an injury caused by weak glutes won't be felt in the glutes. Instead, it will be felt as runner's knee, IT band syndrome or even plantar fasciitis in the arch of your foot. The weak glutes, unused and relaxed, will probably feel just fine.
Here's how Wharton puts it:
"When you sit for long periods of time, as most of us do, the very muscles you want to use in running are not able to engage properly. We're slumped forward over a computer, head forward, arms forward. Our range of motion is very limited. The posterior to anterior swing phase is lost. When you've been sitting at work for six hours and you go out for a run, the glutes are functionally asleep and the opposing muscles – quads and hip flexors – compensate. Eventually, they are overworked and injured."If it interests you, check out my previous post about how I switched to a standing desk to help prevent issues like this.
Mental and PhysicalSo glutes need to be strong for healthy running, right? No medical professionals or experienced runners would disagree with that statement, but it's only half the issue. Suppose you work hard to develop strong glutes and acquire one of those nice round "bubble butts" that seem to be all the rage these days. It really isn't going to do you much good if you're not actually using your glute muscles when you run.
This is where glute activation becomes more of a mental game. Every time you extend your leg forward and land during a run, your brain then needs to send the signal to flex your butt muscles to pull your leg back in preparation for the next liftoff. If this doesn't happen, then your quads, hammys and hips are doing most of the work and they'll wear out fast.
|Strong glutes start with your brain.|
Not Just for Injury PreventionIn addition to dodging injury, there's another perk of utilizing your glutes while running: speed. Since your gluteus muscles are much stronger than your quads or hammies, drawing power from them is one of the most effective ways to increase your mph. Many runners will tell you stories about how they've trained hard for extended periods and were still passed by everyone on the road... until they worked on strengthening their behind and found a wealth of unharnessed speed.
Making the ChangeI'll admit, I've been guilty of this myself and it has taken a bit of work to develop a healthy glute habit. I started by just trying to flex my alternating left and right glute muscles when each leg moved back. At first, I had trouble keeping up with a 90-cadence pace because I just couldn't seem to flex and release the muscles fast enough to match the pace. Then it turned into a problem of remembering to keep it up, as I continuously fell into old habits. The good news is that it really was just a matter of repetition for me and after literally thousands of steps everything began happen automatically. At that point, the process changed from me intentionally flexing my glute muscles as my leg pulled back to my body actually pulling my leg back via my glutes Do you see the important distinction there?
Do you think you may need to fire your glutes more on your runs? If you're having trouble building speed, are prone to injury or are new to running and want to develop a healthy form then I strongly recommend it. I think the best way to work on the mental part for yourself is to simply follow my example and work on flexing your butt muscle alternately as you run. Just do it, and do it a lot. If your experience is anything like mine then you'll know you're doing it right by the sore butt that will begin following your runs, at least until your body adapts to the new habit and strengthened muscles.
Of course, developing strong glute muscles as part of a strength training routine will also help tremendously. This will help you develop an extra edge of strength and also teach your body what it feels like to fire those muscles properly. Sprinting intervals, running hills and running up stairs are all great practical butt-building drills, but simple home workouts can also do wonders.
There are about a billion different glute-strengthening exercises and videos online (probably due to the fame of Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian), but here is a collection I like. This beginner's Glute 101 video was developed specifically for runners by Natural Running Center, and if these exercises get too easy then you can follow up with the intermediate Glute 202 or advanced Glute 303 videos.
Side Effect Warning: doing these exercises may also result in nice looking booty.