A runner’s worst nightmare is to be told by his or her doctor “no more running.” There is good news though, for those of us whose drug of choice results in a “runner’s high.” We can extend our running life and maybe even be pain free most of the time with a simple activity called cross training.
As runners, we often think we need to simply run to stay in shape or get faster. Over time, this high impact exercise causes joints to break down and potentially leads to those dreaded three words, “no more running.” Whether you have been a runner for one year or 30 years, there are several things you can do to stay injury-free while running, and maybe even improve your speed and efficiency.
Before taking those first steps to training for a race or even ramping back up, experts all agree, start slowly. “The top mistake I see among runners either new to the sport or training for a marathon is doing too much too soon,” said Kyle Will, a strength and conditioning coach in Bend, OR. “They tend to be excited about a new goal and do too much. This usually results in either injury or getting tired, frustrated, and giving up.”
Starting slowly and going through the training process correctly will hopefully keep new runners, and even the more experienced runners out of the doctor’s office and on the trails doing what they love.
Unlike a gait analysis performed at a running shoe store to determine whether a runner pronates (rolls in at the foot) or has a neutral footstrike, a biomechanical gait analysis video evaluates the biomechanics of an individual’s gait from the upper body all the way through the footstrike. This exercise allows runners to see exactly what they are doing. With the help of a trained professional, they can modify their gait to minimize impact on joints and reduce risk of injury. Most injuries occur because running form exaggerates a muscle weakness, and the compensating repetitive motion creates even more imbalance and pain.
“The motion, impact and repetition of running creates significant stress on our body that elicits a unique array of adaptations,” said Bruk Ballenger, Doctor of Physical Therapy, sports biomechanics specialist in Seattle, WA. “In other words, muscles get stronger, and tendons and bones get more dense. It takes time and a gradual progression of increasing running stress to safely elicit the adaptations that allow our bodies to tolerate high-impact motion for tens of thousands of repetitions without injury. Conventional wisdom dictates that injuries happen to new runners because they do too much too soon.
“There are good studies that demonstrate how runners don’t actually move the way they think they move, so working with a coach or therapist and a metronome and video camera, they can dial in a biomechanically sound and safe range of running form/technique. Don’t wait till something breaks to fix it,” said Burke Selbst, Physical Therapist and owner of Focus Physical Therapy in Bend, OR.
Once a runner’s gait has been analyzed, there are many drills and exercises that can be done to strengthen and reinforce or create a more efficient gait.
A simple technique for improving running form is through interval training. Even going back to the basics of 2:1 (2 minute run, 1 minute rest) intervals where components of running form are practiced for two minutes with a short rest helps to ensure good habits are being practiced. As fatigue sets in, it is easy to revert to what seems normal even though that may not be most efficient.
Interval training allows newer runners as well as the most elite runners to build up mileage and work on speed without the volume of a long run. “I focus on a couple elements of the interval to make it appropriate for the runner’s level,” Selbst said. “Experienced, elite and ultra distance runners use Fartleks and strides to develop speed and power, and hills, too. Beginning and intermediate runners should go right to hill workouts, keeping the same (high/nice) cadence on the hills to produce/develop more power. The stride/speed will of course be significantly reduced, but we want to keep the turnover high, because the glutes are biased in the hill climbing position.”
Strength Training and Cross Training
Runners are notorious for believing that because they run, lower body strength training is unnecessary. However, runners need lower body strengthening more than anything. If proper muscles are not strengthened, running form deteriorates, and risk of injury becomes greater.
Most lower back, SI (sacro-iliac joint), knee and hip pains can be attributed to weak or inactive gluteal muscles, specifically, the medial gluteals which help adduct the hip and keep the pelvis level. “This is, by far, the biggest problem we see with runners,” said Dave Cieslowski, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and strength and conditioning specialist (NSCA-CSCS) who works with Selbst. “This is the biggest surface area muscle in the body, and actually needs to fire at almost a 2:1 ratio over the other muscles in the lower extremity. It is super important for leg and pelvic stability when the leg is on the ground, as well as the main driver for hip extension at the end of the stance phase. When it is not doing its job, other muscles like the hamstrings, quads, and Illiopsoas will take over to perform the movement, not only leading to poor running form and inefficiency, but putting the runner at risk for tissue overuse and injury.”
Weak glutes can be caused by pelvic rotation, tightness along the IT (iliotibial) band or foot and knee pain. Runners with knee pain or plantar fasciitis should have their glute strength on the same side assessed and the rotation of their pelvis checked to make sure alignment is not causing the pain lower in the leg.
Another important lower body muscle to strengthen are the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus muscles). These lower leg muscles aid in protecting the knee and play a crucial role in a foot strike during running.
A core strength program that focuses on the transverse abdominals and obliques will help improve running form and reduce risk of injury.
“The exercise that all runners should always do are side planks, full length, with a progression that mimics the motion of running,” said Ballenger. “Research evidence shows side planks engage and work key muscles that tend to be the weakest commonly seen in runners: glute medius, glute maximus, transverse abdominals, and oblique abdominals. Proper form is paramount.”
This brings the discussion back to the notion that in order to be able to run more miles, runners must do more than just run. Strength training as mentioned above, focused on specific running muscles and movements is crucial. However, general cross training to give joints a rest is equally important. Swimming, biking, skiing or any other activity other than running can still provide excellent aerobic training.
“Cross training is a huge component for challenging and training your muscles in a different way,” said Dr. Stephanie Tolonen, a chiropractor in Oregon City, OR. “It’s easy to do it on the days you don’t run so your training schedule isn’t too overwhelming.”
Listen to your Body
Even with regular strength and cross training, recognizing when your body needs a rest is above all, the most important way runners can extend their running life.
“Our bodies are brilliant and can find a way to do almost anything for a short amount of time,” said Dr. Tolonen. “However, if you’re constantly pushing yourself by running a huge increase in miles, or simply not resting, it’s only a matter of time before things start to become dysfunctional and painful.”
Top 5 Exercises for Runners
1. Single Leg Fire Hydrant Squats – Single leg squat with hip abduction on the non-balancing leg
2. Deadlifts – Single or double leg, focusing on hamstring, glute and core engagement
3. Lunges – Alternating leg, scissor jumps, any variety in good form
4. Penguin Walk with Ankle Band – Lateral side steps with knees locked and glutes engaged
5. Plank – Support body on forearms and toes while squeezing glutes and neutral pelvic tilt