It’s that time of year again…. just a few weeks away from the Twin Cities Marathon! Fall is in the air, the mornings are becoming cooler, and the first signs of fall color are starting to show in the foliage.
Every marathon distance runner in the Twin Cities has spent the last several months logging countless hours and miles in the heat of summer getting ready for the Big Event, only to start having a bumper crop of overuse injuries just as they’re finishing their longest runs and starting to taper. Just look at any of the local running Facebook group pages – people posting their injury woes and asking for tips from anyone willing to give them. Unfortunately, most of the advice comes from people who mean well, but aren’t qualified to be giving it. The sad part is, the vast majority of these problems could have been prevented with just a few fast and easy exercises done on a regular basis. So, if you’re a distance runner, you can increase your odds of staying injury free by adding a few simple exercises to your running routine.
I recommend doing these just before running as part of your warm up:
Hip Flexor Stretch
If you sit a lot, (and most people do – even runners), you probably have shortened hip flexors. Any muscle that is tight or overactive tends to inhibit the muscles that do the opposite thing (it’s called reciprocal inhibition). So if the hip flexors are shortened, the hip extensors tend to be lengthened and weak or inhibited. Hip extensors include the glutes and hamstrings. Going for runs without your glutes and hamstrings being able to function optimally is NOT a good thing. So stretch out the hip flexors, which includes the psoas, iliacus, and rectus femoris which is also one of the quadriceps muscles. Once you’ve done that, you can now activate the glutes and hamstrings with…
Make sure you keep a neutral spine and don’t allow your low back to arch as you lift your hips. You shouldn’t feel your hamstrings cramping, as that indicates a weak gluteus maximus and the hamstrings are pulling double duty. The hamstrings themselves are probably also weak, and in this state you’re a sitting duck for hamstring strains. Gluteal muscles not only extend the hip, they decelerate internal rotation and adduction of the femur too. This means that when the glutes are weak or inhibited, the entire leg can over-pronate, causing misalignment of the knee and ankle, which can contribute to IT Band tendinitis aka runner’s knee, patellofemoral (knee) pain, patellar tendinitis, Achilles tendinitis, and plantar faciitis. Fun stuff.
This targets the fibers in the gluteal complex that externally rotate the femur to help prevent the pronation distortion I just mentioned. This photo shows the clamshell exercise being done with a flexed hip; a neutral hip position can fire up the glutes even more.
You are only in contact with the ground with one foot at a time when running, so you need to be able to stabilize your pelvis in the frontal plane. Most of the distance runners I train are actually pretty lousy at it. While this is not the job of one muscle, a weak gluteus medius is the prime culprit in the majority of runners I work with, particularly women. There are lots of ways to strengthen the gluteus medius; here’s an easy one to start with that doesn’t require any equipment – a standing side leg raise. I typically have my clients do this with their back against a wall to keep proper alignment, otherwise people tend to pike at the hip and compensate with their TFL. Keep your hips level with toes pointing straight ahead – you only have to lift your leg approximately 30 degrees to the side.
These are just a few basic exercises that address some of the ridiculously common muscle imbalances that I see in people who sit a lot, but become very problematic for anyone who is a distance runner. Each of these exercises can be progressed as you become stronger, or regressed if needed. As you can see, many of the common overuse injuries that commonly occur in runners can actually be caused by muscle imbalances in the hip no matter where you are feeling pain. Too many times, a distance runner will continue to re injure themselves because they only manage the symptoms while neglecting to fix the actual cause of the problem.
My advice: try these simple exercises to reduce your chance of injury. If you are already injured, don’t solicit advice from unqualified fellow runners on the internet – go see a professional who can properly diagnose and treat your problem. Yes, you’ll have to open your wallet (gasp!), but you’ll get to the root cause of the problem a lot faster and save money, pain and suffering in the long run.
Good luck and Blue Skies to all of the Twin Cities and other fall marathon runners!