A reader recently asked whether he should focus on improving his hip strength in order to get faster. After all, he wrote, hip strength is key to performance in swimming, golf, and many other sports.
Here’s my answer:
I agree that hip strength – defined here as glute medius, as well as related core muscles that support lateral and rotational movement – is crucial to almost all sports, including running. But running mechanics are different than those found in other sports, so the use of the hips are different for running. In most other sports, hip rotation generates the the power necessary for optimal performance. From sports ranging from golf (as you mention) to baseball, tennis, football, and even boxing, the rotation of the hip and core unleashes great power. This is torque.
Running, however, is not a rotational movement. Instead, it relies on power generated by hip extension, which is in turn powered by the big muscles of the glute maximus (and, further down the chain, the hamstrings).
The outer hip plays a crucial but different role here than in other sports: in running, it helps stabilize the body on impact so that undue pressure is not placed on the IT band, knee, spine, etc. This won’t result directly in greater speed, but it will lead to more efficient running (with speed as an indirect result) and lower risk of injury.
Speed in running is basically created by the greater application of power-to-weight on push-off. Most elite runners of all distances have about the same stride rate. Differences in speed come about by how much power and push-off is generated by each athlete when they take each one of their steps.
For these reasons, I don’t believe that increasing hip strength will improve speed (though, as I mentioned, it does a lot of other great things). Instead, a speed training program has to focus on the big muscles up and down the back of the body that are directly involved in genrating power on push-off. This is why many running drills emphasize explosive take-off, knee lift, and bounding movements.
To find some great exercises to build strength in the core and hips, check out Smart Marathon Training.
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