I've trained my share of long distance runners, triathletes and Iron Man competitors, and no matter how fit these die-hard enthusiasts are, they often find their way to my Pilates studio due to a running injury.
Runners have strong quadriceps, hamstrings and calves, and rarely incur injuries in these powerful sheaths of muscle. Instead, running injuries almost always occur at the hip, knee and ankle due to an imbalance between the large propulsion muscles and the smaller stability muscles surrounding the joint structures of the leg. These smaller muscles are critical for a runner's ability to lift the energetic load of the torso off the legs, reducing the pounding downward impact on the body's lower joints.
So what can we do to decrease risk of injury while increasing running performance and endurance?
To prevent hip injuries ... strengthen the abdominals and gluteals.
This simple exercise strengthens the transversus abdominis, the deepest abdominal muscle and most effective for lower back and pelvic stability.
On the hands or forearms, hold plank position for one minute. On each exhale, narrow the waistband by squeezing your navel up and into the back. Rest and repeat for another minute (or longer).
Side plank not only strengthens the lateral fibers of the abdominals, but also the gluteus medius and minimus. These smaller hip muscles help stabilize the pelvis during a runner's stride, minimizing extreme pelvic shifting or hip hiking, the effects of which can cause lower back pain and impingement at the hip joint.
On the hand or forearm, hold side plank position. Inhale and lower your pelvis three inches toward the floor; exhale and lift it back up. Repeat slowly 10x each side. Rest and repeat.
Long distance runners often experience hip flexor pain. Reverse tabletop simultaneously strengthens the oppositional extensors (gluteals, upper hamstrings) in the posterior hip and stretches the flexors in the front so that the entire system is more in balance.
Lift into a reverse tabletop position, with hands below shoulders and feet below knees, hip distance apart. Inhale and lower the hips three inches toward the floor; exhale, curl the tailbone under and lift the hips back up. Repeat 10x. Rest, stretch the wrists and repeat.
To prevent knee injuries ... strengthen the inner legs.
PRONE LEG SCISSOR
This exercise strengthens the gluteals, lower back and, more importantly, the inner thighs, which tend to be weak on runners. Strengthening the inner thighs will help balance the inside and outside musculature of the leg.
Lay on the stomach, legs together, hands folded under forehead. Lift both legs off the floor, knees straight. Inhale and separate the legs twelve inches; exhale and slowly zip together inner legs from hips to feet. Repeat 15x, then rest and repeat. Variation: Lift the upper body off the floor for an extra challenge.
Toe Squat strengthens the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) just above the inner knee. The ilio-tibial band spanning from hip to knee along the outside thigh grows tight due to repetitive running, pulling the patella (kneecap) out of alignment. Strengthening the VMO helps draw the patella back into its optimal position.
In parallel, heels lifted off the floor, slowly squat as low as you can (stop before any knee discomfort). With control, straighten the legs all the way back up to standing while balancing on the toes. Repeat 10x. Variation: Place a pliable six inch ball between the knees and squeeze it during squat for greater inner thigh intensity.
A final note on the foot:
If you dutifully perform the exercises above, any discomfort you've been feeling in your feet will often disappear. But if you have flat feet or suffer from plantar-fasciitis, avoid running on concrete and go for grass or dirt instead. It also might be time for new shoes or arch supports. Visit a running store and speak to a specialist who will watch your gait and foot strike and recommend the best shoe for you. Try on a few styles before deciding.
When you slip on the perfect pair, your Cinderella radar will light up and you'll know they were made just for you.
Now, you're ready to run. Go get 'em, tiger.
Photos by Katrina Wittkamp