If you’re a runner who finds that you’re frequently injured, or you think you may have weakness in one leg when running, there’s a good chance you have muscular imbalance. We get the expert take on muscle imbalance from Lewis Moses, a Team GB International athlete and Qualified Athletics Coach with a degree in Applied Sport Science. Read on to find out more about muscular imbalance - what it is, how to detect it, and most importantly how to fix it.
- What is a muscle imbalance?
- Can running cause muscle imbalance?
- Signs you have a running imbalance
- How do you fix a running imbalance?
- How long does it take too fix a running imbalance?
What is a muscle imbalance?
Lewis explains that, “The best way to think of this is by visualising a set of scales which are tipped to one side. Similarly with the human body, if we have one side stronger than the other (which is quite natural) then we will have an imbalance. With muscles specifically, we are looking for a similar size, structure and strength. If they differ from one side to the other - for example if one calf is bigger than the other - there could be a muscular imbalance related to the strength of that muscle.”
Some runners may find that they are naturally quad dominant or naturally glute dominant. Lewis explains that, “Quad dominant means that you rely heavily on your quads during your running action. Quite often we see this with runners who aren’t as stiff on landing and as a result the knee sinks more than it should. With ground contact time being longer, they then rely on muscles such as the quads to generate more force, for not just stability and control, but to also help move forward.”
If you think you may be quad dominant, the good news is that you can train yourself to use your glutes more, but it’s not just a simple process. Runners should start with glute activation work and incorporate running drills into their programme.
Can running cause muscle imbalance?
There are lots of scientific studies which have investigated muscle imbalances. One such study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked into muscle imbalances in elite cyclists and marathon runners. The conclusion of the study found that one cause of muscle imbalance could be injury occurrence. If you injure your foot or knee on one leg, the other side of your body will likely overcompensate and this will cause an imbalance.
The most obvious cause of muscle imbalance is repeated use of one side of the body more than the other. For example, a study published in 2015 looked into muscle imbalance in elite fencing athletes, as the lunge motion in fencing frequently causes muscle imbalance in both the upper and lower limbs. Thankfully, running doesn’t require you to use one side of the body much more than the other, however Lewis explains that,
“We can certainly favour one side when running and this would naturally lead to that side becoming stronger or overworked.”
If you’re a runner who uses a round athletics track for your training and you always run in the same direction, this could be the cause of a muscle imbalance. To help prevent this, Lewis advises, “As a coach I like to mix up the direction in which athletes run. We mix up the way we run so that it’s not always in the same direction or on the same side.”
Signs you have a running imbalance
So how can you detect if you have a running imbalance? Lewis says, “Usually, strength or mobility tests will help to detect an imbalance. If you have greater range of movement on one side compared to the other, then it will be clear that some areas are tighter than others. Similarly, if you’re performing strength tests and on one side you are able to manage more reps or heavier loads, then it would be quite obvious that you have stronger muscles on that side than the other. Athlete screening with a physio or a qualified S&C coach can help runners to identify the areas they need to work on.”
Issues tend to occur when one side of the body is stronger than the other, but it’s not always the weaker side that becomes affected. Runners can overcompensate for weaker muscles but then over-work the stronger muscles, which can lead to injuries.
Range of movement around a joint can also be a problem, particularly if one side is moving well and the other is ‘locked up’. A certain level of stiffness in the joints can be good for runners, but when we have an imbalance from one side to the other, that’s often when we see more issues and injuries.
How do you fix a running imbalance?
As is often the case, prevention is better than cure. Identifying imbalances early can prevent bigger problems down the line. With the INCUS CLOUD | RUN you can see your true left/right cadence in real-time as you run, allowing you to identify if you have a weak leg or running imbalance.
If you do identify a running imbalance, there are plenty of running drills that you can do to improve. Lewis explains that, “Running drills can be a great way to improve your running technique, but it’s important to stress that they should be done correctly. Having said that, you need to start somewhere, and many people struggle at first with things such as coordination and this is absolutely fine.”
Lewis’ top tips for running drills are:
- Keep it simple
- Master the basics first
- Practice, practice, practice!
- Repetition is key
Incorporating running drills into your warm-up is a great place to start, and you can include drills such as:
- A – Walk
- A – Skip
- Forward Lunges
- Reverse Lunges
- Straight Leg Scissors
- High Knees
How long does it take to fix muscle imbalance?
Of course, it’s hard to put a number on how long it will take to fix a muscle imbalance. It depends on the individual, the type of imbalance, and the amount of work the athlete is willing to do. It’s hard to quantify how long it would take, as there are so many variables. Lewis says,
“What I would say is don’t just train or try to strengthen the weaker side. I would always recommend continuing to work on the stronger side too, so that you don’t neglect those areas.”
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.