Strong gluteal muscles are key to a runner’s success. They help promote pelvic stability and give you power when you are running, but often the gluteals (made up of the glut maximus, medius and minimas) function improperly due to weakness or inhibition. Since the the glutes are a key core muscle, this can lead to imbalance, pain and eventually injury. The main cause of gluteal weakness is prolonged sitting. The psoas (a hip flexor) muscles that counters the muscle eventually becomes chronically contracted leading to some postural changes and lower back pain since it originates from the last thoracic vertabre and all the lumbar vertebrae.
Weakness and inhibition are not the same. When a muscle is inhibited it means the nerves connecting the muscle to the brain are not signaling the muscle to fire. This can occur for several reasons. Often the glutes are inhibited because of fatigue or because they are chronically tense from being over-worked, or they compensating for other muscles. If the brain senses these muscles are in danger of being over-worked or injured, it will send signals to de-activate that muscles. Muscle imbalance can also lead to inhibition. Often with runners, the quadriceps and psoas (a hip flexor) are disproportionally strong and fire when the gluteals should be firing. Hard falls or trauma can also cause some deactivation.
So where to go from here?
There are numerous ways to tackle the problem, but there are a few simple exercises I like that can help get you on the right track if your glutes are inhibited.
Step 1: Myofacial release of the quads and glutes by a professional is great, but if this is not possible start with a foam roller, tennis ball or a Roll Recovery. My choice of pain is the Roll Recovery. It’s good to start with some massage to help these muscles relax before some gentle stretching.
Step 2: Elongate the psoas and quadriceps muscles with a simple hip opener stretch. As with any static, yoga-based positions, it is important to not go too far to elicit pain.
Placing your hands next to your foot with other leg back, hold this position about 30 seconds with deep breaths. Then curling your toes underneath you, left your back knee off the ground and hold a few more breaths. Drop your knee back down to the floor and rest your both hand on your front knee to reach the upper fibers of the psoas muscles. Very tight psoas muscles will pull your back into more of an arch, so to stretch it, do the opposite and tuck your pelvis under you or flatten your back.
hint: if this it too hard because your psoas if very contracted, start by lying on your back with a pillow under both knees for 15 minutes. It’s a great psoas release position, and you will probably feel a bit of an ache in your hip joints or lower back.
Step 3: Elongating the Psoas: Lying on your back pull one knee to your chest to lock your pelvis and allow a psoas stretch on the opposite side. Let the leg that is out straight relax and feel the hip and back soften as you hold it for about 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Step 4: Gluteal Recruitment: Lying on your stomach with your hands by your head and both feel out straight behind you. Squeeze both your glutes together, then with one leg, straighten your knee while keeping your toes on the ground. Hold 3 seconds then lift the heel up off the floor about 3 inches and then point your toe. Hold 3 seconds and return your foot to the ground. Repeat each leg 6 times. This is very simple, but will make you sore!
Step 5: Child’s Pose: I always like to finish with this. It’s simple and feels good, and it is a good way to elongating those deep back muscle and stretching the glutes. Sit back on your feet, and reach out with your arms forward as your drop your head to the ground. Relax your head and shoulders and hold for several breaths.
Ensuring these two major core muscles are working harmoniously is essential before doing core work otherwise you are just reinforcing improper use of these muscles.