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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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!