In this article I look closely at the squat exercise and how it helps build the strength, balance and coordination to help you run with better technique. The benefit of strength training for runners has been well established since pioneers such as Percy Cerutty began punishing athletes with barbell training in between flogging them up sand dunes. The squat, in particular, has been a mainstay over the years, especially among sprinters and middle distance runners, but in recent times most elite long distance and marathon runners complete plenty of squats and general strength work.
Why and how squats can help develop proper running form
In March this year, leading American coach Jerry Schumacher brought members of the Oregon Track Club to Australia to compete in the IAAF Melbourne Track Classic. I had the opportunity to ask Schumacher about the routines of some of his star runners Chris Solinsky and Sharlane Flanagan and was surprised to learn that his squad completes some form of strength training five days per week. In the previous article in this series I argued that strength training was relatively more important for regular runners than for the elite, but don’t worry you don’t need to start hitting the gym seven days straight!
Many runners are reluctant to hit the gym, and for good reason, we’re runners, we like the outdoors – gyms are not our natural environment. So how can we get our much needed fix of strength and coordination training done and fit in our running sessions? Part of the answer lies in developing your own routine of body weight exercises that can be done anywhere at any time. In my previous article I discussed bridging and single leg back extensions and the benefits these exercises have in helping strengthen and coordinate the gluteal (buttock) and hamstring muscles. If you add these exercises to the squats to be discussed in this edition, you have the makings of a good routine that you can do separately to, or with running training. In addition to their long term strength and coordination benefits, these exercises can be included as part of a dynamic warm up that helps activate the muscles in the right pattern needed to run with good technique. It’s critical however to get the technique right when doing these exercises. If you practice activating the correct muscle activation patterns during strength training this will carry over into your running.
You might think a warm up should only consist of jogging a few laps of the track before you begin your harder running training. However, a few months back I had the chance to join in for a part of a core strength, muscle activation and plyometrics session completed by Philo Saunders. I say part of, as I checked out before he commenced a searching collection of leaping, bounding, hopping and finally sprinting that was well outside my comfort zone. But the first part of the session emphasised that core exercises, static holds and dynamic movements such as body weight squats are a great way to get warm, stretch out your muscles using running-like movements and have them firing well for running.
So how do squats help improve running technique? There are clear stability and strength benefits to be gained from single and also double leg squats, as both exercises build the capacity to complete your stride (extend your hips) without falling off your hip. Running with strong buttocks muscles engaged gives a lot more pop and bounce in your stride. Further, having stable hips is vital to prevent your valuable energy from leaking sideways (inwards or laterally) and as a means to reduce injuries. In a review of hip related injury literature, Reiman, et al (2009) specifically cites evidence that athletes who suffer common overuse injuries such as iliotibial band syndrome tend to have weak hip abductors (gluteal/buttock muscles).
Another feature of good running technique is the ability to control the position of the thigh relative to the hip before and during contact with the ground. Allowing the thigh to rotate too far inwards can result in over-striding, late initiation of hip extension (pulling the leg towards and then pushing it behind the body) and misalignment of the leg and foot under the centre of the body’s mass – rather than maintaining a strong and stable position under the hip. I am familiar with this in my own running (see cover image above), and while I haven’t yet completely eradicated the flaws in my stride, performing regular single leg squats and other strength work is helping me get control of the problem.
I was recently talking to a physiotherapist who was shocked that some high performing runners he had treated could barely stand on one leg. Running is performed one leg at a time, so you need to be stable and strong with one foot on the ground. This is where squats performed on a single leg are of excellent benefit to runners of all levels of ability. So if you stand on one leg like this you have strength and coordination problems that will likely carry over into your running.
If you struggle to maintain good hip posture and allow your thigh to rotate excessively inwards when standing on one leg (see example above) you should build up the ability to control movement at the hips before doing too many single leg squats. In the first picture we can see the thigh is rotated internally and the knees are pointing inside the line of the toes, in the second image the thigh is held in a better, but not perfect position under the hips.
The exercises detailed in the previous article, especially single leg bridging, are a great stepping stone to single leg squats. You can also specifically target your glute medius, an important muscle in your buttocks that helps stabilise and position your thigh under the hips by including a simple exercise called the clam in your strength routine. It’s important not to overdo isolation exercises such as the clam, once you develop the strength and awareness to stand on one leg with good hip posture, move to single leg squats – even shallow ones provide good benefits.
The posture of the hips and legs in the later part of the forward swing phase of running does not receive a lot of attention. However, the strength and awareness to control your lower back and gluteal muscles by doing squats can allow a runner to better manage the position of the leg during this phase of running. The benefit of this control can be illustrated by reviewing front on and rear view photography of very good running technicians.
In comparison runners with less than perfect technique, such as myself, can allow the thigh to rotate inwards. The ultimate consequences of the internal rotation can be seen when on full contact and support where the thigh remains angled in towards the middle of the body rather than being held under the hip. The waist down cover-image above is an example of this.
The knock-on effect of touching down with the foot more centrally oriented is greater relatively instability at the hips and consequential twisting of the knee, lower leg and ankle – all potential causes of injury. Some research by Kawamoto, et al (2002) measured excessive twisting of the tibia (shin bone) in runners displaying a pattern similar to that exhibited in my photo. The researchers concluded this could contribute to shin splints (MTSS) and even the development of stress fractures in the tibia. As I have continued to make improvements to my strength and technique, my previously habitual shin soreness has subsided, so I believe this research matches up to the reality facing many regular runners and shows the situation can be improved. You can see how my leg does now align pretty well under the hip.
Why body weight and barbell squats help running technique
Squats allow you to maintain postures and movements that are very similar to running. Using a light barbell also teaches you to maintain excellent lower back posture and strength, without which you cannot train safely with barbells (any rounding of the back should be completely avoided). This posture carries over into running, helping maintain a good concave curve in the lower back and preventing the hips from dropping into a sitting posture. Squats are an exercise that take a while to master (I’m still improving). You should resist the urge to add heavy weight before you are completely comfortable and competent at performing the movement with good posture and the correct muscle activation pattern.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published by Run For Your Life Magazine August/September 2011 issue.
Look out for a post later this week where I fully describe squat technique with the aid of video demonstrations and tutorials.
Written by Brian Martin
Kawamoto, R. & Ishige, Y. & Watarai, K. & Fukashiro, S. (2002). Primary Factors Affecting Maximum Torsional Loading of the Tibia in Running. Sports Biomechanics (1)2, 167-186.
Reiman, M. P. & Bolgla, L. A. & Lorenz, D. (2009). Hip Function’s Influence on Knee Dysfunction: A Proximal Link to a Distal Problem. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 18, 33-46.