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The Muscle You're Neglecting That Could Seriously Improve Your Run

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Photo: praetorianphoto / Getty Images

Of course, you know that running requires quite of bit of lower-body strength. You need powerful glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves to propel you forward. You might also recognize the crucial role your abs play in keeping you upright and lightening the load on your lower half.

But there's one muscle you probably never even think about when it comes to your stride. We're talking about your lats (or latissimus dorsi)—the biggest muscle of your upper body.

What do lats have to do with running?

Keep in mind, running is a total-body exercise—so even those large upper-body muscles get involved. To understand how your lats affect your running performance, think about your gait or your movement pattern while you run, says David Reavy, physical therapist, performance therapy expert, and founder of React Physical Therapy. "As your left leg steps forward, your right arm swings forward, so you're creating a rotational force," he explains. "Your abdominals and your lats help with this movement."

The stronger your lats, the easier this twisting motion becomes and the more efficiently you nail your stride. Plus, strong lats help ensure the rest of your muscles don't have to work in overdrive. Translation: You won't tire out so fast and you'll be able to run for longer.

"Whatever was fatiguing you before won't fatigue as fast, because you're bringing more muscles to the party," says Reavy, who says you'll be surprised just how much your lats were a part of the equation once you focus on strengthening them. (Psst: An Open Letter to Every Runner Who Thinks She Can't Run Long Distances)

An easy way to tell whether you need to increase your lat strength is to assess your form. Here are a couple telltale signs to look for when you run: You start to fall forward or slouch or your head is forward and your shoulder blades creep up by your ears. Either happening to you? Then it's time to pay a little more attention to your lats.

So, how do you strengthen your lats?

You could start here with the best beginner lat exercises and stretches. But before anything else, you need to make sure the surrounding muscles aren't getting in the way of your goals. For example, tight triceps (the backside of the arm) or upper trapezius (where your shoulder meets your neck) can inhibit your lats from activating during exercises. This would work against your best efforts.

Here's how to loosen up those other muscles:

  • Triceps release: Lie on your side and place a foam roller or lacrosse ball under your triceps wherever it feels tight. Bend and extend the elbow for 10 to 15 reps in each spot. Repeat on the other side.
  • Upper trap release: Grab a lacrosse ball and place it on your trap, wherever you feel tension. Then, find the corner of a wall you can stand against in a bent-over position, and press the ball into your trap. Then, move your head away from the ball, and back and forth for 20 to 30 reps as the trap releases.

Now that you're loose and limber, you're ready to work on strengthening your lats with these three resistance band exercises from Reavy:

  • Hold the resistance band overhead with both hands, palms facing forward and arms in a Y shape. Retract your shoulder blades, pulling them down your back, and pull the band apart as you take it behind your head and hit a T shape. Lift your arms back up to a Y and repeat for 15 reps.
  • Hold the resistance band down behind your back, palms facing forward. Retract your shoulder blades, pulling them down your back, and pull the band apart as your raise your arms up to shoulder height to hit a T. Lower back down and repeat for 15 reps.
  • Hold the resistance band down in front of you, palms facing backward. Keeping shoulders down, pull the band apart as you take the band overhead and all the way behind you, forming a semicircle. Hit a T behind you, then take the band back overhead and down in front of you and repeat for 10 reps.

Another great, easy lat exercise is the zombie slide, says Reavy: Lie on a slick service face down with a towel under your chest. Extend your arms out to a Y shape overhead and keep your gaze and head down. Use your lats to pull yourself forward, so your chest comes almost between your hands and elbows down by your sides—sort of like a lat pull-down but lying on the floor. Be mindful not to simply shrug your shoulders and pull your shoulder blades down and back. Keep your forearms and elbows close to the ground. Then push yourself back and repeat for 15 reps.

From there, you can move on to chin-ups and pull-ups—two great exercises for strengthening your lats.

If all of this running performance talk doesn't get you to work on your lat muscles, how about this benefit: Active sitting, which is basically bracing your core, stacking your spine, and engaging through the lats when you're lounging at your desk or sitting at the dinner table will not only strengthen your back muscles but improve your posture, too.

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