It’s almost Spring -- my favourite time of year! This is when a lot of us are ramping up our running. Whether you are training for your first 5km or a marathon, this is when your running mileage will begin to increase. Up to this point in your training you probably have not noticed much in regards to knee, back and hip pain but as the distances you run increase so might your aches.

I am not going to get into the science of this but one of the most important muscle groups for hip stability (which will limit much of the knee, hip and back pain that you experience) is your glutes (gluteus medius, gluteus maximus and gluteus minimus) and if they are not functioning properly, or if they are weak, your body will start to feel like it is breaking down. Our glutes become weak or “turned off” mainly because we spend a lot of time sitting which causes other muscles in our bodies to become tight (our hip flexor muscles which run along the front of our body).

To limit the effects of this and keep you injury free through the remaining of your training you need to do stretches and exercises to keep those tight muscles (hip flexors) loose and the weak and elongated muscles (glutes) strong.

Here is my favourite stretch for the hip flexors (some refer to this as the runner’s stretch) as well as five of my favourite exercises that specifically target the glutes. You will want to do the stretch first, holding it for a minimum of 30 seconds on each side and then do the glute exercises in the order that they are listed. Try and do these before you run (after your warm-up) and also during your workout routine in the gym.  

Runner’s stretch
Place your back knee on the matt and your front foot positioned on the floor in a position similar to a lunge.  Lean your hips forward, making sure that you do not extend your knee past your toe or arch your back, placing your hands on the floor on the inside of your knee.

This is one of the most prescribed exercises for people who suffer from knee and hip problems (IT band syndrome being one of them). I have read a few studies that state if you begin your workouts with simple glute isolation exercises your glutes will be more “awake” for the remainder of the workout. In this exercise you will lie on your side, with your feet together and knees bent making sure that your head, shoulders, hips and feet are all in a straight line (imagine you are up against a wall and all four points just mentioned are against the wall). Keep your feet together as you lift your top knee up (abduction) initiating the movement from your glutes.  It is very important in this exercise that you use your core muscles to stabilize your hips and you do not allow your hip to roll back (open) as you lift up your knee. Start with sets of 10 and work up to 30.

Plank with “L” leg lifts
In a plank position lift your leg up, squeezing your glute as you lift. Once the toe is in the air move your leg laterally (to the side) as if you were writing and “L” with your heel and then return it back to the floor in the same “L” pattern. As you do this you are focusing on the other hip, making sure as you move your leg to the side the other hip is not moving in the opposite direction. Do 10 on 1 side, rest for 30 seconds and then do 10 on the other side.

Back bridging
On your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor (in a neutral spine position) you will lift your hips up into the air making sure you are lifting the hips up (extending the hips) from your glutes and hamstrings, not your back. Pushing through the ball of your foot will activate your hamstrings and pushing through your heels will activate your glutes. Do a set of 10 and work up to 30

Single leg water bottle squat
Place a water bottle on the floor in front of you (you can place it on a box if the floor is too low for you) and standing on one leg you will hinge at the hip and the knee, keeping a flat back as you reach down to pick up the water bottle (you can use a dumbbell if you want to make the exercise more challenging). As you do this focus on pushing your hips back and not allowing your knee to extend over your toe. Start with 10 and work up to 20

Single leg squat onto a bench
This is a progression from the single leg squat so do not attempt this exercise until you have mastered the single leg squat.  Position a bench behind you and slowly lower yourself onto the bench using only one leg. Your back must remain straight and your knee behind your toes, in perfect alignment with the ankle. Stay in control of the movement the entire way down, not allowing your body to “fall” onto the bench. When you stand up you can start by using 2 feet and then progress to 1.

If you are experiencing pain in your knees, hips or back make sure you go see your doctor or another health practitioner (such as a physiotherapist or chiropractor) before continuing through your running or strength training program.

Happy Running!