Runner’s run. Some do it well. Others struggle with injuries and making gains in time or distance. Recent medical research throughout sports medicine has shown the benefits (or barriers) that genetics plays on an individual’s natural athletic abilities. We all know how unfair it is! Some of us are doomed to struggle with running even at younger ages. Some long-time runners have to drop off in their middle years. While others, like Harriette Thompson of Charlotte, NC, are running the 2015 San Diego Rock n’ Roll marathons at age 92! (And she didn’t start running until she was 76 years old!) So if you did not choose your parents wisely enough, what can you do?
What is the secret ingredient to healthy running? Every runner knows they have to run. Almost every runner knows they have to stretch. But only some know the secret ingredient… Strength Training.
The old myth that strength training will bulk you up and slow you down has been disproven time and time again. Strengthening the body allows you to run more efficiently (thereby running farther, faster and happier), to train longer (thereby running farther, faster and happier) and to avoid or minimize injuries (thereby running farther, faster and happier).
Runners have a unique activity that, unlike any other sport, puts ridiculous amounts of cumulative stress on the same structures in the body… again and again and again. Any underlying weakness is exploited by gravity and time like no other sport will do.
So with our lives getting busier and busier, and trying to fit 28 hours of stuff into our 24 hour days, what are the best strengthening exercises? What is the biggest bang for my buck? The answer to which exercises to utilize is not so easy. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing is clear: Where to target your exercises…
The hips and core are the keys to running efficiently and avoiding or minimizing injury.
Your core is the base from which every other segment of your body pulls or pushes or rotates. For runners, a stronger core allows you to maintain an upright posture, thereby allowing better breathing; to normalize arm swing and trunk rotation during running; to avoid upper back and neck pain; to avoid lower back pain; and to keep your center of gravity over your pelvis so you avoid excessive strain on your back, hips, knees, ankles and feet.
Hip strength is just as important for runners. Weak hips require compensations from the lower back and knees to keep you moving forward. This can lead to back pain, hip bursitis, ITB (ilio-tibial band) syndrome, runner’s knee (patella-femoral dysfunction and patellar tendonitis), Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis.
You don’t need to have a perfectly laid out, PhD-prepared program designed for Olympic or professional performance. If you belong to a gym: Go! If you have one at home: Use IT! Work on multi-segment movements like squats, dead lifts, lunges, kettle bell swings, rows, lat pulls or chin-ups and bench press. If you don’t belong to a gym, exercise at home or even on the trail. Body weight exercises are effective as well. Lunges, body-weight “air” squats, planks, side planks, bridges, burpees, push-ups are all easily performed and can have tremendous benefits. Band exercises like rows, bicep curls, tricep extensions, kick-outs and side-stepping are also very helpful. Plyometric exercises (or explosive bodyweight exercises like jump-squats, bounding, box jumps and others) are also easily performed at home, at the gym or on the running trail.
If you cannot find a good tutorial or video on YouTube or any of the many running websites out there, or if you have and still have questions, seek out a good sports Physical Therapist. (Not all physical therapists are equal! Many claim to be a sports therapist, but playing in high school or college does NOT make you an expert. Look for advanced training and specialty certifications.) A good physical therapist will assess from head to toe, and will look at your running mechanics to see if there are mobility restrictions, weaknesses or biomechanical flaws that need to be worked on BEFORE an injury happens.
So get out there! Keep running! Keep stretching! And most definitely, KEEP STRENGTHENING!