ANN ARBOR – As the summer begins to fade into fall, many of you endurance athletes out there are getting ready for your fall races.
For some of you it might be your first race; for others, this just might be another season in your lifelong racing calendar. Wherever you fall on the endurance athlete spectrum, it is clear there is one thing you all have in common -- getting injured.
Research suggests that well over 50% of runners get injured during the course of the year. Some of these injuries can be fairly minor, such as ankle tendonitis that causes you to miss a few runs. Others can be quite severe, such as a stress fracture that results in no running for 3 or more months.
Why is running so injurious? Why do so many runners get injured? The answer is not as complex as what you think:
- Running involves thousands upon thousands of impacts with the ground each run. Multiply that over the course of weeks and months of running and it’s easy to see how tissues (tendons, ligaments, and bone) can break down and become injured.
- Most runners spend so much time running (which makes sense) that they aren’t left with a lot of time to do strength training. Due to the imbalance between muscular fitness and cardiovascular capacity, you are more susceptible to injury. Essentially, your body has great engines to make you go (your heart and your lungs), and less developed muscles to act as brakes to slow you down. You basically turn into a Ferrari engine on bicycle brakes, then boom – you’re injured.
Recommended Areas to Strengthen
The three lower body joints (ankle, knee and hip) are the most common sites of injury for runners. Depending on how you run, and where your body’s natural strengths and weaknesses lie, one joint may be more prone to injury than others. Saying that, strengthening up each area is a great way to ensure you prevent the most common areas of injury. Below are recommendations on simple strengthening exercise you can do for each lower body joint.
I’ve also included exercises for core stability. The core acts together with the hip muscles to stabilize your spine and your pelvis – proper alignment of the spine and pelvis can help to ensure all the other running muscles are put in the right position to do their job properly.
My recommendation is you carve out five minutes each day, right before bed, to perform the exercises described below. A sample schedule could be:
- Monday/Wednesday/Friday: Ankle
- Tuesday/Saturday: Core & Knee
- Thursday/Sunday: Hip
The ankle joint may be the single most critical area of the body for a runner (that’s why I recommend strengthening it 3 days/week). Strong ankles can prevent plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis and shin splints.
The 3-way ankle prehab is a great way to strengthen the ankle complex to prevent these types of issues. The 3-way ankle prehab involves 3 movements (inversion, eversion and dorsiflexion) at the ankle.
This workout goes fast, you’ll only need to do 10 to 15 reps per leg of each exercise, and since you’re alternating ankles, you won’t need to rest between sets.
I’m not talking "six-pack" here per se; I’m referring to the deep stabilizers of the core you can’t see, but that do the heavy lifting of deep spine and pelvis stabilization.
The best exercises for these deep stabilizers are planks and side planks. They’re quick, easy and do a great job of targeting this all-important area. Do 2-3 sets of this exercise, holding the plank position for 30-60 seconds.
Keep in mind you should draw your bellybutton toward your spine to ensure you activate your deep core stabilizers. Finally, use the modified (on knees) position if a standard plank is too difficult to hold for at least 30 seconds.
The knee undergoes a tremendous amount of stress when running. Strengthening up the knee can prevent runner’s knee, patellar tendonitis and IT band issues from occurring. The knee prehab is a simple workout you can do to prevent knee-related injuries.
Perform 10-15 reps of the first 3 exercises (hip flexion with internal, external, and no rotation). For the marching pelvic lift, perform 10-15 lifts of each leg off the ground.
Although the hip is a complex joint, the area of consistent weakness is the glutes. In fact, both the glute max (bigger butt muscle) and the glute medius (smaller butt muscle on the outside of your hip) tend to be weak in most runners. This can lead to a whole series of issues in the knee and ankle, as well as some localized issues in the hip (like IT band problems).
You can strengthen the glute max and medius by performing:
- Full Body Superman's: 2 sets of 10-15 reps, with a 30 second break in between sets
- Side Lying Hip Abduction: 2 sets of 10-15 reps per leg, alternating legs (no rest in between)
Take Home Message
As the old saying goes, "An ounce of prevention goes a long way." I realize these exercises don’t seem like much, but don’t let their simplicity fool you. I’ve been able to use these exercises for years to prevent initial occurrence of injury, as well as stop recurrence of nagging injuries that don’t seem to go away. Go ahead and give these exercises a try through your fall race. I’m very confident you’ll reduce your aches and pains and have a more enjoyable race prep.
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