Bulletproof Running 201

With the weather turning, if you’re like me you’re itching to lace up and hit the lake path!  It’s the time all Chicagoans have been waiting for: spring (and race season) is finally upon us!!  As the patios re-open and your neighbors slowly emerge from hibernation, it’s inevitable that Chicago will see a boom in the number of people running along the lake path and prancing down all the broken sidewalks of the city.  However, after spending the long winter months either slogging away on the treadmill or perhaps trading those Asics for lifting shoes and logging fewer miles overall it is crucial to plan re-entry carefully in order to optimize training and avoid injury.

Counterintuitively, running is a rather high-risk sport due to its repetitive nature.  Despite being non-contact, each year the rate of injury for the average runner is between 37-56% (1).  Most of these injuries are avoidable and related to overtraining.  Progressing mileage too quickly and running with improper form are the two most significant risk factors for this type of injury and will be an ongoing discussion over the next few issues of our newsletter.

How Much is Too Much?

To ramp up safely and avoid being sidelined by unnecessary injury, there are a couple of general guidelines to follow when increasing mileage.  The first is the rule of 10 percent.  This simply means that in a given week, a runner should look to increase total mileage or duration of training by no more than 10% to ensure that musculature, tendons, and bones are able to remodel and adapt to the changing workload being put upon them.  The second rule is that when progressing the distance of any single run, one should never log more than 30% more than the longest run prior (for the same reasons).  In addition to allowing strengthening of the static tissues in the body, progressing run duration also helps to ensure that proper running form can be maintained throughout.

Efficiency is Everything: Proper Running Form

More and more it’s generally acknowledged that there is no “one perfect gait” to have while running.  Mid-to-forefoot striking will result in better dissipation of impact and as a result is slightly lower risk for injury, better transfer of energy, and thus is more desirable than hindfoot gait.

In addition to considerations pertaining to initial contact, efficient running form promotes weight acceptance and stress absorption in a manner that doesn’t allow excess shear or frontal plane (twisting or side to side) motion, both of which are poorly tolerated by the body.  Avoiding overpronation (in which your arch collapses excessively) and genu valgus (excessive diving in of your knee) are the two most common gait faults and in general maintaining an adequate level of strength and flexibility can go a long way in preventing these faults.  We’ll discuss how to combat some of the most common causes of gait abnormality by implementing proper cross training and recovery in part 2 to follow in a couple weeks

Cross Training- Attack the Usual Suspects

Flexibility

Repetitive motions (ie: running) by default result in using the same muscles can lead to a cycle of microtrauma (the mechanism for building strength) and rebuilding, which can lead to soft tissue limitations and poor flexibility.  Stretching is an easy way to prevent this tightness from developing and interfering with your body’s ability to move freely.  Common trouble spots, mobility-wise, related to running include the hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, calves, and external rotators of the hip.

For any areas that are limited in a way that is adversely affecting your form, stretch them “correctively” prior to running and then again afterwards to promote proper soft tissue remodeling as your body recovers.  See a functional movement specialist at The Movement Guild for an assessment to determine which, if any of these common areas of limitation affect your running form and may be leaving you open to injury.  The “trouble spots” warrant pre-run stretching, whereas all others can do with post-run stretching alone.

It is worth mentioning that recently new research developments are showing that it is strength, and not as significantly flexibility, that plays the most significant role in preventing specific muscle strains (2,3).  The importance of flexibility is primarily in preventing aberrant movement patterns that overstress your joints and lead to a leakage of power.

Cross Training for Strength- Like Nike Says: “Just Do It”

The importance of strength is twofold:  the first of which is that having adequate ability to absorb eccentric load directly helps to prevent muscle strain.  This has been shown time and time again.  In a recent systematic review looking at eccentric strength training and the effects on prevention of hamstring strain, it was determined that eccentric hamstring strengthening decreased risk of muscle strain (and other soft tissue injuries) significantly (3).  This has been shown to be generalizable across other groups of muscles as well, and therefore eccentric training should absolutely be a part of any cross-training routine for running injury prevention and performance.

Another important function of strength is its protective capacity for maintaining proper running form.  Running requires a significant amount of strength in order to move efficiently, which in large part stems from the fact that biomechanically there is a proportionately much greater time spent in single leg stance as compared to walking making the activity more akin to a series of single leg squats than anything else.   Having adequate gluteal, quad, and calf strength as well as a solid foundation in core stability goes a long way to ensuring proper running gait, without excess pronation of diving in of the knee.  Both mechanical “faults” of overpronation and diving in of the knee, or genu valgus, stem from poorly controlled motion laterally and in rotation.  Well controlled rotation provides large amounts of power generation through a mechanism of load (stretch) and explode (contract), like kinetic energy with a spring.  So training to control rotation, and harness that source of power, goes a long way towards preventing injury and improving performance.

Ultimately in order to retrain movement or behavior it takes repetition, repetition, repetition and in a manner that looks and smells like the same activity we are asking our body to do.  This has been well established in a more general sense for hundreds of years in the fitness tenant of specificity of training.  This means for carry-over into running cross training should be done in standing, where body weight is controlled against gravity and rotational pull.  In order to achieve strength gains, muscular capacity must be pushed towards failure and in order to get the biggest bang for your buck eccentric strengthening (slow and controlled lowering) should be emphasized.

To incorporate stability at the ankle, hip, and trunk most single leg exercises standing on solid ground will do the trick, but here are a few of my favorites:

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift with curl to overhead press

  • Hinge at hip to lower torso towards parallel with the ground (weights if chosen, hang). Then power back into upright driving the swing side knee towards the sky and reach (or curl-to-press if weighted) overhead.  Repeat 3 sets of 6-12 on each side depending on difficulty.

Skater Squats (body weight, weighted, or plyometric)

  • Step into a curtsey motion, driving front knee inward towards midline. Then repeat going towards the opposite side.  Repeat 3 sets of 10-15.  Can increase load by making it plyometric and leaping from side to side, or avoiding toe touch on the back leg.

Lateral lunge with an outside the knee reach (start/end on one leg)

  • Start off standing on the left leg and then take a big step laterally to the right. On landing reach with left hand to outside the right knee, driving it inward.  Push back off the right leg to stand on the left once again and hold 3 seconds.

As core stability provides a foundation from which to move, it is crucial to also target abdominals and specifically control of the costo-pelvic angle or the space between your ribs and your hips.  A great exercise to work on lumbopelvic stability against all 3 planes of motion is:

The Plank Matrix

  • From a plank position 1) shift into posterior pelvic tilt and then relax, repeat for 10 + reps. 2) shift hips side to side keeping body parallel to the ground x 10 + reps  3) keeping body in a straight line rotate hips right/left x 10+ reps

Side plank with Dip and Overhead reach

  • From a side plank, allow hips to dip, then lift as you reach overhead with top arm. Repeat 10 times keeping core tight and hips extended.

By no means are these the only ways to effectively train for running performance but incorporating moves like these 2-3x/week in addition to your usual mileage will help make your race season bulletproof.  Happy Running!!

  1. Van Mechelen W. (1992). Running injuries. A review of the epidemiological literature.  Sports Med.  Nov;14(5): 320-35.
  2. Witvrouw E, et al.  (2004) Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship.  Sports Med.  34 (7):443-9
  3. Lorenz D and Michael Reiman. (2011).  The Role and Implementation of Eccentric Training in Athletic Rehabilitation: Tendinopathy, Hamstring Strains, and ACL Reconstruction.  Int J Sports Phys Ther.  Mar; 6(1):27-44.