The Secret Driver in Running Athletes - The Coach House
Posted on 18th July 2023 at 12:37
When it comes to running, most athletes tend to focus on the well-known muscles like the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. However, there is one muscle that often goes unnoticed but plays a significant role in the performance of running athletes – the soleus!
Located in the lower leg, the soleus is a powerful and often overlooked muscle that deserves more attention. In this blog, we will explore the importance of the soleus in running and why athletes should pay more attention to its development and conditioning.
Anatomy and function of the soleus
The soleus muscle is a broad, flat muscle situated beneath the larger gastrocnemius muscle in the calf. It originates from the head and upper third of the fibula and the upper half of the back of the tibia, forming the Achilles tendon. Unlike the gastrocnemius, which crosses both the knee and ankle joints, the soleus only crosses the ankle joint.
The primary function of the soleus muscle is plantar flexion, which involves pointing the foot downward. During running, the soleus plays a crucial role in propelling the body forward by extending the ankle joint and pushing off the ground. This muscle engages in every stride, helping to maintain balance and providing stability during the running gait cycle.
Running speed is a big factor in performance for many running athletes and you can increase your running speed in a number of ways. In slow and medium paced runners, speed is increased by exerting more force through the ground to increase stride length. Whereas sprinters increase speed further by increasing the frequency of their strides, at the mild expense of ground contact forces
Along with the use of elastic energy preserved within our Achilles tendon, our calf muscles, known as Gastrocnemius, are thought to be responsible for producing the majority of our ground contact force to propel us forward.
However, research from Dorn et al (2012) shows that it is actually soleus which is responsible for the majority of force produced at the ankle when making contact with the ground when running.
Endurance and performance
Soleus is a muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius and works to create the same action at the ankle, known as plantar flexion (the movement used when you point your foot like a ballet dancer).
It predominantly consists of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are well-suited for endurance activities. As a result, the soleus muscle is highly resistant to fatigue and plays a significant role in long-distance running. By strengthening the soleus, athletes can enhance their endurance capabilities and maintain a more efficient running form for extended periods.
Improving the soleus muscle also contributes to overall running performance. A stronger and well-conditioned soleus aids in generating greater force during push-off, leading to more powerful strides. It also helps to stabilise the ankle joint, reducing the risk of injuries such as ankle sprains. Neglecting the soleus can result in imbalances and compensation patterns that may hinder running efficiency and increase the likelihood of lower leg injuries.
Training the soleus muscle
To harness the benefits of the soleus muscle, incorporating specific exercises into training routines is crucial. Here are a few exercises that target the soleus:
Calf Raises: Stand on an elevated surface with the heels hanging off the edge. Slowly raise the heels as high as possible, and then lower them back down. Perform this exercise with both straight and bent knees to target different areas of the calf.
Soleus Stretch: Stand with one foot in front of the other, with the back leg slightly bent. Lean forward while keeping the back heel on the ground, stretching the soleus. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat on the other leg.
Hill Training: Incorporate hill sprints or uphill running into your training routine. The incline forces the soleus to work harder, helping to develop strength and endurance.
It's essential to gradually increase the intensity and volume of soleus-focused exercises to avoid overloading the muscle. Consider consulting with a qualified trainer or physical therapist to design a training plan tailored to your individual needs and goals.
How to stretch the soleus instead of the gastrocnemius
Adopt a split stance position with both feet facing forwards
Bring the back foot slightly closer to the front foot during the soleus stretch
Bend the back knee rather than keeping it straight. See the difference?
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