When you run, your hip muscles are under significant strain – more so than your leg muscles – causing them to fatigue quicker. The importance of hip strength in running, particularly the ‘glutes’, has become better understood yet most triathletes neglect this area of the body.
Which is a mistake as research states that poor hip strength is related to:
– Increased risk of injuries
– Poorer running mechanics and performance
What are your hip muscles?
The main muscle groups in the hip are your gluteals, hamstrings, adductors, psoas muscles and the anterior core (consisting of multiple abdominal muscles), while the three main ligaments are the illiofemoral, pubofemoral, ischiofemoral.
Your hip muscles play a major role in maintaining an efficient body position when you run. In particular, as you run your gluteal and hamstring muscles help to extend your hip, alongside controlling rotation and inward movement. Essentially, this reduces many of the undesirable running techniques characteristic of poorer run performance. But why can improving this aspect help you as a triathlete?
Why strong hips can help prevent injuries
We all want to minimise our time out injured – and you can do by focusing on the hips because there’s comprehensive evidence that shows weaknesses in certain hip muscles are linked to common injuries. For example, runners who had iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome were shown to have poorer strength in the muscles that prevent the knee and hip ‘rolling and turning in’ during running (Freidricson et al. 2000). Also, those with weaker muscles that extend the hip were reported to be at greater risk of kneecap pain (Souza and Powers, 2009).
Consequently, you as a triathlete can minimise your risk of sustaining common injuries, by improving the strength of muscles that extend the hip and prevent inward motion. Interestingly, it’s even been suggested that females have a greater demand placed on their gluteal muscles, which creates an even greater risk of poor running mechanics compared to males (e.g. inward motion of the hip and knee) (Wilson et al. 2012). Therefore, the benefits of this training aren’t only limited to certain triathlon populations or abilities – everyone can benefit.
How strong hips can improve your run performance
Numerous studies highlight the link between the strength of your hips and your running performance. For example, greater hip strength was associated with maintaining a more superior stride length when running (Hayes et al. 2004). Also, if you increase your hip strength, you’re more likely to avoid undesirable run mechanics that are associated with less efficient running, including hip drop, over striding and excess toe or heel striking.
There are not just benefits to running. Performing lower-body strength training each week, which includes exercises to train hip muscles, is also linked to higher power outputs and better time-trial performance over various distances (Mujika et al. 2015).
How can you strengthen your hips?
Resistance training is the best method of building hip strength, particularly exercises which focus on extending, rotating and pushing out your hip. However, a current problem in triathlon strength and conditioning is the lack of information and understanding of how to do this practically. For example, seeing the above movements in isolation often creates strength programmes with excess numbers of exercises and, therefore, repetitions. This is critical as excessive volume increases the likelihood of significant delayed muscle soreness, in addition to unnecessarily lengthy training sessions.
The breakthrough comes from understanding the movements and muscles listed above can be trained at once. For example:
– Split squat
– Single leg squat
– Reverse lunge
That said, we do commonly find in triathletes that certain muscles or movements can be such a weak link in the overall movement of running that they do need specific isolation. This is where strength exercises to isolate the gluteal muscles can work well. For instance:
– Crab walks
– Cook hip lifts
Equally, also for the hamstring, examples are:
– Single-leg hamstring slide outs
– Single-leg Romanian deadlifts
Evidence clearly shows the value of engaging in strength training to improve running and other elements of performance. The need to be able to do this in a focused manner, using exercises which address many aspects, is a key factor when, as triathletes, training time is limited, alongside our want to minimise fatigue from training.
Like with any health issue, if you have any concerns at all, seek medical advice from a qualified medical practitioner, whether that’s a doctor or physiotherapist.
Dave Cripps is the director of TriTenacious, a leading online strength and conditioning resource for triathletes, and Coalition Performance.
He holds both BSc and MSc degrees in sport and exercise science, and is a fully accredited strength and conditioning coach by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association. He’s worked professionally as a strength and conditioning coach for over a decade, in over 20 sports at both world-class and amateur levels, including triathlon, cycling, running and swimming.