A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by a high school cross country and track coach to provide him with an insurance plan for runners. Initially, I thought to myself, we don’t do insurance here, but I can help you with some shoes! Then he went on to explain that runners need to run, but they also need to do something to prevent injury. He was looking for some key exercises that are time efficient and helpful; things that can be done in a few minutes as part of a daily routine.
I thought about the time I spent as a high school athletic trainer working with runners and about the adult runners that I have seen here at Fleet Feet. Many of the injuries can be traced back to common causes. In general, many runners complaining of injury will have one or more of the following: deficit in single leg balance, weakness in the glutes and core, lack of hamstring flexibility, and Iliotibial (IT) Band tightness.
So how do you address all of that after you just put so much time into your run, and now you have to get ready for work, school, make dinner, etc? I have chosen four key exercises that will address common areas of weakness and are time efficient. These exercises, while they don’t require any equipment or weight, are very taxing to the neuromuscular system, meaning that they will give you a good bang for your buck! Don’t be surprised if you find these exercises more challenging than your run at times!
The first exercise combines the classic push up with an inchworm. Many runners forget about upper body strength, which is important in maintaining proper posture during running as well as helping you push through those later, tougher miles. The nice thing about the push up, if done with proper form, is that it works the core muscles at the same time you are working the upper body. Keeping the butt low and the spine in alignment will ensure that you are engaging the core. When you finish the push up, stay in that position, but now try to walk your feet towards your hands. Keep your knees as straight as possible and try to keep your heels as close to the ground as possible. This is called an inchworm and it provides a great dynamic stretch to the hamstrings and calves while keeping the core engaged. Start off with 5 push ups and one inchworm, repeat 3 times. Increase reps as you get stronger.
The second exercise is called the bird dip. This addresses so many different things, making it one of my favorite, most efficient exercises. I prescribed this exercise so much to the high school kids that I worked with, they loved (or hated it) so much, that they nicknamed it “the Stacy!” When done properly, this hits on single leg balance (ankle, knee, and hip stability), dynamic hip flexor flexibility, dynamic hamstring flexibility and strength. To begin, stand on the right leg and pull your left leg into a regular quadriceps stretching position (holding left foot with left hand). With your right knee “soft” (fairly straight, but not in a locked position), reach down to the floor or as far as you can with your right hand. Now, slowly return back to starting position, maintaining that quadriceps stretch position with your left side. The key is to do this slowly and to maintain your balance throughout the whole motion. Repeat 5 – 10 times on each leg.
The third exercise is the single leg bridge. Running trains the muscles on the front of the body to become very strong. The muscles on the back, mostly the glutes, tend to be weak and don’t function efficiently to extend the hip during running. The body then compensates by overusing the hamstrings or the low back muscles, resulting in problems such as hamstring strains and low back pain. The single leg bridge will require the glute to extend the hip while engaging rotational stability of the core. Begin laying on your back. Bend the right leg keeping the foot on the ground. Keep the left leg straight. Lift the hips off of the floor by extending the right hip (drive your right foot into the ground). The key is to keep both hips even in height, meaning that there is no unwanted rotation of the hips occurring.
Last, but certainly not least, is the use of a foam roller! The IT Band is a thick band of connective tissue that extends the length of the thigh and attaches at the knee. When this band gets tight, as it often does in runners, it can negatively affect the knee and hip and everything in between. Regular massaging of this tissue helps to keep it mobile and flexible. Start by getting on the foam roller on the hip of one side. Lift your feet off of the ground so your body weight is supported by the hip on the roller and your hands. Use your hands to “walk” back and forth as the roller makes its way down the outside of your thigh, all the way to your knee. Go slow over sore spots. Do this for about 3 – 5 minutes on each leg, daily.
While this runner’s insurance policy doesn’t guarantee injury free running, it can help to decrease the risk of common injuries and help make you stronger, which can translate to better performance. Taking just a few minutes a day, or even 1 – 3 days a week to perform these exercises will be beneficial for competitive high school runners all the way through adult recreational runners.