Bill Rodgers is a freak. He is the only person to ever win both the Boston and New York City Marathons 4 times each, and that alone qualifies as freakish, but scrolling through a few years of his training logs online reveals another aspect that set Bill apart from everyone else. His ability to run mega mileage – sometimes upwards of 180 miles in a week – without ever suffering a major injury is astonishing, even by professional running standards.
If you analyzed Bill’s running form you would notice how he floats over the ground, but upon further inspection you would also detect a small hitch in his step. You would notice a slight lean to his left, a right arm that swings open with every stride, a mid-foot striking right foot, and forefoot striking left foot. All of which is surprising considering the immense mileage Bill ran during his career injury free. It turns out that asymmetry was his body’s way of accounting for a significant leg length discrepancy. If someone had told Bill to change his arm carriage or foot plant we may have never had the Bill Rodgers we now know as one of the greatest US marathoners in history.
Some aspects of running form are unique to the individual and related to a person’s physical structure, but pelvic stability is the universal foundation we all should be attentive to. There are many running related injuries associated with poor pelvic stability, including hamstring strains, lower leg injuries, IT band syndrome, and back pain among others. Another trait you would notice analyzing Bill’s form is his pelvis is very stable – there is no collapsing upon impact or forward rotation, both very common amongst distance runners. With our ZAP-Endurance professional athletes most of the work we do outside of running is centered on pelvic stabilization. Critical to the efficacy of any strength exercise is the proper execution of it.
The first step in proper hip stabilization is engaging your transverse abdominus, the deep abdominal muscle that stabilizes your spine. Activating this muscle will help keep your hips level rather than rotated forward, which is important for proper hip stability and gluteal muscle function, and should be the starting position for any strength exercise. Aside from the slight natural curvature of the lower back, this will also keep your back relatively flat and inactive, ensuring that the spine is properly stabilized.
With those principles in mind let’s take an in depth look at 4 exercises you can do 3-5 times a week to strengthen your hips and become a more stable and efficient runner. Keep in mind, quality is more important than quantity – as I always tell our Adult Running Vacationers here at ZAP, an exercise performed incorrectly simply strengthens the dysfunction.
Step-Ups: 2 sets of 6 on each leg, progress to 2 sets of 12
Find a box or a stair that when you put one foot on top of it your thigh is roughly parallel to the ground. To perform the exercise, place one foot completely on top of the box and then step fully up onto the box using only that leg. As you step up be sure to use the step up leg to perform the work rather than pushing off with the foot on the ground, and focus on stabilizing the knee through the exercise. Finish the exercise standing on one foot with the other foot in the air in a running posture and your hips tucked underneath you in a level position.
Start by lying on your side with your legs bent and stacked on top of each other. Keep your ankles together while raising your top knee up as you squeeze your top glute muscle, the gluteus medius. The gluteus medius is one of the primary hip stabilization muscles, it prevents the hip from rotating inwards or dipping during impact, one of the most common hip stabilization issues among runners. Make sure that your hips remain stable through the motion and you avoid rotating the hip on top backward as you lift your knee, even if it limits the motion.
This exercise activates both the glutes and hamstrings. Lay flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grab one knee with your hands and hug it toward your chest so that only one foot remains on the ground. This exercise is often performed with two legs, but hugging your knee toward your chest better isolates the glute by preventing the lower back from becoming overly activated. Engaging the glute of the leg on the ground push through the heel to lift your hips into the air. Hold the position for 1-2 seconds before lowering the hips back to the ground.
Stand with your feet shoulder width or slightly more than shoulder width apart. Initiate the squat motion with the hips by sitting back as if you were reaching back for a chair with your hips. Keep your head up and the plane of your back level and flat – if you have to round your shoulders forward or deepen the curve in your lower back to gain the range of motion then you don’t have the proper range of motion to squat any deeper. As you are sitting back focus on keeping your weight on your heels and make sure your knees aren’t coming out over your toes. If you feel like you are going to fall backward you are doing the exercise correctly, you are simply limited by the range of motion in your hips and hamstrings, something this exercise will help improve.
These exercises may not help you float along the ground like Bill Rodgers, but incorporating them into your regular routine will help you emulate his unique ability to run injury free.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the November 2017 Issue of Running Journal