WORDS: 2400 TIME TO READ: 5-10 minutes
I have been very fortunate to be able to work with a wide array of athletes and individuals. Among these groups however lies one very unique population- those who love and are drawn to the mileage related activities or competitions. I categorize all of these sports as mileage related, since they all include a large total weekly amount of volume performed at low-moderate intensity of moderate-long duration. And more so, this volume is typically accumulated in a very repetitive manner with hundreds to thousands of potential foot contacts or rep cycles that the body must perform absorb.
I have the pleasure of working with individuals who have or do still compete in one or more of the following:
- Full marathons, ultra-marathons and half marathons
- 10k or 5k mini races
- Triathlons and duathlons (as well as shorter sprint variations)
- Cyclocross and road cycling
- Soldiers performing a vast number or mileage related events or tasks within the military system
These activities come with a unique set of demands and also require a well thought out approach to managing things from a strength and restoration standpoint. Notice that I did not say “strength & conditioning”. I say this, because I do very little-no true conditioning with these individuals, unless they have a legitimate off-season, which is rare and unusual in my 13 years of coaching experience so far. Runners or cyclists for example, do not do well with not running or cycling. This is no different than lifters not lifting, it is just not how they are wired!
Over time, I have been able to both identify very common trends and patterns that emerge in these populations and I confidently know that my role is to have a solid understanding of functional anatomy, movement mechanics, physiology and injury maintenance strategies.
More so, my role has been made even more clear and concise through real world experience feedback from my clients and developing a training system and philosophy I am very confident in. The top priorities of someone in my role include:
- Identify weaknesses or potential injury indicators
- Develop power and force production capabilities
- Improve joint integrity and tissue durability for the passive support structures
- Address the imbalances to the body as a whole
- Build appropriate tissue capacity in the supportive musculature to allow effective performance
For the purpose of this article, I am going to highlight 9 points that I feel runners in particular should take at least a few minutes to consider or review. Perhaps picture them as a checklist, and if you are addressing 8/10 of them, then you may gain some insight and focus on the other 2. Likewise, if you feel you are neglecting 7 of these, then perhaps you are not covering all of your bases and you are holding back a lot of progress you could be experiencing!
Either way, these are the points that came to mind when I decided to write this topic. I am not going to overload this article with a ton of references, stats or specifics. I have been studying and coaching for over a decade, and I have read or learned everything I know from so many sources, that it would be a task just to figure out an exact reference for each. I don’t feel people need that, at all in fact. Find a source you trust, and just try what they say. Take and use what works for you, ignore the rest, at least for now!
So, here we go….my 9 considerations to help you become a better runner:
- Perform true strength work
Strength training is absolutely essential for all sports, period. For some reason though, I hear many times that runners feel that their speed or hill work constitutes strength work, and it simply does not for a few reasons.
- Strength training in its nature entails an element of progressive overload to stimulate consistent increases in mechanical tension, which will equate to greater force production, positive neural adaptations and tissue elasticity improvements
- Mechanical overload and rate of force development training has been shown to increase voluntary force production. Basically, you can make your body more efficient at producing and expressing force the way you want it to. This alone means even your stride length can improve just by improving force production qualities and the way you express force into the ground on each foot strike)
- The body works in a very coordinated and linkage based system. If you neglect or have weakness in one part of the total body linkage, it will have an adverse effect somewhere else along the chain, negatively impacting overall performance or risking injury. Proper strength training will address this issue and train the linkages as a system
- Strength training teaches the body to receive force and distribute it across the entire system more efficiently, again resulting in greater efficiency and tissue durability
- Create balance and address what running does not
This one is a short point to make without getting overly technical. ALL sports and repetitive movements can create both imbalances or adaptations. Adaptations are essential and not something that should be “corrected”. Think here about the size of the legs of speed skaters, relative to their small upper bodies- this allows a better center of gravity, which helps them maintain position without losing speed on those long, fast turns. Or look at the upper shoulders of a high level boxer, versus the muscles in the front. The muscles of the rotator cuff and lats are decelerators and adapt to the volume of punching they perform. This is normal and simply an adaptation, it is a disservice to try to “fix” these adaptations.
An imbalance however may present itself in a few ways, and I’ll use one example for runners that I have seen a lot (note that we do not see this same effect in sprinters.
Runners almost always have anterior hip issues at some point. Interestingly there is a cascade of events that occurs and that has been proven many times over when this occurs. Check out this breakdown of events that can happen if one of these problems is not addressed:
- Anterior hip pain, especially paired with a loss of internal rotation can be an indicator of potential future hip osteoarthritis
- Hip pain is often a precursor to lower back pain or dysfunction
- Lower back pain can lead to inhibition and decreased glute function
- Decreased glute function will cause overall hip joint dysfunction and lead to a greater degree of anterior hip stress since the gluteals contribute immensely to ensuring the head of the femur moves properly within the acetabulum (hip socket)
- Decreased glute function has been linked to pain or increased tension in the hip flexors (primarily psoas, which connects to the lumbar spine)
- Finally, decreased glute function places more stress on the hamstrings, which now have to try to take up the slack and create hip extension, however they need to work synergistically and as part of the total system)
I won’t keep going here, but what I am getting at is that you need to create balance and a degree of symmetry in order to stay injury free and perform optimally. Addressing #1 above will aid greatly in this.
- During the off-season, make strength training more of a priority
Here is a simple approach to correcting and addressing problems that can arise from #1 and #2 above. During your off-season, or during your maintenance phases if you have them in your training cycle, make an effort to include strength work and learn more about how your body works. By understanding your body and addressing or helping prevent any underlying issues, you allow yourself to train harder and longer. This is a good thing : )
Doing so, will set you up for a great in-season, when you start upping your mileage and intensities, while simultaneously lowering your strength work volume. When you add, you have to subtract, so plan it out and cycle it all in.
- Take a proper de-load or off-season
I am sure there are hundreds-thousands of articles for runners on how to de-load, so I’ll just say that it matters…do one. Half the battle is understanding that the accumulated work adds up, and that muscles recover a lot faster than your nervous system and endocrine system or connective tissues.
Allow your body time to go through the necessary dips and rebounds that training creates. It can be hard on the mind to do so, but man, it will pay off big time in the long run!
- More is not less. Do focused work, not just more work.
OK, so this one I have encountered a LOT. Some of the runners I have worked with feel that they never do enough. They need spin classes, hill work, speed work, tempos, mileage days, recovery days and then they may even sprinkle in yoga, some strength work, etc….
I get it, runners are dedicated, no question. They put themselves through an inordinate amount of total work doing the exact same thing, where often times the only change in mental stimulus is the songs they choose, their running partners or the route they run. They are locked into a goal, and I love that. The part that I worry about and have seen though, is the neglect for “focused work”, which leads to total stress management.
As mentioned in #4, all stress accumulates, and rest, restoration and training need to be organized to benefit them all. Simply working harder, cutting rest days or doing more is not always the best answer. Plan and adhere, it usually produces a lot less injuries and a better overall outcome.
- Learn better running mechanics
I am not a running coach, don’t plan to be and I do not claim to be. I know what efficient movement in general looks like though, and although there are outliers who are world level athletes that do things a bit different, I am talking about in general here.
If you are one of the “shufflers” out there who are simply hammering away at mileage and following a running program your buddy gave you, without any real understanding of how your feet, hip, core and such work, you are setting yourself up for a lot of potential mileage stress.
Find someone or videos that can help you, then practice.
* An additional note here. If you perform a lot of your running on a treadmill for part of the year, you MUST understand the difference. Treadmills assist the strike leg into hip extension, causing less total hip extensor activation (those glutes we mentioned earlier). Running outside on solid ground requires you to push off the ground to propel yourself forward, a moving track does not create the same stimulus. Simply put, just understand that a moving track will require you to work and mentally use the right muscles, which will then transfer better when you get back outside.
The body needs to be told what to do sometimes, so the more you understand it, the better.
- Develop a base to prepare for bigger mileage
This one is simple, use progressive overload and build up your mileage appropriately. Tissues need time to adapt, so don’t rush the process and be realistic with your starting point. Getting motivated for an upcoming 5km race with your friends is awesome, really awesome actually.
However, if you go right from doing absolutely nothing and then while your motivation is spiked you go balls out on in your first month, you are setting yourself up for potential injury. Training is a marathon (pun intended), not a sprint. Allow yourself time to build and set goals that are both mentally stimulating, and motivating, as well as physically logical. Then just do the work and enjoy the process that naturally comes with working towards any goal!
- Develop true core stability and capacity
Leading spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill has researched extensively on this topic and how we apply that information to runners, is no different from any other athlete.
The core has a multitude of muscles and compartments that together make up a series of “hoops” or “slings” that work together as a guy wire system to support and stabilize during movement. This system creates a natural “back support” for the spine.
This hoop or sling system must be strong and have appropriate endurance for the tasks you want to take part in, otherwise injury will happen at some point as the weakest tissue becomes the fail point. Addressing more core endurance and strength is the ticket to optimal function and transfer to sport performance.
These exercises should be started with intervals or set times where the position can be held with perfect positioning and stiffness in the involved musculature. When you can hold a movement for up to 60 seconds, you can work to progress to a higher level or more challenging variation.
Simple and effective variations for runners could include:
- Planks variation
- Side planks
- Bird dogs, dead bugs
- Pallof press/holds
- Stir the pot
- Suitcase carries, farmers carries and offset load carries
*Note that the lower level isometric exercises can be used for spine sparing short activation exercises before heavier lifting (highly recommended) as well as added to your accessory work or daily routine to increase endurance and general work capacity of the core musculature around the spine.
I strongly recommend utilizing at least one variation in EVERY training session (or include an additional shorter session where these exercises are completed).
How you program this work is very dependent on the individual and your strengths and weaknesses. Start on the low end and master a given exercise, then advance to a harder version or more time, Do not try to be a hero and do it all at once and learn how to get the most from them.
- Have a plan
Well, if you read all the way through, then you may have clarity and excitement or be overwhelmed, lol. Either way, these points can all be pulled together with three words…have a plan.
It is really that simple in the grand scheme of things. Pick a goal, a realistic one. The do something about it. Maybe you need a coach for a while, maybe you need to start walking. Maybe you need to address a long standing injury that will only get worse if you neglect it. Either way, just develop a plan and then do something.
Keep training simple!