Thursday, February 28, 2013

Strength Training For Runners

Road running is a sport. As such it places specific demands on the body, different even than sprinting and walking. As a consequence, running has a number of specific injuries associated with it. Focused strengthening is important to prevent these injuries.  Running-specific strengthening can also improve performance.  Strength training  is part of any comprehensive fitness or sport training regimen. But, you need to train thoughtfully and purposefully.

General strength training can be helpful to runners by improving overall strength and muscular endurance.  It may improve performance by affecting the power to weight ratio; that is, building strength and decreasing body weight.  It can also improve body composition, making runners leaner.  So, strengthening exercises that work the major muscle groups of the body, emphasizing the legs and core are helpful.  Applying the principle of specificity will make strength workouts even more effective.

The most commonly injured body part in runners is the knee.  One might think that the knee should be strengthened to prevent injury.  However, frequently the knee is not the culprit, but the victim.  Therefore, my approach is to focus on the hips and core which can be weak or, at least, weak relative to the other muscle groups.  As runners age (50 years and over) the most commonly injured area moves from the knee to the foot and ankle.  So, that will need to be addressed as well.

When running, our muscles are active while one foot is on the ground, so strength training like that is one way to get specific.  Basically, any type of strengthening on one leg should be helpful.  These activities will activate the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles which are commonly weak.  The gluteus maximus will also be trained to work better in rotation, a movement where it may not generally be strong.   Also anything that closely mimics the running gait should be helpful, walking lunges for example.  For comparison, some common exercises that are not specific to running and thus are less helpful include: knee extension, leg curl, and seated hip abduction/adduction.  In these examples the muscles are working with the feet are off the ground (unlike running) and the muscles are isolated (unlike running.)

Here are a few of my favorite exercises for runners.  All of them can be performed, at least initially with no equipment.  

Hopping on one leg: forward/backward, side, angles, combination

One-leg toe touch or stiff leg deadlift

One-leg squat

Lunge at a 45 degree angle

Forward lunge: stationary or walking

Side plank or bridge

Supine one-leg bridge

Heel raise

With the exception of the forward lunge and heel raise, all will activate those gluteal muscles as I described.  The forward lunge may or may not, but it mimics the running gait closely enough to be helpful.  The heel raise is important especially for the older runners to prevent foot and ankle injuries.  

A few tips:  1. Do these exercises with bare feet to strengthen the intrinsic muscles of your feet.  2.  Go to fatigue on each exercise.   3.  Do both legs.  4. With the heel raises, lower slowly emphasizing the eccentric part of the movement.

This is not a complete workout and some of you may be doing some of these already.  Just pick a few and incorporate them into your current routine.

To be thorough, some runners may need to address flexibility issues to prevent injuries as well.  First, if you have low back pain, stretch your hamstrings.  Second, all runners need to stretch their calves.  Third, older runners need to maintain flexibility at their big toe--it should be able to bend up.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Stretching: When and How

Stretching can be an important component of a comprehensive fitness or sport training regimen.  Sometimes it can actually be detrimental.  Incorporating stretching into your program can be as complicated as adding any other component to your plan.  Here is my approach based on my years of experience and education in physical therapy, sports medicine, and fitness.

First, stretching before a workout is not a good idea.  You are actually weaker immediately after stretching due to the reflexive relaxation caused by a sustained stretch.  This weakness may last for up to an hour.  You do not want to start a workout or a race in a weakened state.  Before a workout you need a dynamic warm up that may incorporate functional flexibility movements.  So, if you are going to stretch, do it at the end of the workout.

While the research supporting the efficacy of stretching is lacking, I feel there are appropriate times to stretch.  One good time is after a workout to relax "tight" muscles.  This will not prevent muscle soreness, but it may make you more comfortable immediately following the workout.  Hold stretches for at least ten seconds to overcome the stretch reflex and achieve that reflexive relaxation.  Holding a stretch for less than six to ten seconds will have little to no effect.  Stretch intuitively: focus on the muscles that are tight or have tension or fullness.  If you are unsure how to stretch, consult a professional: physical therapist, athletic trainer, personal trainer.

There are also specific groups of people who may benefit from focused stretching.  People with low back pain frequently have tight hamstrings and thus, should stretch regularly.  Runners, especially those over forty or so, can benefit from stretching their calves and (although it sounds funny) their big toes.  Tightness in these two areas have been associated with running-specific injuries.  Of course, stretching is frequently used in the rehabilitation setting as well--trust your therapist.

In these cases, the goal is to improve range of motion or flexibility.  Stretches for these purposes should be held for thirty to sixty seconds and repeated up to three times per session.  Recent research has concluded that benefits from a stretching session like this may only last a few hours.  So, stretch often.  You may also be able to maintain this improved flexibility by emphasizing full range of motion in those problem areas during your other training, for example doing lunges with the back leg straight to work on the flexibility of your hip flexors.

Again, if you are unsure how to stretch, consult a professional.  Perhaps now, utilizing these tips and information you may stretch more thoughtfully.