From Force Barbell by Andrew Meadows, CSCS
I would do anything for the ability to inject the kind of passion and dedication into my clients that I see from most runners. Runner will do anything in their power to insure their daily appointment with the pavement. Runners love to run. Runners love the thrill and rush you get from pushing through fatigue to finish that last stretch of road. As a strength and conditioning coach, I love what running can do for the mind and body.
Yet for all I see in runners, I also see opportunity; untapped potential. Unfortunately, I see a side of training that the majority of the endurance community is ignoring. Running is a movement pattern like any other that requires certain muscles to function optimally and certain joints to move freely in order for success in the long term.
It is almost guaranteed that most runners, including you, have experienced plantar fasciitis, shin splints, or patellar tendonitis. Many runners treat these issues with rest and ice. While this form of treatment is good, it fails to treat the underlying issues that cause the ailment. Is it possible to treat the underlying issue while at the same time improving performance? You bet it is!
Below is an outline of five strength training strategies that will not only improve your running performance, but will also help “bullet-proof” your body so you can do what you love for the long term.
Strategy #1: Strengthen your Glutes
Unless you are sprinting, running never takes you into what’s called full hip extension. That just means your glute never fully flexes to the point where your legs are in line with your trunk. Overtime, this leaves your glutes under-developed in relation to the some of the other prime movers in the lower body.
This is a problem. When a muscle doesn’t do its job, another muscle compensates for the under preforming muscle. In the situation of weak glutes, it’s a common scenario for the hamstrings to do the workload of the glutes. This is a problem for two reasons:
The first problem is that the hamstring will get over worked! Remember, the hamstrings have their own job and it’s hard for them to take on multiple tasks. Have you ever had that nasty knot build up right where your hamstrings meet your glute? That’s often because your hamstrings are literally trying to take over the role of the glute. They just can’t do it! When the hamstrings try to do the glutes job on top of their own, you will often end up with strains, knots, and general stiffness. A common approach to fixing this problem is by stretching the hamstrings. While that is important you will enjoy better success by strengthening the glute!
The second problem you’ll run into is that the hamstrings are incapable of controlling the head of the femur (your big leg bone) in the socket like the glutes can. So as you move or run, the glutes aren’t able to keep the head of the femur from drifting forward and irritating the front of your hip. If you have ever had hip issues while running it is a good bet that your glutes need some work!
Strategy #2: Strengthen Your Core
You might have guessed that this one was coming, but I want to point to a very specific role of the core musculature. Your abs needs to be able to control your pelvis. Your abs connect your pelvis to your rib cage. So not only can your abs make you do a sit-up, but more importantly they can help control and stabilize your hips. If the abs are unable to do that on top of the weak glutes we mentioned before, then nothing will be able to counteract the stiffness of your hip flexors and your pelvis will tip forward.
If the pelvis is tipped forward into what’s called anterior pelvic tilt, then certain muscles are always turned on and certain muscles will always be long and weak. In this situation, the glutes and abs will be in a weak position, while the hip flexors and low back muscles will always be turned on and stiff. Also, you have a quad muscle that attaches from your pelvis all the way to your knee. This muscle will also be stiff. So guess what that means? As you run and even as you just stand, there is a constant tug on the top of your knee. That tug is what leads to a lot of knee pain.
The second problem with this position of the pelvis is that the lower back is always engaged in a position called extension. This is not a position you want to run in. Every time you land, that force will be transferred through the bones of your spine as opposed to the muscles of your core. Make the core work correctly and we don’t have to worry about any of this!
Strategy #3: Train on One Leg
This strategy is kind of a way to tie together strategies 1 and 2. One thing we do in our initial assessment of clients is observe their posture while they stand on one leg. This is a challenge for many runners. The ability to control yourself on one leg is very important for an activity like running when you’re on one leg pretty much the whole time. To achieve this you need strong glutes (see strategy 1 and 2 above), a strong core, and you need the rest of the surrounding hip musculature to be strong. We’ll talk at the end about how we can put all this into practice, but with movements like split squats and lunges, we can train all the above musculature at once! Not only can we train these muscles, but we can also train them to keep your joints in proper alignment which is crucial for running technique.
Strategy #4: Train Your Nervous System
Contrary to what you might think, running requires a lot of coordination. It is no different than tennis, swimming, or basketball in this regard. Coordination matters and what controls our coordination (and everything else in our body) is our nervous system. We have to be able to make sense of our body and our surroundings (i.e. the surface, temperature, etc.) to move efficiently within it. Unfortunately we lose coordination over time as we sit in school, in our car, at work, at home, etc. Sitting turns our core to mashed potatoes and deactivates our awareness, or proprioception, of critical body parts including, but not limited to, our glutes, lower abs, lower back, and feet.
Core strength exercises, plyometrics, bounding, and yoga are types of exercises that develop balance, springiness, and coordination in runners by training our nervous system to learn how to use our various body parts efficiently.
Strategy #5: Learn How to Breathe!
This might sound like an odd one, but breathing is absolutely something we can improve upon. We are poor breathers in our society. Watch people breathe and you’ll see shallow breaths that often involve a shrug of the shoulders. That is wrong! Our core musculature should be the engine of our breath. If you use your neck and shoulders instead, then you’re training your neck and shoulders to be you abs! That’s just fine if you want to have a stiff neck and no control of your hips. But that’s not what we want at all! This ties back into strategy #2 very well. We need to teach out abs to be our abs!
Not only will effective breathing patterns help us regain control of our hips, but it will also help us fill our lungs with more air. If you are breathing quick, shallow breaths then how on earth are you filling your lungs with the air they need? Better yet, how are you ever getting the old air out of your lungs? Now your breathing won’t be perfect during a hard run. If we can improve this though, then your endurance will improve instantly!
The Plan of Action
Below I’m going to outline a sample workout that uses the five strategies from above. I recommend you do this workout 2-3 a week in conjugation with your running. You can do it anytime during the day except right after your run when you’re too fatigued to get anything out of it.
Repeat the circuit 3-4 times with 30-60 seconds between exercises. Focus on control throughout. If your form gets sloppy then just stop and rest.
So there you have 5 Strength Training Strategies that can boost your running performance and keep joints healthy and ready to run.
Andrew Meadows, CSCS: Andrew is a Strength and Conditioning coach at Force Barbell in Fishers, IN. He coaches both Semi-Private clients and Group Metabolic Conditioning classes. Feel free to contact Andrew at Andrew@andrewmeadows.net or at ForceBarbell@gmail.com.
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