Your quads and hamstrings aren’t the only muscles in need of attention. Push your pace by building your below-the-knee strength and power.
You likely know that improving your stride calls for targeting three major lower-body muscle groups – quads,glutes, and hamstrings. But they’re not the only players in the game. Despite their smaller size, your calf and ankle muscles are just as important for improving stride and pushing pace.
Just think about how much you actually use those muscles. You activate them each time you stand or walk. When you run, your gastrocnemius and soleus – the muscles that make up most of your calf – produce the majority of that final push you need to propel upward and forward, says Dr Paul DeVita, director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, US. And that thrust partially determines your pace and stride length. Which means ignoring those muscles can slow you down, and worse, contribute to a higher risk of injury.
Scientists have some idea of why this may happen. A recent Finnish study hooked runners up to 3D motion-capture systems and found that the overall effort required of the calf muscles was actually 25 per cent greater than that of the quads. That makes them more prone to fatigue over a long run or race, pumping the brakes on your pace.
DeVita also found that ankle and calf muscles tend to change and atrophy as we age. He tested the biomechanics in runners as young as 20 and as old as 60, and found that older runners had about one-fifth to one-third less ankle power – which correlated with a 10 per cent slower pace and shorter stride.
Runners can slow down this muscle decline with exercise that improves calf function and their ability to produce force, says Dr Max Paquette, assistant professor of biomechanics at the University of Memphis, US. Which means it’s never too late to start showing those smaller muscles a hefty amount of love.
And no, you shouldn’t simply run more or faster to try to reap the strengthening rewards. Paquette says doing so can boost your injury risk, especially if your body isn’t trained to handle the increase. Instead, incorporate these routines he designed into your schedule two or three times a week. Each exercise will help protect your leg muscles as you dial up the volume or intensity of your training.
Before you run, do these exercises as part of a dynamic warmup.
Skip, bringing your front knee to waist height and your opposite arm forward. Keep your back leg straight and focus on pushing off and landing on your toes, always engaging the calves. Continue for about 30 metres, walk back, and repeat twice for a total of 3 sets of skips.
Repeat the same motion as a forward skip, but explode upward each time your foot leaves the ground. Continue for about 30 metres, walk back, and repeat twice for a total of 3 sets of skips.