To be able to run fast with minimal effort, our muscles need to overcome the forces of gravity every time our foot hits the ground and prevent collapse of the ankles, knees, hips and spine and also minimise ground contact time.
The key muscle groups involved in running are the calves, gluteals and hamstrings, which:
• Work in a co-ordinated pattern or motor program to produce force.
• Aid in the storage and release of energy from your tendons, mainly the Achilles.
Muscle tissue consumes a lot of energy, requiring a constant flow of oxygen and a healthy arterial system. It makes sense to ensure all this energy is being is used effectively to move your running forward.
Effective muscular activity enhances the storage and release of energy from your tendons, which is free, no oxygen cost.
The Achilles tendon attaches to your calf. During ground contact as the ankle joint flexes maximally the calf muscle comes under stretch and the Achilles starts to store energy, which is then rapidly released as your foot moves forward off the ground.
The longer the stretch, the more energy is stored for release, which improves ground contact time and reduces muscular effort and injury risk. It makes sense to ensure that your calf/foot muscles are both mobile and strong.
I like to ensure that my athletes can do a single leg calf raise at least 20 times and that they can bend the knee 10 cm’s in front of the toes, keeping the heel on the floor and the medial arch of the foot raised. This is only half the problem.
If the muscles stabilising the trunk, hip and knee are not working effectively, the Achilles won’t have a stable base to work from.
Gluteals and hamstrings
These are collectively known as the posterior chain and work to ensure that the foot hits the ground in the correct place. The hamstrings at the back of the thigh work to pull back the foot to position under the body as the release of energy from the Achilles has propelled you forward.
If the hamstrings are not strong then you will strike your foot in front “over-stride” and lose all the force as well as increase your injury risk. Your gluts also work to stabilise the leg at ground contact so that you don’t collapse towards the ground and the energy can be stored and released from your Achilles tendon.
Lying on your front and then pre-squeezing your gluts before bending and straightening your knee is a good way of getting your gluts firing again and restoring the balance between the hamstrings/gluteals.
This exercise also mobilises the quadriceps muscle group at the front of the thigh which can become tight with sitting all day.
These are just a few exercises you can do daily to make changes to your running.
If you really want to focus on improvement then you would do best having a biomechanical assessment, and incorporating resistance training as well as plyometrics into your program.
A good sports physiotherapist who understands runners should be able to guide you through a program designed specifically for you.