I know a number of people in their mid 40’s who are experiencing aches and pains and are wondering whether they should stop running. Impacting the same joint over and over again without any consideration for the rest of your structure is never a good idea. You wouldn’t do bicep curls for an hour 3 times a week without working the rest of your body and if you did you’d know about it. The key is everything in moderation and the other key is balance.
When doing bicep curls you would have a good idea that you’re working the fronts of your arms, which may make you realise you also need to work the backs of your arms (triceps) for balance; however, it’s far more convoluted than that. The biceps work with the triceps, shoulders, traps, and lats to allow the shoulder and elbow to function properly. Without these other muscles, over-trained biceps can lead to painful imbalances, poor posture, shoulder pain, and restricted movement.
When it comes to running and the leg muscles, you can experience similar knock-on effects if you run too much and do little else. It means you’re neglecting some very important ancillary muscles and this can affect your mobility. The fact is that our bodies are highly interconnected machines, and being particularly weak or strong in one area of the body can have surprisingly powerful effects on other, seemingly unrelated areas.
As you move your leg forward to run you’re primarily using your quadriceps (quads) muscles, which are located at the fronts of your thighs. These muscles bend and extend your knee when walking or running and also flex the hips, allowing you to lift your foot off the ground. This can make runners disproportionately strong and tight through the quads compared to the hamstrings. This dysfunction can have an adverse impact on leg posture and positioning, increasing the risks of injury in the lower back, pelvis, hips and knees. It is therefore important to stretch the quads after a run.
The hamstrings (backs of the legs) are a group of muscles that are also involved in running. They initiate the knee bend and also flex the knees, allowing the feet to move back towards the bum; they also assist the extension of the thighs by moving the upper leg backward. Runners are notoriously known for having tight hamstrings, which may actually be long and weak due to tightening of the quads. This inflexibility is exacerbated by runners who also have desk jobs and spend the majority of the day seated. Strengthening the hamstrings therefore becomes important.
The glutes (bum muscles) are especially important in running because they provide stability, power and strength in the pelvis and hip. Hip extension primarily involves the glutes, which also maintain proper knee alignment. If you are a committed runner and do little else then you are likely to have weak glutes, which can lead to bad posture and excess strain on the lower back as well as knee pain and other issues. I’ve written another blog about the glute muscles, which may be worth a read. Strengthening this area is important.
The hip flexors also work to stabilise the hips and move the legs forward and back, they help with good posture. They’re often neglected and yet are an important muscle group, if they are weak and tight then they can cause hip and knee pain as well as poor posture, which leads to other issues.
The calves are another essential muscle group for runners. They help push off the ground to move forward and extend and flex each foot as you push off. They help to maintain balance and ankle flexion and absorb much of the shock each time you take a step when running. Calf weakness/dysfunction is believed to be one of the leading causes of a range of injuries, including calf strains, shin splints, achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and even hip or hamstring issues.
There are also a range of assisting muscles, which are critical for keeping good form while running, these can help ward off discomfort/injury and include the muscles of the core and upper body. Your pelvis is the muscle attachment site for both the quads and hamstrings. Your core muscles, including your abdominals attach to the pelvis too. When you walk or run your pelvis needs to stay still and in control in order to provide a stable platform for your legs to operate under. If your pelvis wobbles around then you risk injuring your lower back as well as other areas.
If your core and abdominal muscles are not doing their job correctly then your hamstrings will step in to help to stabilise your pelvis. When the hamstrings are sharing the load with the core muscles they will not only tighten but also reduce their efficiency at what they are primarily designed to do. Regular hamstring injuries can be due to weak core and abdominal muscles!
Strengthening and improving your core muscles and their ability to activate correctly will enable your hamstrings to do the job they were designed to do. This doesn’t mean crazy core work and tonnes of sit ups, it means slow controlled movements to improve stability throughout the pelvis and strength within the deepest core muscles.
So, in conclusion, running isn’t bad for you but if you don’t strengthen other muscles alongside your running programme then the impacts can be severe. Doing just 20 to 30 minutes of strength training 3 times per week will be highly beneficial to ensure longevity, especially if you spend long periods sitting down. Good posture is important for everybody but for runners it is vital because bad form has knock-on effects. An important point to note for runners is that just stretching your hamstrings may not be the solution for your tightness. It is important to find the root cause of the problem rather than just attacking the symptom or you’ll just have other issues to deal with. If you do suffer from tight hamstrings then you may want to consider your lifestyle, quad muscles and core muscles.
Never ignore pain, it’s your body’s way of telling you that something isn’t right. If you make the right changes then you can reap the benefits. A personal trainer can go a long way to setting you on the right path.