Getting you running quick means getting you strong in all the right muscle groups. For those that have missed it, I have already detailed why lifting weights will not make you slow and the importance of strengthening the hamstrings as knee flexors, the hamstrings as hip extensors and the quadriceps. Now it is time to talk about some of the other muscle groups that will really get you rocketing along; whether you are running a marathon or 100m sprint. The muscles we will cover here are what I call the lower extremity accessory group. They are the triceps surae, tibialis anterior and flexor hallucis longus.
The triceps surae is basically the combination of the two heads of the gastrocnemius and the soleus or in non-anatomy talk, the calf! These muscles are responsible for plantarflexion at the ankle and provide vital propulsive forces at the end of the stance phase (remember running can be divided into three basic phases: stance phase or how long you spend on the ground, stride length and stride frequency). The more force the triceps surae can exert on the ground, the greater the ground reaction force is generated. This means you travel further with each stride that of course equals an increase in your stride length and running speed. Triceps surae function is also an important part of the triple extension movement, which is why Olympic lifts are so popular amongst strength & conditioning circles.
As you can see the solues actually attaches right up around the medial hamstring
The triceps surae also plays a role in injury prevention of the both the ankle and knee. At the ankle it obviously acts on the Achilles tendon and if your strength in the triceps surae is poor or you have a lot of soft tissue problems in that muscle group, you are going to be more prone to Achilles tendon issues. Also because of the intimate involvement with the plantar fascia, it is a good bet the worse the function of the triceps surae the worse plantar fascia type symptoms. (A note for soft tissue practitioners like ART/Trigenics is that clinical outcomes seem tremendously improved with attention to the posterior calf and even distal hamstring in plantar fascia problem clients!). One of the best exercises to improve Achilles tendon health (and plantar fascia) is the 2 to 1 Calf Raise below – which is also a great strength exercise in its’ own right! Now it also acts very similarly as the hamstrings as knee flexors at the knee by providing stability for medial/lateral rotation and reinforcing the posterior aspect of the knee. And this is not just the gastrocnemius that is involved at the knee contrary to popular belief. The tendinous arch of the soleus is basically attached to the medial hamstrings at the knee and also has a number of important nerves and veins (posterior tibial and popliteal) pass through it. That is why for all knee rehabilitation programs time should be devoted to bring up the strength in seated calf and standing calf raise movements.
2 to 1 Standing Calf Raise
The next accessory muscle group to be aware of in the lower extremity is tibialis anterior. Tibialis anterior is a dorsiflexor of the ankle meaning it pulls your toes towards your knees (along with the extensor group). Increased speed and force of dorsiflexion will shorten the lever arm of the recovering leg during sprinting. This means that the quicker the ankle can go into dorsiflexion, the quicker the leg can get through into the next stride. This will obviously increase stride frequency.
Tibialis Anterior is crucila to improving your stride rate
This dorsiflexion ability is even more important if athletes have to run on uneven surfaces like sand or grass. Machine dorsiflexion exercises are the best way of training this function but you can also use a low cable.
From an injury point of view, if you have disfunction (whether it be strength or poor soft tissue) with tibialis anterior you are more at risk of chronic ankle sprains and shin splints which are all common conditions in runners. It can also lead to hyperpronation symptoms and when you have impaired dorsiflexion function, the lumbar spine has to go through more range of motion during each recovery phase of your stride as described here.
The last lower extremity muscle that we really want to be aware of is the flexor hallucis longus (FHL). This muscle has a vital role to play in proprioception of the foot, propulsion off the ground and making sure too much pronation does not occur when the foot makes contact with the ground. If these properties are impaired during the stance phase, it will prolong the stance phase because excessive pronation will occur meaning it will take your foot longer to get off the ground and the foot will not be able to exert the same amount of force into the ground. I always remember a story from Mike Leahy who created ART and after treating a 100m sprinter’s FHL and he literally fell over next time he tried to run. But from memory two weeks later, this sprinter set the world record. So although small it is vitally important to running speed.
FHL will make you run quicker and exert more force onto the ground more rapidly
Like tibilias anterior, FHL is involved in the occurrence of shin splints and compartment syndrome. Again like tibilias anterior, it is also involved in hyperpronation. One quick and easy was of getting an indication of your FHL function is to raise both big toes off the floor as high as possible while the rest of the foot stays on the floor. If one big toe can be raised significantly higher than the other, this is termed functional hallux limitus and it may mean your FHL is fibrotic and/or weak. FHL will be trained somewhat with all calf raise work but you can increase the recruitment of FHL by shifting more weight over the big toe when performing these exercises. Band resisted and bodyweight flexion of the big toe also works to strengthen FHL. To do this effectively the action should be to “scrunch” your big toe into ball and then go into plantarflexion of the ankle.
As you can see, training these lower extremity accessory muscles are vitally important to help you run faster and stay injury free especially if you are doing a lot of running training. This is even more so if you have suffered from shin splints, compartment syndrome, rolled ankles or you excessively pronate. Keep an eye out for Part 5 in this series where I will talk about how the trunk musculature is involved in your running. And if you ever wanted to run a marathon (or even half marathon), make sure you check out my Run A Marathon In 8 Weeks program by clicking here.