I can’t think of a sport with a worse reputation for injuries than running, it is like the black sheep of the endurance sports world. What runner hasn’t heard “you will ruin your knees”...” try walking at my age after all that running"...” it’s terrible for your joints”. (Grrrrr!) As much as we hate to admit it there is some truth to these annoying comments from your uninformed great uncle. The impact forces of running on the musculoskeletal system are nothing to be scoffed at, a force of 3+ times your body weight is exerted on the human foot each step!
Fortunately, our bodies can be conditioned to run efficiently and minimize these crushing forces! Coach Michele and myself have collaborated on the 3 essential training focal points to improve efficiency and reduce injury risk. Attention to these focal points will help you run faster and further with less effort and help make running the joyful activity you love not a pain cave slog.
1. Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
For our first focal point of training, we will start at the bottom of the kinetic chain, the foot and ankle. This is where initial ground contact occurs and is the body’s first line of defense against the impact forces of running. Restricted foot and ankle mobility, as well as weakness, are a commonly overlooked cause of injury and biomechanical inefficiency.
The foot/ankle complex is a complex structure with 100’s of muscles, tendons, and ligaments and is home to 25% percent of our bones! Thus lots of opportunities for stiffness and injury.
Mobility is the key here. The 2 planes of the motion of the ankle are plantar flexion (pointing the toes down, think ballet dancer) and dorsiflexion (moving the toes upward towards the shin bone). For proper running form, a runner needs sufficient ankle dorsiflexion, it is the most critical of the 2 ankle ranges of motion for running. It is crucial for injury prevention not only in the foot and ankles but further up the chain, injuries to the knees, hips, and lower back can all be the consequence of inadequate ankle dorsiflexion.
Ankle dorsiflexion enables you to place your foot in the proper position to absorb shock from ground contact and aids you in springing forward into your next stride. Thereby improving cadence and reducing ground contact time (both essential to speed and injury prevention).
When a runner has poor ankle dorsiflexion the foot becomes less stable and it makes it more difficult to hit the ground with a proper midfoot strike, further increasing the risky impact forces. Insufficient ankle dorsiflexion inhibits our ability to activate the powerhouse muscles of our posterior chain.
How do you know if your ankle dorsiflexion is sufficient?
A great way to test ankle dorsiflexion and mobility is the “wall test”. Take a tape measure and measure out 5 inches from a wall, you can leave a mark or leave the tape extended. Bend forward at the ankle and try to touch your knee to the wall WITHOUT your heel lifting off the ground. If you can do this you are golden! Although we still suggest the following tips to maintain your mobility. If you can’t do this then you have some work to do!
Before the tips a note on what can be contributing to your limited ankle mobility.
Previous ankle trauma (breaks, sprains, twists) can shift the talus out of alignment, if you feel a pinch in the front of your ankle in the wall test this is likely the culprit. You may notice that your mobility is better on one side or the other (dramatically) if this is the case.
If you do not have a history of trauma to the ankle joint then soft tissue/fascia is likely the issue. So you will want to include the following exercises as well as regular foam rolling/lacrosse ball deep tissue work of your calves (gastrocs and soleus area) as well as your feet.
In both cases, wearing high-heeled shoes can exacerbate the condition! So when you dress to impress, wear flats!
Slant board Stretch! Many of you Rugged Runner’s reading this have seen this on your programs! 3x5 minutes on your slant board 3 times weekly (more if needed).
Half kneeling dorsiflexion stretch: Get into a half-kneeling position on a soft surface. With your right leg bent at the knee and right foot flat on the floor place your weight onto your right knee. Hold for 2 minutes! Throughout the stretch lift your toes (about 5 contractions) toward your shin. This strengthens the tibialis anterior (cause of shin splints) while stretching the muscles and facia of the ankle. Repeat on the left side. 3x weekly/daily if very problematic.
Banded ankle dorsiflexion stretch: Anchor a large resistance band to a strong object (furniture) attached low on the object so the resistance band lays on the ground. Thread your right leg through the loop and knee so your right knee is bent and you are kneeling on your left knee. Slowly lean forward and stretch, hold for 10 seconds and return to starting position and repeat for 2 minutes on each leg. This is the best option for those with ankle trauma.
2. Glute Strength and Activation
For our second training focal point, we will address glute strength and activation.
The glutes are a group of 3 muscles: the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. They attach to the pelvis and are a central part of the body's power and stability.
Modern living means a LOT more sitting than our bodies were intended for. One of the consequences of too much sitting is that our glutes become inactive and weak. Additionally, sitting makes the hip flexors tight which pulls your torso forward and prevents the glutes from firing. The glutes are absolutely one of the most important tools we have for running. They stabilize the pelvis which minimizes lateral motion and aids in forward propulsion-resulting in faster less injury-prone running! Who doesn’t want that?! The glutes catalyze hip extension-where your leg lifts and extends backward after push-off propelling your forward. When the glutes are not firing correctly, impact forces are not distributed properly and can be transmitted down the chain to the knees, lower legs, feet, and ankles. Additionally, the glutes are loaded with a greater proportion of oxygen-consuming, fatigue-resistant slow twitch muscle fibers-making you be able to go longer distances with less fatigue.
Having strong glutes is NOT enough. You have to be sure that your glutes are able to activate and fire properly in order to function. Weak and inactive glutes are one of the largest hindrances to a runner’s potential and a huge cause of preventable injury.
Thus in order to utilize the power and potential of your glutes, you need a holistic approach to training them that includes:
drills to develop the neuromuscular connections needed for them to fire,
strength training that targets all of the glute muscles, and
mobility to release tissues preventing the muscles from firing and doing their jobs.
Glute activation drill: stand on one leg with your core and pelvic floor engaged, lift right leg into knee drive position and feel the activation of your glute medius (the muscle at the top of your glutes), “fall” forward onto the other leg (like in running) and drive up the leg and engage the gluteus medius, core, and pelvic floor. Repeat for 2 min, do this prior to running!
Glute strengthening and activation exercise: Frog bridges. Go into a double leg bridge pose and place a resistance band around your knees. Squeeze your glutes, core, and pelvic floor muscles to engage, spread your legs out away from the midline like a butterfly pose, hold 1-10 seconds and return to the double leg bridge. Begin with 3x10-15 reps.
Hip flexor stretch: This is key for mobility so you can have the necessary hip extension for your glutes to fire. On a cushioned surface (to protect knees) kneel on the ground. Extend your right leg in front of you and lean forward. You will feel a deep stretch in the front of your left hip near your pelvis, this is your hip flexor. Hold at least 40 seconds, you can add gentle forward and backward rocking in the stretch as well.
3. Upper Body Stability, Mobility, and Strength.
We are all about efficiency here and I’m sure you are too. Who wouldn’t want to get the biggest bang for their buck and have all of their hard work be able to be used in the most efficient way? That’s why our final focal point is upper-body mobility and strength.
Of course, you are thinking to yourself...why do I need guns to run?! But what you don’t know is that having a strong upper body allows you to pump your arms in the correct direction, form, and rhythm it needs in order to transfer the energy to your lower body as well as counterbalancing your legs. Sure if you don’t care about wasted energy then don’t do your pushups, but if you do care and happen to be an endurance athlete, you’ll want to listen up (this applies to non-endurance athletes too, but due to the nature of being on course for miles and miles in an ultra, EFFICIENCY MATTERS.
Several muscles in your upper body are used for running.
The strength does play a minor role compared to the technique, but they do go hand in hand. If you don’t have the strength (or the mobility) you will not be able to have the technique. The arms provide additional thrust, catapulting the runner forward. Strong shoulders are particularly important for this. The best upper body to include in your workouts are pushups! These utilize 13 different muscles including the core!
You learned why strength is important above, but what’s the use of all the strength if you don’t have the mobility to go with it? What is mobility anyways? The ability to move easily and freely. I’d bet most of you have tight neck and shoulder muscles and moving freely isn’t even a thought. But moving enough not to get a headache is… so let’s improve! You can do this by some simple T-Spine (think of your spine as the line going down in a T, then the horizontal line as your arms straight out) mobility exercises!
Example #1: Take a basketball or firm medicine ball. Place it at your bra line or midback. Bend your knees and roll the ball up to your neck and back down only to midline. You can wrap your arms around (hug) yourself, or consider slowly opening them. Breathe deeply for 5 breaths with 8 second exhalations.
Example #2: Taking two lacrosse balls and taping them together, or one “peanut” massage ball, place it in the middle of your back, around bra/midline. With or without light (1-3lb dumbbell weights), swing arms gently up past your head like you are doing a backstroke (1 at a time alternating). Again breathe deeply.
Example #3: Take an object like a yoga block or foam roller and lie on your stomach bringing your right leg to a bent position and placing it on top of the foam roller. Your body will perform an “h”... with your left arm extended up and your right arm 90 degrees. Open your right arm upwards, rotating your spine up, and then close your arm back down again. Breath deeply!
Mobility is essential because it prepares our bodies for the stress of training. It is a vital contributor to reducing the risk of injuries as well as improving technique and range of movement. It is important to note that strength alone isn't enough to have good mobility. Upper body strength controls your ability to perform everyday activities such as reaching, pulling, pushing, and lifting and the same goes for lower body strength. So if you want to have longevity in the sport of running or just overall health and fitness to sit on the toilet when you are 90… take heart to the above!