Winter time: keys to improving your running
While a run is the snow is always fun, there are just some times when the weather doesn’t allow for safe running. This is the perfect opportunity to involve some cross training into your routine. There are three areas in particular that you can focus on; dynamic flexibility, core strength, and non-weight bearing activity.
Many of the injuries that runners develop can be traced to muscle imbalances and overuse. Running takes place in the sagittal plane, meaning that the movement occurs in a front to back motion. As a result, the same muscles are used to perform the movement over and over again, and certain muscles become shortened and others become weakened. Over time, the body will begin to compensate for this imbalance, and eventually, injury can occur. Increasing the dynamic flexibility of these muscles can help to reduce injury and improve overall running performance. Dynamic flexibility is the ability of the body to achieve a range of motion by actively contracting muscles to obtain that motion. It differs from static stretching which is the action of passively holding the body in a certain position for a period of time to lengthen the muscle. Dynamic flexibility is the flexibility that our body has while it’s in motion, making it a very functional type of flexibility to have for running. Key muscles to focus on are the hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors.
The core encompasses a large area ranging from the torso down to the hips, including the muscles in the front, back, and sides of our body. The core is responsible for stabilizing our spine and providing a solid base for our limbs to move off of. When we run, we have to support our body weight on one leg at a time. The ability of our body to stabilize itself while we are on one leg is related to core muscle strength. Weakness in the core can cause an unstable base of support in the lower extremity, causing the leg to rotate inwards, which increases stress on the hip, knee, ankle, and foot. One of the most overlooked muscles of the core is the gluteus maximus. This muscle is responsible for extending the hip, which we do with every step that we run. If this muscle is weak, other muscles have to compensate. This causes the muscles of the lower back and hamstrings to work too hard and can contribute to pain and tightness in these areas. Strengthening the core will allow you to run with more efficient form for a longer period of time, making you a stronger runner. Increased core strength will also cut down on the rate of nagging injuries such as IT Band Friction Syndrome, knee pain, hip pain, and hamstring strains. Remember, the core isn’t just the abs. Make sure you are working the front, back, left & right sides of your body. Progressing to doing the exercises on a single leg is also beneficial since running takes place on one leg at a time.
The third key to help improve your running this winter is the addition of non-weight bearing activity into your routine. No runner likes to hear this, because non-weight bearing means that you are not running! If you have experienced an injury this past year, or have had some sort of nagging pain that keeps coming back every time you run, it’s ok to take some time to do something besides running. When we run, we cause microdamage to our muscles, tendons, and bones. This breakdown of tissue is normal, as long as we allow time for recovery. Our bodies repair themselves and we come back stronger, this is how we make gains in muscular strength and bone density. When we don’t allow proper recovery, the rate of damage outweighs the rate of recovery and eventually those microtears in the tissue become muscle strains, tendonitis, and stress fractures! Activities like biking, swimming and the elliptical machine don’t stress the joints and bones as much as running, but they still allow for a good cardiovascular workout. Performing activities that we don’t normally do also causes different muscles to work and it calls on muscles that we normally use to contract differently. Using our muscles differently can help to overcome those muscle imbalances that we spend all year creating when we run. Try performing a backwards stride on an elliptical machine for a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean! With all of this talk about the lower extremity and the core, don’t forget about the upper body. The muscles in our upper body are important for maintaining an efficient stride and helping to control breathing. What’s the first thing we do when we get tired and shortness of breath? We hike up our shoulders! Having the upper body strength & muscular endurance can help to maintain a good posture while running. If one of your goals is to run an ultra marathon and you are thinking of running with a hydration pack, you will have a couple of extra pounds riding on your shoulders over the course of many miles. Strong back and shoulder muscles will make that experience much more manageable and enjoyable. So go ahead into the weight area at the gym and lift some weights!
Stay tuned to future editions of the Sports Medicine Corner for a breakdown and explanation of specific exercises that you can do to increase dynamic flexibility & core strength. The focus in the next newsletter will be on the hamstrings. Also, keep an eye out for our upcoming Runner’s Core & Flexibility class in 2013. If you are anxious to start on the road to better running, there is a yoga class every Sunday afternoon at 5:30 at the store instructed by Meghan Fanning. Give it a try. You might not be used to it, it might be hard, but your body will thank you!