As discussed in my last blog, strengthening activities, more effectively as compared to stretching activities, can help to keep the body injury free. While the exercises available are many, the goal of this post is to give an overview of some of the more effective exercises available and the outline of an exercise program that you can use in your training. This article will detail lower extremity exercises as the majority of injuries associated with triathlon and running are of the lower quarter.
First off, it is important to have a stable base. In our prior discussion of exercise programs, we talked about whole body exercises as they strengthen many muscle groups including the smaller muscles that stabilize the joints themselves. A great example of this whole body exercise is the squat. This is an exercise that you can go higher load (3-6 repetitions for 3 sets after warmup) as discussed last month, or you can slightly lessen the load and make the exercise more about strength through range (figure 1).
In this example, you have the bar overhead which focuses on the strength and mobility of the joints of the lower body through a full range. It is important to keep the bar over the head and your feet pointing forward. If you have trouble keeping your feet on the ground or going through a full range, try placing your heels on a 2×4 or other raised platform as this will often allow for a greater range (figure 2).
This may be an indication to speak with a physical therapist if you have limited squat range and require a raised platform for your heels along with lower extremity pain, as this can be related to restrictions of the ankle joint.
A progression of the squat is to then perform on a single leg (figure 3).
While this exercise cannot be performed with the same amount of weight, it often identifies and addresses strength imbalances between one side and the other. This is one reason that unilateral exercises are essential to include in the strength training program. As you become more comfortable with the movement and the range of a single leg squat, you can increase the weight by holding dumbbells if available.
Similar to the single leg squat, an effective strengthening exercise for the lower leg is the matrix lunge. A matrix lunge is a lunge that is performed in multiple directions (figure 4).
In this exercise, it is important to maintain an upright posture and you can go forward, diagonally, to the side, diagonally backwards, or straight backwards, all of which help strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, but also address the hip rotators. This is another exercise, that as you get more comfortable with the movement and range, you can add resistance by holding dumbbells to further increase the difficulty and potential benefit.
While the matrix lunge targets the hip rotators to some degree, they are not as specific to those muscles as may be required to appropriately strengthen. The gluteus medius and gluteus maximus muscles are essential to proper running form, therefore, it is an important component to a strengthening program. Two exercises that have been found to be particularly effective to strengthen the gluteus medius (figure 5) and gluteus maximus (figure 6) are shown here.
If you cannot perform the leg raise on the top leg (figure 5), you can start by strengthening simply by lying on your side and lifting your top leg towards the ceiling and also performing the side plank without a leg lift or the side plank with your knees bent. The same modifications can be made for the gluteus maximus exercise shown. These two exercises both incorporate strengthening of the hip musculature as well as the trunk stabilizers which may be important particularly if your race photos resemble these at the end of a race (figure 7).
The next critical muscle group of the lower extremity is the hamstrings. In the running cycle, the hamstrings predominantly function eccentrically, which means they resist as the muscle lengthens. This is to slow the lower leg as the hip flexors pull the leg from behind your body. In order to effectively strengthen your hamstrings, it is essential to focus on the eccentric component of the movement. In weight lifting terms, many people refer to the eccentric component of the movement as the “negative”.
So, one exercise that can effectively target the hamstrings in their eccentric function is straight leg deadlifts (figure 8 and 9) which can be performed either bilaterally with more weight or unilaterally to target muscle imbalances. Either can be progressed with increasing resistance through use of dumbbells. You can also incorporate rotation into your unilateral deadlift to perform an exercise that targets both the hamstrings eccentrically and the hip rotators to make an effective use of your time (figure 10). Hamstring curls on the ball can be performed to target the hamstrings(figure 11) as well, however, for proper performance of this exercise it is essential to keep the hips high at the middle of the movement and slowly return the legs to their starting position in order to focus on the eccentric component.
Last, as described in my last blog, it is also important to incorporate plyometric activity into your strengthening regiment. To start, I recommend performing jump rope as a warmup to higher level dynamic activity and as an added benefit this strengthens the lower leg (gastroc/soleus complex, foot intrinsics, arch musculature) as well as preparing you for jumping movements. Next up, the box jump (figure 12) is an effective and easy way to work on power generation through the lower extremities. This can be performed on one leg or two, however, it is important to start at a comfortable height and work your way to higher platforms from there. To see J.J. Watt’s incredible box jump, click here .
In addition to box jumps, another effective plyometric exercise is countermovement jumps or jump lunges (figure 13). This exercise develops power generation in your legs in different positions (forward and back) to more effectively simulate power generation in running postures. The goal in performing the lunge jumps should be on maximizing the height of your jump and explosive push-off.
So, here I have shown 12 exercises that highlight different areas of strength and power development in the lower leg. In developing your home program, it is important to incorporate approximately 2 exercises for whole body lifts (i.e. squats, lunges, step ups, and deadlifts) for lower repetitions and greater weight (3 sets of 3-6 repetitions), 2-3 exercise for targeted strengthening of the hip and hamstring musculature (i.e. side planks with leg raise, planks with bent knee lift, single leg deadlift with rotation, hamstring curls on the ball) for moderate resistance and moderate repetitions (3 sets of 8-12 repetitions), and 2 plyometric exercises (i.e. box jumps and lunge jumps) for lower repetitions (i.e. 4 sets of 6 repetitions). There are many other exercises to target these same areas, and in many cases substitution can be made to increase the diversity of your workout, however, hopefully this gives you a template to develop your strengthening program to keep you strong and injury free through the years. If you are struggling to put together a program specific to you, please contact your local physical therapist to assist you in program development, exercise performance or exercise selection. Happy training!