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Knees are many runners’ Achilles heel, a vulnerability that’s usually ignored until that joint starts complaining. There’s plenty of evidence that strengthening glutes, quads, and abdominals will improve running function, but does that lead to pain-free knees?
“Athletes who have knee pain are often found to have weak glutes,” says Jake Foley, a board-certified physical therapist with Twin Cities Orthopedics in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “But there is no strong evidence to support that strengthening those muscles will prevent knee pain. That doesn’t mean strengthening those muscle groups would not necessarily prevent injury—it’s just that it’s difficult to design a prospective study to investigate this theory.”
Despite the ambiguity, Foley agrees that strengthening those muscles seems a pragmatic and low-cost insurance policy for protecting knees and preventing injury. Together with tried-and-true practices of warming up, cooling down, and increasing mileage gradually, Foley recommends the following exercises to prevent knee issues. Choose three of the five (or do all five), and get after them three times per week.
1. Side-Lying Leg Raises
(targets hip abductors)
Lying on your side with legs straight, lift top leg toward ceiling, toes facing forward. Engage abdominals, and keep pelvis stable so only top leg is moving. Do three sets
of 10, then switch sides. To progress, add an ankle weight. Alternatively, do three sets
of 30 without additional weight.
2. Side Plank
(Targets hip abductors and abdominals)
With weight on forearm and stacked feet, raise torso so shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles are in a straight line. Engage abs to maintain this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Do three reps.
3. Single-Leg Bridge
(Targets hip extensors and hip external rotators)
With one leg bent, foot flat on the ground and other leg straight, thighs parallel, lift hips toward ceiling. Engage abs and glutes. Work up to three sets of 30 on each leg.
4. Single-Leg Squat
(Targets glutes and quads)
Stand on one leg, arms out in front to maintain balance. Squat halfway down (no need for
a deep squat) with hips back and torso straight. Keep hip, knee, and foot in line (using a mirror helps), and planted foot flat. Aim for three sets of eight to 12 on each leg.
If too easy, add weight.
5. Single-Leg Deadlift
Stand on one leg, slightly bent, and lower torso; raise other leg back. Keep back, torso,
and raised leg in line: engage abs, keep pelvis level, weight in heel of standing leg; bring arms forward or toward ground. Do three sets of 12 (each leg). If too easy, add weight.