As a lifelong runner with a basic understanding of human physiology, I thought I'd heard the litany of possible running injuries—and experienced most of them. But the diagnosis I got this year took me by surprise: glutes not firing. This is fresh. Isn't it? Seems I'm not alone. I've heard of at least five others with the same malady, including 2:12 marathoner Jason Lehmkuhle and 2:45 marathoner Erin Ward. I wondered if runners had suddenly changed their gait or their shoes or their lives, causing this malady, or whether an old problem was only newly understood and diagnosed. Chicken or egg? Turns out, it's a little of both.Phil Wharton, a musculoskeletal therapist and co-founder of Wharton Performance, and Jim Rakow, a certified athletic trainer and sports medicine outreach coordinator with Twin Cities Orthopedics, agree that the glut of glute complaints arises both from a larger pool of under-trained runners and a better understanding by health professionals of the vital integration of all muscle groups involved in running. (Find out how fit you are and test your major muscle groups with these 10 DIY Tests for Overall Fitness.)
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"Rehabbing the glute is rarely the only answer," says Rakow. "A rehab program should focus on getting the whole kinetic chain working, from core to foot, in a coordinated fashion."
Wharton recommends whole-body postural alignment and Active Isolated Stretching to reawaken muscles and restore full range of motion. AIS employs opposing muscles—quads, flexors, abductors—to lengthen and strengthen glutes and hamstrings. Wharton likes to focus on form, encouraging runners to consciously employ muscles through the full range of motion, thoughtfully recreating the running form that came naturally when we were children. "Without even thinking about it, we used all the muscles through their full range of motion," he says. (Work on improving your running with these 3 Little Tips for Better Form.)
"My strategies have evolved to more active weight-bearing and balance exercises," Rakow says, "because they translate better to running." Strong glutes that don't perform in a coordinated fashion with other muscles through the whole running motion are of no use—strength and coordination are best developed through exercises that closely mimic running.
Both Wharton and Rakow suggest the big "muscle" located between the ears is critical to glute activation. Think about your glutes—tensing and releasing, being aware of knee alignment, using glutes to push off while walking, and exaggerated backward walking. These cues can be accomplished throughout the day and as a pre-run warm-up to reawaken neural pathways and give lazy glutes a kick in the shorts. (Are your nerves to blame? See how to Overcome Your Fitness Mental Blocks.)
Two Glute-Firing TestsStand straight with head, shoulders, buttocks and heels against a wall. Does that feel unnatural? If so, you're out of alignment, which can be a red flag.
Do your glutes complain when you perform 20 donkey kicks (on hands and knees, kick one leg out, back and up)? If they fatigue, they're weak. Donkey kicks can be used both to diagnose and to treat weak glutes—build up to 30 per leg.
Four Ways to Wake Up Your Glutes
1. Lying on your back, bring one knee toward the opposite shoulder, performing most of the movement with the active leg and only using your hands to pull your knee to the farthest range of the stretch. Hold for a moment and return.
2. Standing on your left leg, reach with your right arm across your body to the floor. Then straighten up and reach diagonally above and behind your head with your right arm. Do 10 to 20 on each side.
3. Stand with one foot on the edge of a box and the other swinging free. With an elastic band around both ankles, swing the non-weight-bearing leg forward and back, keeping your hips level and stable.
4. In push-up position, face down with your body in a straight plank position, raise your right leg, tensing your glutes. Hold for five seconds and return to original position. Do 10 to 15 per leg.race.