As I often discuss here, I don’t believe that injury-prevention should be put in a different category from athletic training. Injury-prevention isn’t something you should do on the side. It should form an integral part of your training. Why? Because injury-prevention is all about resilience, and as far as the human body is concerned, resilience means using more muscles to achieve the same task.
It doesn’t matter what athletic discipline you practice: running, golf, or martial arts. The more of your body that goes into whatever movement you’re doing, the better off you’ll be. And that means one thing above all others: use more muscles.
That’s why a lot of injury-prevention websites for runner’s knee focus towards working the small muscles—gluteus medius, hip adductors, foot dorsiflexors—a.k.a. all the neglected ones. By putting all of these muscles in play during athletic activity, the body not only becomes more resilient, but more powerful.
In other words, the more resilient you can make your body, the more powerful it will be.
So how can we apply this to running?
One of the main problems most runners experience is that the posterior muscles (calves, hamstrings, glutes, back extensors) become too developed, since they have the most vital functions in the running stride: the first is concentric—extending the leg and back to push against the ground. The second is eccentric—arresting the body’s forward lean so that the runner doesn’t crumple forwards. With a few exceptions, the anterior (frontal) muscles main function is to work opposite to the posterior muscles, in order to allow the runner to lift the leg forwards during the swing phase.
(Think of it this way: muscles at the back generally move body parts backwards, and muscles at the front generally move them forwards).
This means that the most common form of muscle imbalances, which often lead to lateral knee pain and other ailments, are rooted in a dominance of the posterior muscles over the anterior muscles. The most basic thing that any athlete can do, for the purpose of preventing injury—and making their running stride more powerful as a side-effect—is to develop the anterior muscles so that they can move more powerfully.
Given all of this, injury-prone athletes should focus on exercises that strengthen the anterior muscles:
- Sit-ups that emphasize balance through core activity (such as those shown in this video).
- Because the gluteus maximus—the most powerful posterior muscle—works not only to extend the thigh but to abduct it (rolling it away from the body), it’s necessary to work on the adductors (which roll the hip in), in order to balance out these muscle groups. Leg/Knee raises help address this. The closer you bring the legs towards the chest, the more you will emphasize the inner abdominal muscles (such as the illiopsoas), as well as the hip adductors.
- Hanging leg lifts. Doing it with straight legs works the obliques of the core and thigh.
- Bicycle crunches are also amazing for balancing all of the core/hip muscles.
- This exercise is great for strengthening to frontal calf muscles.
Even though running is all about triple extension (of the hip, knee, and ankle), you need to be able to flex those joints, in order for your extension to have a greater and greater range of motion. The stronger your posterior muscles get, the more you’ll find yourself “staving off” muscle pain by stretching. The ultimate answer is to strengthen the anterior muscles, so that they can interact properly with the posterior muscles.
For a sport like running, you can count on the posterior muscles to take care of themselves. It’s the anterior muscles (and obliques) that you have to worry about. I love this quote by The Gait Guys, which captures all of this in one simple thought:
“Develop anterior strength to achieve posterior length.”