One lower body exercise you should be incorporating into your workout is the lunge. How can lunges help with your running? The lunge is a good indicator of how each leg is working independently. Runners need to be able to support themselves on one leg at a time. When performed properly, lunges are great for working those stabilizing muscles in your hips, knees, and ankles. Lunges are also a good stretch for the hip flexor. Yes, the lunge is a strength exercise and a stretch at the same time. Runners typically have shortened, tight hip flexors since the motion of running doesn’t usually allow for the hip flexor to fully lengthen. Tight hip flexors can lead to back pain, knee pain, and hip pain. Things like runner’s knee, bursitis, and many other “-itises” often follow tight hip flexors. A properly performed lunge allows for the hip flexor on the back leg to lengthen under load while the muscles on the front leg are also working. The larger muscles strengthened by lunges include the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. And, a nice little bonus is that even your abdominal muscles are involved when you do lunges.
If you are new to lunges, I recommend starting with a Static (or non-moving) Lunge. Start with your feet hip width apart and take a big step back with your left leg like the photo below.
From this position, lower your left knee towards the ground, which will require your left heel to come off of the floor. At the same time, bend your right knee while keeping your right foot flat on the floor. Think about bending both of your knees at about a 90 degree angle. Your weight should stay centered with your shoulders above your hips. When your left knee is as low as you can go without discomfort or stability loss, begin to straighten both legs at the same time until you are back to your starting position. Repeat this movement up to 10 times for beginners, then switch legs and repeat the lunges with your legs in the opposite position (left leg in front, right leg in back.)
Excuse #1: “But, lunges hurt my knees!” First, make sure you are doing the lunge properly so that you are using your muscles to do the work, not your joints (like your knees.) If your front knee is in front of your toes when you drop into a lunge, your knee will be doing the work that your quad should be doing. If your form isn’t your issue, then your tight hips are most likely the culprit. You can start with a modified version of the lunge to start safely loading into each leg independently and getting an active stretch of the hip flexor without too much demand. Modify your lunge by using support if needed (see description under Excuse #2) or talk to your certified trainer about the many other ways you can modify or prepare for this exercise based on what your body can safely handle.
Excuse #2: “I have really bad balance. I can’t stay upright while lunging.” Again, check your form. Your feet should be hip width apart, not one directly behind the other. The other issue could be the lack of stability in your hips, knees, and/or ankles. If necessary, do lunges in a doorway. Set your hands on the inside of the door frame to center yourself and provide some stability assistance as you do your lunges.
Excuse #3: “I already do so much, I don’t have time to do lunges!” Really? Doing a set or two of lunges won’t add much time to your workout and the benefit is definitely worth that extra minute or so. I always include a set of 10-20 lunges in my pre-run warm-up. It doesn’t take much time and I can do them anywhere. I also include a variety of different types of lunges in my workouts on my non-running days. Once you’ve mastered the lunge, mix it up. Try walking lunges, weighted lunges, lunge holds, etc.
Remember, running is a one dimensional exercise. You are always moving the same muscles in the same direction. If running is the only type of exercise you do, the stabilizing muscles in your legs and hips may have checked out due to lack of use. This is a recipe for disaster, as your working muscles have had to learn to be stabilizers as well. Overuse injury is likely to occur at some point in your running career if you don’t correct this issue. I recommend you see a qualified trainer (or physical therapist if needed) to start improving the function and stability of your lower body so that you can be a runner for life.
Run Oregon blogger, Annette Vaughan, is an ACE and ADAPT Certified Personal Trainer. You can find her at The Fitness Studio in Canby. Got questions about lunges or suggestions for future articles? Email her at: TheFitnessStudio@canby.com