Strengthen and Stretch: It’s what the Glutes and Piriformis Need

by allylofgren | 24 Comments

When most people picture running, they think “Chariots of Fire.” They see long, forward strides (and maybe a pretty cool soundtrack). In reality, a long distance runner’s main thrust happens behind his or her body. Distance running performed properly is a pushing motion from when the mid-foot strikes the ground. This pushing contributes to the tightness and soreness that can affect the gluteal complex and piriformis muscle. The piriformis muscle lies underneath the gluteus muscle, or buttock. When your glutes and piriformis are tight and fatigued they can cause you to have a sore lower back and hamstrings, poor balance, and even shooting nerve pain down your leg due to sciatica. (Your sciatic nerve shoots through your piriformis. When inflamed, the piriformis compresses this nerve causing the pain.)

Stretching and strengthening these muscles will help you run more efficiently and avoid injury. This post will touch on strengthening but will mainly cover stretching and recovery of tight and fatigued glutes and piriformis.

So what are the glutes and piriformis? The “glutes” are 3 separate muscles:  gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.

  • The gluteus maximus is one of the strongest muscles in the human body and is one of the primary movers in running. It gives the runner that excellent “push.” This reason is why most running backs in the NFL and Olympic sprinters have large, round butts.
  • The gluteus medius is a pelvic dynamic stabilizer, which means that it holds the runner’s pelvis in a neutral place when the runner is on one foot and lifting the other foot to stride. This muscle can become very tight particularly in a female runner due to her wider pelvis.
  • The gluteus minimus and piriformis primarily laterally (outwardly) rotate flexed thighs. Abduction of the flexed thigh is important in running because it shifts the body weight to the opposite side of the foot being lifted, which keeps you from falling while striding.

STRENGTHENING
There are many ways to strengthen the glutes and piriformis that are easy to implement at home, even while watching television. Band walking and bridging are two examples.

Bridging

  • Begin this exercise while lying on your back with both knees bent at about a 45-degree angle and both feet flat on the floor.
  • Let your arms rest at your sides.
  • Slowly lift the hips by pushing on the floor with your feet until your knee, hip, and shoulder are a straight line.
  • Repeat for 12 reps.

Bridges

Lateral band walks

  • Put resistance band on above each ankle.
  • Separate feet slightly as you get into a 45-degree angle squat with your abs tucked (feel like you are trying to touch your belly button to your backbone).
  • Step laterally.
  • Keeping your shoulders even, bring other foot in towards the lead leg to finish your step.
  • Repeat in the same direction for the length of the room.
  • Return to the other side of the room facing the same direction.

Lateral Band Walks

STRETCHING
In my opinion, the main glute and piriformis problem is lack of stretching and recovery. I cannot emphasize how important they are to keep you running! Most people find stretching and recovery dull and time consuming. Nothing could be further from the truth! They will keep your body fresh and injury-free. How exciting and freeing up of your time could that be? Now I will climb off my soapbox and tell you what you can do to be fresh, fabulous, and pain-free with two of my favorite stretches.

Self-myofascial release with a tennis ball

  • Sit down on the floor with a tennis ball under your left buttock.
  • Cross your legs and place your left foot on the top of your right knee.
  • Lean to the left, toward the outside.
  • Roll around until you find a tight spot. You will know it is the tight spot because it will hurt a bit.
  • Sit on the tight spot for 20-30 seconds. It will hurt a bit, hang in there!
  • Keep on rolling around, finding tight spots, and blast them with the tennis ball!

Doin’ the Pigeon (not just for Burt anymore!)

  • Sit down on a yoga mat or towel.
  • Bring one knee forward up to the edge of the towel/mat
  • Stretch the other leg back behind you.
  • Align the foot of the bent leg with your knee (they should be perpendicular to the leg stretched behind you)
  • Lean forward if you can.The pigeon stretch for piriformis

RECOVERY
These are the two absolutely easiest things to do! If anyone gives you a hard time about these activities, tell them they are important for endurance training.

Sit on a bag of frozen vegetables

  • Buy a bag of peas, carrots, or corn at the grocery store.
  • Sit on them for 10 to 20 minutes
  • Be sure to write on the bag “don’t eat.”
  • Put the vegetables back in the freezer.

Relax on the couch!

  • Tell others to wait on you; you are doing important running things!
  • Read a book or watch TV.

Following these easy suggestions will keep you having fun and running far into your running career. See you on the path!

24 Comments

  1. Kris

    I can attest to the importance of stretching the hams and glutes. I had noticed a lot of tightness and have really been focused on my stretching. It has really made a difference. Thanks for confirming that I have been doing the right stretches. I look forward to trying the strengthening tips!

  2. Kathy Voboril

    I use horseback riding to counteract the muscle imbalance caused by running. Riding strengthens the inside leg muscles because you have to grip the horse. Try it, it’s fun.

  3. Ned Moore

    ~ “Most people find stretching and recovery dull and time consuming.” Stop reading my mind, lol!!
    ~ These are excellent stretching routines.
    ~ Riding a bike and wall squats with a ball are both excellent for strengthening and stabilizing runners knees.

  4. dave

    your advice about glutes gave me the answer to my leg and pelvic problem. If only I had looked behind sooner. So grateful ~ MANY THANKS.

  5. Celia

    This has helped me a lot! I have experienced so much lower back and gluteal pain. I literally get knotted up so tight. The lateral band walks hit the spots! Thank you!

  6. Karl Bedingfield

    Great advice.

    The last two weeks I have experienced discomfort behind the knee down to the inside of my right ankle. The strange thing was, when I explored that area there was no pain when I prodded. But since I used a tennis ball on my right glute things have improved.

    Is this a fluke or was it deferred pain from the glute?

    Thank you

  7. Learning from a Pain in the Butt | Midlife Moments

    […] For the first time in a long time, I had a DNF (Did Not Finish) in my race this weekend. I had a foreboding of it last week when I tried twice to make the distance and didn’t make it either time. I have nagging hip pain that is, quite literally, tripping me up. I talked to Jessica about it, and we’ve been trying to baby it for a couple of weeks, but it doesn’t seem to be abating. After describing exactly where it’s located, she said it’s not my hip. It’s my piriformis and glute muscles. I literally have a pain in the butt. If you have one, too, you might check out this article. […]

  8. lauri e

    This article totally hits home. I experienced severe coccydynia after having my second child. Finally figured out I have extremely tight gluteus medius. It is painful to the touch. If I don’t roll it and stretch it daily I experience coccyx pain, sciatica pain and severe shooting pain down the sides of my hips. I used to be the athlete who could recover from anything without much effort. No longer. I’m assuming it is due to hips widening and muscle imbalances. argh! Thanks for the great article.

  9. Joshua

    I recently had a partial meniscectomy I’m 5 weeks post op I was feeling fine and everything but yesterday I had like a numbness/tingling that goes from under my glute to about mid thigh on my non operated leg my glute feels sore and was wondering if this would help I’m not in pain but it’s annoying

  10. Emma

    Looking for help…

    I wonder if you could give me your opinion on whether you think I may have piriformis syndrome. I am at my wits end and really don’t know what to do or who to turn to next. 5 months ago I developed severe pain in my (what I thought) was my hamstrings. I initially thought I had torn both of them as they were so bad. I couldn’t walk or sleep and had gone from training 6 days a week for the last 25 years, to now hardly being able to walk to my car. I have had 2 MRI scans, 1 Fluroscopy, I have seen 3 different physiotherapists, 1 Podiatrists, 1 Osteopath and an Acupuncturist, all of whom can’t seem to diagnose my problem. All of my scans have come back clear. I’ve tried resting, icing, stretching, yoga etc and have just started to do some light training. I’ve had little to no improvement. And after trying to run for 1 mile this morning, feel worse.

    I feel completely lost and disheartened with the whole thing, and just don’t know what to do. Should I just train through the pain and hope it will go away? Should I rest for another 5 months? I feel like my Consultant thinks I’m being a nuisance and i’ve spent all of my savings on pointless physio. No one has ever mentioned that I may have damaged my piriformis, but after reading this article, i feel that this may be the case. I have patches of sciatica down my legs and I can only really sit down for 15 minutes before the pain becomes unbearable.

    I am guilty of having overtrained this year, with minimal stretching. I do a lot of cross training – running, cycling, crossfit, badminton. But no matter how much I stretch now, the pain just never improves. I haven’t tried the tennis ball or resistance band exercise which I will begin this evening.

    I guess I’m just looking for some advice or assurance from anyone with similar issues as I just don’t know what to do….

  11. olive

    i have tight glutes and because of this my hamstrings are painful, but i was wondering would this be causing the pain i get in my knee. i sometimes get a dart of a pain when i have been sitting and get up to go down stairs or when im getting out of the car, it also hurts when i try to straighten my leg..any suggestions..

  12. MyKneeStretches.com

    A pain is one thing I wish I will not experience it. Diet is the key, I think. The symptoms of runner’s knee may resemble other conditions and medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

  13. mika nessuno

    I am very discouraged because I haven’t been able to run in ONE YEAR! I have a combination of piriformis and bursitis on my left hip/leg. I did go to see a few PT and did some stretching but I saw absolutely no improvement. IN fact, not it starts to hurt even after a 2 mile walk (not run).
    One thing that I can say is that I have not been very diligent with stretching. Is it really very important that I do strengthening and stretching every day? Are there other options besides stretching? I find it hard to believe that stretching is the only way to cure this issue.
    Thankyou,
    Mika

  14. Filomena

    Thank you so much. I did my first half marathon and my glutes were hurting a few days later. I did not stretch. Forgot with the excitement of the finish. Your tips have helped me so much.

  15. M Grayson

    A heads up, I suffer from Sciatica pain on the right side of my body, everything hurt for the longest time, stretching out the hamstrings was most beneficial to my recovery. After those muscles weren’t super-tense anymore, I started regaining range of motion and the ability to walk without a limp or massive pain. Some days are still rough, but since I started doing exercises (a 10 min. abs fat burner workout and a 10 min. boot camp abs workout) those actually helped the most. After just 3 days of high-intensity workouts, the pain is virtually gone at all times. I’m functioning normally and able to fast-walk for a mile without any pain during or after.

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