“I like big butts and I cannot lie”: The importance of glute strength to running


Sir Mix-A-Lot knew a thing or two about running.

 

An avid fan of healthy butts, he knew they are indeed the ‘motor in the back of your Honda’, and one of the most important muscles we need for running. When it comes to running, there’s not too much that glute strength doesn’t help with – both in terms of performance and injury prevention. So what are your glutes, and why are they so important?

 

 

 

The glutes, or gluteals to give them their proper name, comprise 3 muscles that make up the fleshy part of your bum. From superficial to deep, they consist of the Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus.  Their names represent their size: Gluteus Maximus is the biggest, with Gluteus Minimus the smallest.

 

The reason why the glutes are so important is because they have many different jobs to do during the running stride. Researchers have done lots of studies on runners, measuring muscle activity with EMG to look at what muscles are active and when, and the main things we know the glutes do are to:

  • Decelerate the thigh as it swings forward, preparing the lower limb to make contact with the ground1-5
  • Extend the hip in stance to help propel you forward3, 6, 7, and
  • Help stabilise the body, and cushion impact forces3-5, 7

 

As you can see, the glutes are certainly kept busy throughout the running cycle! Gluteus Maximus has more to do with the propulsion and deceleration jobs, whilst Gluteus Medius has a bit more to do with stability. This stability role is a really important one – and we’ll come back to it in a moment.

 

Given all of those important functions, if the glutes aren’t up to the job, this can lead to a whole host of different problems. Whilst the cause of running injury can be a very multi-faceted thing, we know that glute muscle weakness and altered function is a known risk for, amongst other things:

 

  • Patellofemoral knee pain, which is one of the most common running injuries8-16
    This is a biggie; we’ll talk more about patellofemoral pain and the role of the glutes in another blog a bit later – suffice to say that a lack of hip strength was a big difference in a study group comparing runners with patellofemoral pain to those without, and that it correlated well with running technique faults that were identified in this group11
  • Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome17
  • ‘Shin splints’ and medial shin pain18
  • Achilles Tendinopathy19, 20

 

Whoa, whoa, whoa – are you saying that strength in my bum affects my foot and ankle?

 

Absolutely! All of your lower limb, from hip down to the toes, is working hard to cushion the impact of you against the ground, and help propel you forward with each step – if the glutes aren’t helping to do this, then this makes the rest of the leg work harder à leading to overuse and injury at those spots. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the Achilles tendinopathy example above – the main job of the calf and Achilles is propulsion, and if the glutes aren’t helping out with this, too much is asked of the calf and Achilles for it to cope with19.

 

Remember that stability role of the glutes, particularly Gluteus Medius, that we were talking about before?   This is another reason why what happens at your bum can affects what happens further down your leg. Thinking of the lower limb like a set of dominoes is not a bad way of looking at it – what happens at the top can set in place a chain reaction that goes all the way to the bottom.   Gluteus Medius works hard to stop the pelvis dropping down, and the thigh angling inwards, under body weight…..and if the thigh angles inward, the knee tends to follow; and if the knee drops inwards, the foot and ankle tends to pronate more to keep the foot in contact with the ground11, 15, 21-23. The pictures below explain it really well, but the effect of how glutes can influence further down the chain was also neatly demonstrated by Snyder et al.24, who gave a 6-week glute strengthening program to a group of female athletes and showed that it significantly changed their foot mechanics when running.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For running, we like seeing the body work in straight lines – we want all of our energy and effort put into moving us forward, rather than side-to-side. Not only does this help from an efficiency and performance point of view, but by minimising sideways strain and uneven load we can help minimise the risk of injury.

 

This is perhaps even more important in female runners (…maybe that’s the reason why Sir Mix-A-Lot focused on female subjects when recording his thesis on the subject?…..), as the demand on glutes for stability is relatively greater than males25-27. One of the main reasons for this is thought to be due to the wider hips of females, which changes the orientation and line of pull of the muscles and joints under the hips – and may go some way to explaining the higher incidence of knee and hip troubles in female runners25-28.

 

More to the point, one of the reasons we really emphasise glute strength is that it is something that, as a runner, you can readily change and improve with specific exercises and training. We’ll go over some good ‘go-to’ glute exercises in another blog a bit later on – but think of strength as one of the ‘building blocks’ of good technique: without it, it’s hard to support good technique; and even the best technique can come unstuck if the muscles aren’t strong enough.

 

So as you can see, the glutes do a heck of a lot when running, and are hugely important to have functioning well in order to run well, and stay injury-free…

 

So runners – (yeah?) – runners (yeah?) – get in some good glute strength work, and shake that healthy butt.

 

 

Rather than put up with my mangling of the lyrics into bad puns here in the article, go and get some glute training inspiration and enjoy a bit of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’ here

 

 

References:

  1. Kyrolainen, et al. (2005). Changes in muscle activity with increasing running speed. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(10), 1101-1109.
  2. Schache, et al. (2011). Effects of running speed on lower limb joint kinetics. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(7), 1260-1271.
  3. Nagano, et al. (2014). Mechanics of the muscles crossing the hip during sprint running. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(18), 1722-1728.
  4. Lenhart, et al. (2014). Hip muscle loads during running at various step rates. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 44(10), 766-774.
  5. Lieberman, et al. (2006). The human gluteus maximus and its role in running. Journal of Experimental Biology, 209(11), 2143-2155.
  6. Dorn, et al. (2012). Muscular strategy shift in human running: dependence of running speed on hip and ankle muscle performance. Journal of Experimental Biology, 215(11), 1944-1956.
  7. Novacheck, (1998). The biomechanics of running. Gait & Posture, 7(1), 77-95.
  8. Ferber, et al. (2009). Suspected mechanisms in the cause of overuse running injuries: a clinical review. Sports Health, 1(3), 242-246.
  9. Gallo, et al. (2012). Common leg injuries of long-distance runners: anatomical and biomechanical approach. Sports Health, 4(6), 485-495.
  10. Dicharry, (2012). Anatomy for Runners. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
  11. Dierks, et al. (2008). Proximal and distal influences on hip and knee kinematics in runners with patellofemoral pain during a prolonged run. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 38(8), 448-456.
  12. Nakagawa, et al. (2015). Trunk biomechanics and its association with hip and knee kinematics in patients with and without patellofemoral pain. Manual Therapy, 20(1), 189-193.
  13. Lankhorst, et al. (2013). Factors associated with patellofemoral pain syndrome: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47(4), 193-206.
  14. Barton, et al. (2013). Gluteal muscle activity and patellofemoral pain syndrome: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47(4), 207-214.
  15. Rathleff, et al. (2014). Is hip strength a risk factor for patellofemoral pain? A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(14), 1088.
  16. Waryasz & McDermott, (2008). Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS): a systematic review of anatomy and potential risk factors. Dynamic Medicine, 7(9).
  17. Fredericson, et al. (2000). Hip abductor weakness in distance runners with iliotibial band syndrome. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 10(3), 169-175.
  18. Verrelst, et al. (2014). The role of hip abductor and external rotator muscle strength in the development of exertional medial tibial pain: a prospective study. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(21), 1564-1569.
  19. Franettovich-Smith, et al. (2014). Neuromotor control of gluteal muscles in runners with achilles tendinopathy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(3), 594-599.
  20. Munteanu & Barton, (2011). Lower limb biomechanics during running in individuals with Achilles tendinopathy: a systematic review. Journal of Foot & Ankle Research, 4(15).
  21. Nakagawa, et al. (2012). Trunk, pelvis, hip, and knee kinematics, hip strength, and gluteal muscle activation during a single-leg squat in males and females with and without patellofemoral pain syndrome. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 42(6), 491-501.
  22. Powers, (2010). The influence of abnormal hip mechanics on knee injury: a biomechanical perspective. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 40(2), 42-51.
  23. Powers, (2003). The influence of altered lower-extremity kinematics on patellofemoral joint dysfunction: a theoretical perspective. Journal of Orthopaedics & Sports Physical Therapy, 33(11), 639-646.
  24. Snyder, et al. (2009). Resistance training is accompanied by increases in hip strength and changes in lower extremity biomechanics during running. Clinical Biomechanics, 24(1), 26-34.
  25. Prather & Hunt, (2005). Issues unique to the female runner. Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 16(3), 691-709.
  26. Lynch & Hoch, (2010). The female runner: gender specifics. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 29(3), 477-498.
  27. Willson, et al. (2012). Male and female gluteal muscle activity and lower extremity kinematics during running. Clinical Biomechanics, 27(10), 1052-1057.
  28. van Gent, et al. (2007). Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(8), 469-480.