Running is one of the best cardiovascular exercises that there is.
It’s a fast way to shed those extra pounds for good and help you tone your body—especially your legs.
Nevertheless, if you don’t balance your running with the right cross training strength program, you will, over time, develop muscle imbalances, which can compromise your performance and increase the risks of overuse injury.
That’s why today I decided to share with you some of my thoughts and practical training tips to help you treat and prevent muscles imbalance—so you could run your best and stay pain- and injury-free for the long haul.
But before I do that, let’s first see what muscles imbalances are all about…
So are you excited?
Then here we go…
Muscle Imbalances Demystified
Basically, when one muscle group is stronger (or weaker) than its opposing muscle, you’ve got yourself an imbalance.
For instance, if you are a pull-up junkie and spend a lot of time doing upper body pulling exercises, but never do bench presses or push-ups, there is a substantial probability that your back is far stronger than your chest, resulting in, often injurious, strength imbalance in your upper body.
And it’s just those who lift weights that are at risk.
The fact is if you do any sort of sport with a repetitive motion—think running—then there is a strong chance of injury brought by muscular imbalances.
And when it comes to the world of runners, the bulk of them are plagued by muscle imbalances, costing them unnecessary pain and limited performance.
So what’s the next step?
I hate to sound like Captain Obvious here, but the best way to fix muscle imbalances is to choose exercises that target the opposing (often weaker) muscle groups.
I have been a true running success story for so many years.
I lost all the extra weight, my resting heart rate dropped down, I could take the stairs without a huff, I felt fit, and damn I did look good.
But I had no idea that the many miles I spent on the road have set the stage for muscles imbalances.
In fact, I blame this sticky problem for a reoccurring runner’s knee that I been struggling with for at least three years.
However, when I started taking a well-rounded approach to running by doing strength training (the right resistance training for runners) and yoga on a regular basis, most of my issues vanished, and my running became pain-free, which is something we all want, don’t we?
But before I delve into some of the training strategies you should do to fix your muscle imbalances, let’s first take a look at the inner mechanics of this problem, and how it’s compromising your running and overall fitness level.
A Fight of Planes – The Scoop behind the imbalances
Sure, speedwork, the hills, and the long runs do indeed make your body strong and fit.
But it’s done at a cost—a substantial cost.
But when running, our body relies mainly on a few specific muscles to propel us forward.
These muscles can become so strong that they overshadow lesser-worked muscles.
Sagittal plane rules supreme
When we run, our body moves mostly through the sagittal plane—forward and back motion.
But the other two motions, frontal plane, and transverse plane, are pushed to the side.
So which muscles are in charge of which plane?
That’s why in runners you will usually find that the calves and quads are strong since they are the sagittal plane movers.
While on the other hand, muscles in charge of the two other planes, such as the shin muscles and the glutes tend to become disproportionally weaker compared to the other muscles.
Problems linked to muscle imbalances
The muscle imbalances produced by the body’s natural tendency to rely more on one muscle group than the other can put pressure and stress on joints, ligaments, and the muscles themselves, leading to stalled fitness growth, discomfort, pain, even serious overuse injury, such as knee pain, muscle strain, Achilles tendonitis, piriformis syndrome and IT band syndrome.
Common Muscle Imbalances in Runners
Each imbalance can have an adverse impact on your running and overall health.
For instance, weak core muscles—the muscles of the abs, lower back, and even the glutes—can affect posture, running efficiency, which in turn can lead to bad form, mediocre breathing, and overuse injuries.
Another dangerous imbalance that’s a sign of trouble is weakness in the hips and glutes.
And that’s not the whole story.
When the muscles are being overused, especially the hamstrings, they become susceptible to inflammation, pulls and chronic tightness, which is always bad for business.
Enough with the theory.
Let’s get the ball rolling and learn some practical training guidelines.
The Runner’s Muscle Imbalances Fix Workout
Here are some of the key strength building exercises you need to do as a runner to address and fix these weaknesses.
The 8 exercises I’m sharing with you today target common muscle imbalances found in runners, and with consistent training, you will get them fixed.
Perform this routine two to three times a week, as either a part of your strength training routine or doing the post-run period.
If you suspect that you have some major muscle imbalances going on, then do yourself a favor and do this routine diligently on cross training days up until you start seeing signs of improvement.
1. Seated Row
Most runners who do not follow a strict strength routine usually have the upper body strength of a 10-year old.
The good news is that this exercise helps you develop the upper body strength you need to maintain a good running posture—stopping you from hunching over.
Begin by sitting as tall as you can with a slight arch in the lower back with legs extended.
Next, inhale and draw the handlebars towards your ribcage without shrugging your shoulders upward or backward.
Focus on “pinching” your shoulder blades together.
Make sure to perform the movement slowly, keep the elbows tucked at the sides and lift your chest throughout the eccentric portion of the movement.
Release slowly and repeat.
Aim for two to three set of 10- to 12-rep.
2. Single Leg Squat
The Single Leg Squat is one of the best functional exercises that build strength and mobility in the glutes, hips and in the core as well as improving balance and coordination.
It also builds stabilization in the pelvis.
When the pelvis is steady and firm, your entire body, gait, and stride become more balanced, too.
This is especially helpful for runners with foot pronation issues.
Stand tall with feet hip-width distance apart, then find your center, and shift your weight to your right foot.
Next, raise your left foot and balance on you right, then squat down by bending at the knee and sitting your hips back as if you are going to sit on a chair behind you.
If mobility is a big issue, then you can either hold on to suspended rope or squat down to sit on a bench or a chair behind you.
Avoid bad form at all costs.
Squat down slowly on your supporting leg as much as you can (at least 90 degrees in your knee), then slowly raise yourself up and extend your leg back up to standing.
The key is to focus on balance and good form.
Begin by laying face down with your arms and legs extended out so look like Superman flying through the air.
Next, lift your left arm with the right leg about five inches off the floor.
Hold for a count of five, then slowly lower down and alternate sides.
Do up to 6 to 8 reps on each side to complete one set.
Aim for two to three sets.
4. Single-Leg Deadlift
By doing this exercise, you will be building your gluteal muscles and making them strong enough to they can be used when running—especially if you do any hard hill running.
Begin by holding a light dumbbell or a medicine ball for an extra challenge.
Next, balance on your right foot and slightly bend the knee, with your left foot behind you and in the air.
While keeping your back straight and shoulders back, hinge forward from the hips and tap the weight on the floor.
To come back to standing, engage the glute and hamstrings of the leg planted on the floor, and slowly press up to standing.
Shoot for 8 to 10 reps on each side.
Aim for three sets.
5. One-Legged Bridge
It’s one of the best core strengthening exercises out there.
This one isolates the underworked muscles in the lower back, and can help you build balanced core strength.
It also strengthens and isolates the gluteus muscles—also known as the butt muscles—as well as the hamstrings.
Lie on your back with your knees bent 90 degrees, feet on the floor.
Then, raise your hips and back off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your knees to the shoulders.
Next, squeeze your glutes, then slowly raise and extend your right leg while keeping your pelvis raised.
Hold the pose for 20 to 30 seconds.
Release the leg down, and repeat on the other side.
Make sure to contract both lower back and abdominal muscles to hold your pelvis and keep it steady throughout the exercises.
Repeat 4 to 6 times to complete one set.
Do two sets.
6. Walking Lunge with Twist
Begin by holding a medicine ball (or 10- to 25-pound weight plate) in your hands, elbows by the side.
Next, lunge forward until your front thigh is parallel to the floor and your back knee is almost touching the floor, then while contracting the core, rotate your torso to the same side as the front leg.
Last up, rotate your body back to the center as you press back to standing position.
7. Toe Raises
Shin’s muscles are a vital muscle group that’s in charge of controlling foot landing.
And when it’s weak, the calves wind up absorbing the bulk of the shock, which can set the stage for shin splints.
Good news is that the toe raises exercise is a simple exercise that can help you build strength in this critical—and often ignored—area.
While using a chair for balance, or sitting on it with the knees bent and feet flat on the ground, slowly lift your toe off the floor as high as you can, then lower them in a controlled and slow manner
That’s one rep.
Do 16 to 20 reps on each leg to complete one set.
Aim for three sets.
8. One-arm One-leg Plank
The core isn’t just your abs.
It’s more than that.
The core usually includes the surface abs, the deep abs, the obliques, and the glutes.
The bad news is that the core isn’t worked hard enough when running—expect when sprinting.
For more challenge, try the one-arm, one-leg core variation below.
It will help you build strength as well as balance and total body endurance.
Begin laying face down then prop yourself up onto your forearms.
Make sure your body is in a straight line from head to toe, core engaged, and back straight.
This is basic plank position.
Next, if you are looking for more challenge, then reach out with your right arm in front of you while lifting the left leg behind you, hold it for a count of 10, then lower slowly down and switch sides.
Aim for 6 reps on each side to complete one set.
Do two sets.
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