As runners, we all know the value of hip strength. Our hips are such a key factor when it comes to running with strong form and stability. Hip strength is important, but the ability to utilize our hips, and thus our glutes while running is imperative.
Many runners have probably heard "you're not engaging your glutes," as the cause for many running injuries. This is very real. The problem is that we can do all the strength training in the world and have rock solid hips and glutes, but if our brains are not willing to engage them while running, it isn't really serving the purpose intended. Simply making that body part stronger, is not enough. We must also rewire the brain to engage that muscle.
Runners tend to be very quad dominant, so of course our body is going to naturally deflect to the quads to get a job accomplished because 1) that neuropathway is paved the clearest and strongest, 2) why would we use a weaker muscle when our quads are so strong? This is a major problem because relying too much on our quads eliminates the use of our largest muscles, our glutes, and can lead to issues with our hips, knees and ankles.
Women postpartum can have an especially difficult time engaging their glutes because our hips have been so stretched out, these muscles are very loose and have a difficult time maintaining stability. Therefore, our brains deflect to the muscles that will provide us the most stability in the moment: quads.
So, how do we fix this?
First: Yes, hip & glute strengthening exercises are a MUST.
Something to note is that core engagement is imperative is basically every exercise.
**Sidenote: I HIGHLY ENCOURAGE the use of a professional who can watch you perform exercises to make sure you are doing them correctly. Doing these exercises just a tiny bit wrong can prove to be a complete waste of time or even create low back issues. Doing things correctly is imperative in order to benefit at all and therefore having expert eyes on you is necessary. This can be with the help of a strength coach, physical therapist, personal trainer, etc.
Some of my favorites are:
Hip Extension with a March: basically you keep your shoulders and upper back on a bench or any surface that allows your feet to be planted on the floor with knees bent at 90 degrees in alignment with your back and hips. Keeping your core engaged and back flat, march one leg at a time (maintaining ankle dorsiflexion), and aim to keep your pelvis parallel to the ground. You do not want either side to lift.
Bridge: The important aspect of this again is that you are not arching your back thus putting the strain on your knees and low back and not in your glutes and hips. You can also do this single leg and add the march.
Glute Pulses: Lay on the ground on your stomach, bend your legs at the knees at 90 degrees, keep your ankle dorsiflexion, and pulse each leg one at a time as though you want the bottom of your feet to move towards the ceiling. If you are not feeling this in your glutes, put a pillow under your hips so the tension shifts from your low back to your glutes and hips.
Deadlift: With a slight bend in your knees, lean forward, keeping your back flat by tilting your pelvis as if your tucking your butt under. This should help you feel it in your glutes and not your low back. Engage your core, and when you rise back up, make sure you are doing this from your glutes and hips and not from your back.
Single Leg RDL: Similar to the deadlift, but balancing on one leg. This is super important for runners and we are constantly balancing on one leg. This stability is really important and makes this move the most functional for runners of the exercises mentioned thus far. Keeping your pelvis level is really important so you feel this in your hips, glutes, and some hamstring, and not just moving on momentum but actually engaging your muscles. If your knee is collapsing, you are likely not lifting and lowering with your glutes and hips.
Standing Hip Abduction: This is the hardest for me because my hips are so unstable right now postpartum, I tend to lean to the side. This defeats the purpose of even doing the exercise, although this exercise is also one of the most functional for runners as it includes balancing and proprioception. Standing on a book or something elevated, balance on one leg and extend the other leg to the side.
You don't have to extend your leg very far, even just a few inches. This should be felt in the hip of the standing leg. If you can't yet do this without leaning, it may be better to first begin by holding onto a counter or wall to prevent yourself from leaning until you develop the stability to do so independently.
Now that you have some strength exercises in your repertoire and your hips and glutes are super duper strong, how do you USE these muscles while running?
Well, by repeatedly practicing these moves daily, you are strengthening the neuropathways necessary to use them.
It is also necessary that you stretch your quads and calves so they are not tight. If they are too tight, it will force them to be used more dominantly than the glutes. This is also why ankle dorsiflexion during these exercises is so important.
The most important thing is translating what you are strengthening to running. It is impossible to tell yourself to use your glutes and then just do it and also impossible mentally to constantly have to remind yourself to do that. Something I do is imagine I am holding a piece of paper between my butt cheeks while running and I can't let it drop. This is just the tiniest micro-squeeze. This helps engage my glutes and keep my hips strong, putting less strain on the muscles that provide me stability by giving a little more external rotation. (I have a natural internal rotation in my legs.) This comes with a caveat though: it is not possible, nor positive to have to squeeze a muscle throughout the duration of a run. Being relaxed is ideal. This is more a mental cue to remind me to edit my form because my hip weakness postpartum is so prominent.
Over time, mental cues become less necessary and repetitive as better habits form: i.e., improved form becomes habitual. Eventually, calling on mental cues is important only when fatigued. Over time of training, fatigue should occur after longer durations of running.
Hip strength and stability is incredibly important. Your pelvis is really the center of everything. Without hip strength and stability, you cannot use your big core muscles effectively, such as glutes, hips, hamstrings, core, and end up overusing what is already the strongest OR tightest, in many runner's cases this ends up being the quads.
The importance of implementing useful and effective hip strengthening and stability exercises for all runners is not just to increase strength and stability of these muscles, but strengthen the neuropathways that activate the use of these muscles during motion. By practicing these drills and strength exercises, you're effectively building habits of using the right muscles by reinforcing those pathways in your brain. We say running is 90% mental, and it really is. Even the physical stuff is mostly mental.