Prevent Injury with Glute Engagement (Coaches Corner)

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If you are a runner, you need to learn how to prevent injury with glute engagement. Period. End of story. And guess what? It isn’t that hard! Find out how and link up with Running Coaches Corner!

This is an update of a post previously published September 2015

The Issue of Underactive glutes

In talking with various runners and coachees over the years, many of them comment that they are getting some tightness and the feelings of the beginnings of muscle cramps in their legs (for many their calves, for others areas around their knees). Some noted Iliotibial Band (ITB) achiness, but you know where nobody felt tightness?

Why The Tightness, and What Does that Mean?

Why were they feeling such tightness and strain? I’ve been asked if salt pills might fix it; maybe they were having electrolyte imbalances. While I am not discounting that they may have been dealing with something of the sort, I think that it is far more likely that they were simply dealing with muscle fatigue as they reach longer and longer mileage. 

But it isn’t just generalized muscle fatigue: notice that no one said that their bums were sore or tired! This is a prime indicator of less-than-optimal gluteal engagement, which is a big problem, as a) our glutes offer us massive amounts of power, and b) underactive glutes are one of the major causes for running injuries (I’ve had several as a result!). This article by Running Times is a great explanation of how such insufficient or inhibited muscles can spell big problems for us.

Why Do We Care about Glute Engagement?

In short, having inactive glutes mean that our other muscles have to work even harder, and thus they fatigue more quickly and are often overworked as a result, leading to strain. If all the muscles were working as they should, they would be sharing the load. Add the fact that this is not the case with the fact that they are hitting big mileage… and of course there is strain!

To make matters even worse, many of the runners that I work with live in flat places like Chicago, or plan on running flat marathons, like the Chicago Marathon. Sure, there are few rises here and there, but let’s be real, it’s like an A cup on a lady. It can be appreciated, but they ain’t rolling C’s. (obviously, that is not a comment on my feelings regarding breasts). Also, if you want suggestions for incorporating hill workouts when you live in a flat area, check out this post.

We all know that running is a highly repetitive movement–that is why there are so many injuries of that nature. We are increasing endurance and strength each week, but that doesn’t mean that you body isn’t like, um why am I flexing/extending 80769765965 times? 

Engaging Your Glutes to Prevent Injury

Alright, so we know that we need glute engagement for power but above all to prevent injury. What are some ways to get those glutes engaged mid run?

Run like a goof: Shake up your run. Create “hills” where there are none. Switch up the run to get everybody (aka your muscles) stretched out, happy, and reactivated. I can remember a time in every marathon and most of my long runs where I took time to focus on running differently or doing dynamic stretches mid run to “unlock” my muscles and my mind. And yes, if you watch me mid long run, you might find me flexing my ass cheeks back and forth every so often.

Incorporate a few dynamic drills at the beginning of your run after a light job to help us finish warming up. From high knees to butt kicks, such motions help our muscles to wake up and stretch out. Then do the same motions, perhaps staring halfway, to wake everybody (again, talking about your muscles) back up and to help reengage the glutes. I like to tell people to do the “duck”–tuck your tailbone and stride with my legs out to the side a bit (running with my feet straight, but on separate paths, as if they are on ski tracks). Doing this move for a bit (even just 15 strides) helps me reengage.

Well, apparently I was right to think this, as A Sweat Life published a piece on things learned from Marathon World Record Holder Deena Kastor, and the 7th item had to do with the Chicago Marathon Course.

“This is advice given to me by a teammate who became my coach for a few years, Terrence Mahon. He said because the course is flat, you’re utilizing your muscles the same way the entire time. So he gave me advice to surge out of turns — anytime I made a turn, to just increase my cadence for a few strides. I loved that advice — it just seemed to get me out of that monotonous rhythm and really helped in 2005. Nothing crazy; just increasing your rhythm for a few strides gives you a mental and physical break.”

I love it when I give similar advice to a marathon legend without even knowing it. #brilliant. So the next time that you are out on your long run, do yourself a favor, and add in such surges (think caterpillar run!), strides, high knees, butt kicks, or ducks. By doing so, you can help prevent common injuries like ITB, Achilles, Calf, or hamstring pain by engaging muscles to work together so that they share the load and don’t get overworked and also give yourself some pep in your step and reengage your brain by having a little fun and variety!

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