Knee pain is often what sidelines many runners and keeps would-be runners from taking up the sport. But if you don’t have a serious degenerative disorder in the joint itself, you can help stave off a knee injury, improve running function, and make running easier and pain-free by strengthening the muscles that support the knee itself.
What muscles to target?
There are over a dozen muscles in the leg and hip areas that allow us to walk and run. They flex, extend, rotate, and abduct (move sideways away from midline) the femur at the hip joint, and flex, extend, and rotate the knee joint.
Here are five simple exercises to target all of these muscle groups. Perform these three times per week, along with an effective warmup, cooldown, and gradual mileage progression – and you’ll see the results.
1 – Side Leg Raises
Lay on your side with legs straight and stacked one on top of the other. Lift the top leg toward ceiling, keeping the foot flexed and toes pointed forward. Engage your abdominals and keep your pelvis stable and still, so only your top leg is moving. Start with 3 sets of 10 repetitions, building up to 30 repetitions.
2 – Side Plank
Lay on your side with your weight on your forearm and your feet stacked. Then raise your hips and torso so that your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles are all in a straight line. Hold in your abdominals and keep this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
3 – Single Leg Bridge
Lay on your back with one knee bent and foot flat on the ground. Raise the other leg up so both thighs are parallel. Lift hips up and lower down slowly, barely tapping the floor before beginning the next rep. Engage your abdominals and your glutes, and don’t arch your back or use your arms to assist. Work up to 3 sets of 30 on each leg.
4 – Single Leg Squat
Stand on one leg, with your arms out in front to maintain balance. (Alternatively, stand next to a wall or other support to reach out for if you lose your balance – or place a bench or chair behind you to tap down on as if you were going to sit on it.) Your free leg can extend forward or simply hold your foot a few inches off the floor. Squat halfway down on the working leg – this is NOT a deep squat. Sit back into the hips and keep your torso straight and as upright as possible. Focus on maintaining your hip, knee and foot all in alignment, and keeping your pelvis level. Work up to 3 sets of 8 to 12 on each leg. A great alternative is to perform this move using the TRX suspension trainer, facing the anchor point and holding the handles for balance.
5 – Single Leg Deadlift
Stand on one leg, with the knee slightly bent (don’t lock the knee!) Hinge at the hip (not the low back) to lower the torso; raise the free leg backward for counterbalance. Your back should be flat, your pelvis level, and your weight in the heel of the working leg. The arms track towards the floor. Perform 3 sets of 12 on each leg. As you progress, add dumbbells.