Running barefoot — the most important muscles to use

Posted by | Posted in Barefoot Running, Training for Running | Posted on 24-11-2009

In an interview I read today, Usain Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills, talked about what helped make Usain Bolt the fastest man in the world.

He revealed something that will surprise most runners, namely, the most important muscles required for fast, efficient running.

Have a guess?

Think it’s the quads? The hamstrings? Glutes? Calves? Eyelids?

Let me quote Glen:

Usain is an extremely gifted athlete. When I started working with him, one of the things that stood out like a sore thumb was his poor mechanics. Part of his poor mechanics was because he was not able hold the sprint position during maximum velocity running, so we had to do an intense programme to develop his core strength. In Beijing he showed a mastery of the technique that we had been working on, but the transformation took two years.

He goes on to discuss in more detail how important the core — primarily the abdominal muscles — are critical for running.

Now, what does this have to do with your running? EVERYTHING.

I won’t bore you with the biomechanics of why, or how this fits in with the spring-mass model of running, but I’ll suggest you do an experiment:

Next time you run, tighten your core (as if you’re bracing yourself before someone hits you in the stomach). See what that does to your running form.

What I’ve noticed when I do this, especially when I’m running barefoot or in my huaraches, is that I get “taller” and my foot placement gets under my center of gravity better. This makes me lighter on my feet, and gives me less ground contact time, which makes me faster… just like what Glen Mills said happened to Usain Bolt!

Play with this. See what changes as you tighten your core, especially the transverse abdominus (the muscles you use to suck in your stomach when you’re trying to fit into a pair of too-tight pants).

If you notice the same dramatic change I do (and, btw, when I learned barefoot running from Michael Sandler of, he said “tighten your core” a LOT), you’ll probably want to do something to get those abs stronger. Before you rush off and start doing sit-ups, let me ask you a question:

When you run, do you curl your body up and down?

I hope not! ;-)

Well, if that’s not the motion you make when running, is it the best thing to use for training?

I’m  going to suggest it’s not. Strength coach Michael Boyle discusses this and suggests that if you want to keep your core stable, you should train it to remain stable while some force is trying to move it.

Having put those types of exercises into my weekly training, I agree with Michael. Stability-type work has made much more of a difference for me than crunches, situps, side-bends and the like.

Looking forward to hearing what you discover when you activate “the most important muscles for running.”