Oct 2014 04

Runners - how good are your glutes?

By: Dave Wheeler

I treat quite a few runners. On the whole, I find that runners are pretty tuned-in to the to the need to wear the right footwear and to look after the trouble-spots where injuries occur:

  • achilles
  • calves
  • hamstrings

Good stretching and the occasional use of a foam roller on the superficial muscles of the calves, hamstrings and ITB are often used by runners to help keep muscles moving along the full range of movement.

If you're a runner, though, you'll know that you frequently have recurring problems in the same place.

Strangely enough, it's sometimes the case that muscle problems lower down the leg are caused higher up - specifically in the muscles of your glutes (your bum!)


The biomechanics of walking & running - gait


pic by stockimages at freedigitalphotos.net


When we walk, with every step that we take, there are 5 phases to our gait - try taking a step slowly to identify the stages:

  1. Heel strike
  2. Early flat foot
  3. Late flat foot / early heel rise
  4. Toe off
  5. Swing

Most runners have a similar gait, though some don't heel strike. There's one extra phase in running that defines the difference between walking and running - it's called the float phase. When we're walking, there's always one foot in contact with the ground; when we run there's a time, after toe off, when both feet are off the ground. This is the float phase of running.

It's at the phase called the toe off that the muscles at the back of the leg get engaged, and it's where things can sometimes go wrong.


The toe off - it's all in the glutes

The toe off phase begins as the toes push the foot off the ground. It's what propels you forward.

The way the body operates in ideal conditions is for certain muscles to fire up first to initiate movement. This is called the recruitment order.

For walking and running, the recruitment order at the toe-off is 


  1. The glutes (specifically gluteus maximus, the large muscle of of the bum) initiates the stride, then
  2. The hamstrings take over after the movement has started and is responsible for propelling the body through the rest of the stride.


pic by hyena reality at freedigitalphotos.net


So it's the glutes that are meant to fire first at the toe off, quickly taken over by the hamstrings.

What I've found amongst my clients is that, for whatever reason, many of them have got into the unconsious habit of using their hamstrings for the whole toe off movement. In other words, their recruitment order is a bit screwed up.

What that means is that the hamstrings are being used to initiate the stride as well as maintain it - in other words, they're being asked to do extra work that they're not really meant to do.

The result is that the hamstrings are overworked and so become really tight (or hypertonic), whilst the glutes become atrophied through lack of use.

Sometimes hamstring injury in runners can be because you're not recruiting your glutes when you run.

Problems caused by the wrong recruitment pattern at the toe off can also be seen further down at the calves - partly because fascia connects all the muscles over the back-line of the leg, and partly because the tendons of the hamstrings connect down onto the lower leg bone.


Changing the recruitment pattern: using your glutes again

The recruitment pattern at the toe off is an unconcious muscle pattern that's controlled by the central nervous system. It's a learned behaviour; a habit.

Whilst it is possible to change these learned uncouncious habits deliberately, it's hard and often frustrating. Fortunately, there's an easy trick that your sports therapist or remedial soft tissue therapist can lead you through that could quickly change the "muscle memory" of the central nervous system and re-establish the correct recruitment pattern.

I find that this exercise works in about 80-85% of cases and can re-engage the glutes at the toe off.

This means that now that the glutes are doing what they're meant to (intiating the stride at toe off), the hamstrings aren't over-working, so they're less injury prone. The same goes for the calves which are connected down the backline of the leg.

If you find you keep getting injured or sore in the same place when you're running, give me a call to book an appointment.