**FYI – This post has been marinating for several months and I’ve struggled with what I want to say with it.**
Training and my first marathon(er)
Now that spring is here (near record rainfall here in Lexington this month), people are taking to the streets and sidewalks in effort to lose weight, get in shape, improve their running speed, etc. As I watch many of these runners trot around, I’m not convinced that they should be logging the kind of miles they are. One of the first forms of exercise we learn is running. Running is a basic human movement which we learn to do at a young age and it’s (relatively) easy to do. Lace up your shoes and take off for a run. No treadmill? No problem. Just walk out your front door.
Due to its low cost of entry (shoes), unlimited availability (you can run just about anywhere), and intrinsic nature (we learn to run as kids), just about anyone can go for a run. I’ve worked with countless recreational runners over my career and I was even a recreational runner for a while too. I usually tell the recreational runner that distance running is not a great idea for them – as THEY’RE NOT BUILT FOR IT AND THEY’RE NOT PHYSICALLY PREPARED FOR DISTANCE RUNNING! (Several months ago I began training an elite distance runner and it has given me a new appreciation and understanding for running. More on that later.) For example, people who work seated at a desk for long periods of time acquire certain positional or postural alignments that can have deleterious effects on how they move especially when they run. This seated position is often accompanied by computer-based work which results in anterior head carriage (AHC) and slouched shoulders. But I’m going to focus on how the hips, pelvis, and lumbar spine are affected by long-term sitting and why running without treating this fauly posture may not be the best idea.
While sitting, the hip flexors shorten and stiffen exerting a downward pull on the front of the pelvis and upward pull on the knees which can contribute to low back and knee pain. Additionally, if the pelvis is pulled down in the front, the hamstrings exert a protective pull on the posterior of the pelvis to prevent it from falling too far in to anterior tilt. (This is why people with this type of low back pain tend to have “tight” hamstrings.) Stretching the hamstrings feels good and can relieve symptoms temporarily, but that stiffness will return in about 24 hours. I could go on for days about the muscles, force couples, neuromuscular control and myriad other factors that come in to play, but I won’t today.
So let’s get to the specifics of running and why it may not be a good idea for you. Typically the mechanics of recreational runners over-emphasize the hip flexors and de-emphasize the glutes and anterior core. This is essentially what happens when we sit for long periods of time. Therefore it makes sense that if we already have short, stiff, hypertonic hip flexors we shouldn’t perform exercise that’s going to make it worse, right? I see lots of people with this scenario who come in with a weak anterior core and inhibited glutes and suffering with low back and knee pain. So while running, we (recreational runners) tend to stride out with our hip flexors (without achieving much actual hip flexion) and pull through with the hamstrings. The hamstrings are constantly “on” to help control anterior pelvic tilt and now they’re being asked to perform the majority of hip extension, which is not a good approach. The more simple way to look at this is that the anterior core and obliques work together with the hamstrings and glutes to keep the pelvis from falling forward from the pull of the hip flexors, adductors, and spinal erectors (low back muscles). When these muscles exert the appropriate force, the resulting movement is a thing of beauty. If one group exerts too much force without balance from the opposing muscles, things get ugly.
GETTING SCHOOLED ON DISTANCE RUNNING
As I mentioned, I recently began training an elite female distance runner named Tina. I had no frame of reference to what “elite” meant when pertaining to distance running. Additionally, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to help her. Sort of. I knew what I would do with a recreational runner, but this is a woman who has sponsors, an awesome running coach (you’re welcome Steve), and a half-marathon time more than an hour faster than my half marathon time. Yes, that’s correct – an hour. While getting her history, I found out that she previously suffered a strained left hamstring and actually ran the Chicago Marathon with said strained hamstring. I watched and recorded her running on a treadmill at our gym, and to be honest she moves so fast, I had to put it in slow motion before I could really see anything “wrong”. Granted I’m not skilled in running gait analysis. YET…
Before we got in to her training Tina traveled to the University of Virginia’s Speed Clinic to have an analysis done in hopes of pinning down what was causing her dysfunction leading to her injury. When she returned, she was excited and revitalized with the results. The 3-D video – with kinematic analysis of her pelvis, hips, and legs, and more graphs than high school algebra – all pointed out that her glutes weren’t doing enough work and she was striding out too far. (Somewhat similar to a recreational runner)
Her training started similarly to other runners who simply need to move better. We focused our training on getting some length to her adductors (she has anteverted hips) and hip flexors while strengthening her glutes, improving her anterior core and neuromuscular control. Additionally Tina reduced her stride length significantly which reduced the amount of “braking” in her stride and increased the amount of propulsion she can generate. Her stride looks much more smooth and she suffers significantly less jarring on her frame which is critical over the course of a 10, 13.1, or 26.2 mile run.
Often times we assume that because someone’s desired or daily activity requires a certain quality (in this case running in a straight line for long distances) that we should train them similarly – so high rep, low weights circuit training. However, Tina’s cardiovascular fitness and Type I muscle fibers were getting plenty of training from her running. Instead, I used low rep, heavy resistance training to “fill in the gaps”. Additionally, I included exercises that demanded frontal plane control while working in the sagittal plane. In other words, performing a reverse lunge while I used a band to pull her front knee in, thus making her glute work more to keep the femur in proper position. Finally, due to her excessive thoracic rotation to the left and a subsequent across-the-body reach as she strides, I added rotary stability exercises to reduce the amount of energy Tina wasted with each stride.
In the 17 weeks since we started training, I’m amazed at Tina’s progress and her determination. Tomorrow is the London Marathon, and Tina is there with her family and friends ready to put all her hard work to the test. I’d be crazy to think that in 17 weeks, we could correct everything she has acquired running thousands of miles over her lifetime. However, I do believe that Tina is in better overall condition for this race than any previous race and I’m excited for this step in her journey toward continued greatness.
If you learned nothing else…
So what does all this mean? It means that running can be an effective and enjoyable form of exercise. It also means that if your body isn’t ready for distance running, there may be better options for you initially. Even the pros have coaches and it is much better to start with good movement and build a foundation for running (or whatever) than to start with poor movement and add more bad movement on top of a bad foundation. If you would like to run, do like to run, or want to run faster, hire a trainer or coach and ask for help. It’s amazing how a new perspective from a professional can help. I’ll continue to post updates on Tina’s progress and you can follow her blog here which has lots of nutrition, running, and lifestyle content. Once she returns from London and recovers, Tina and I hope to start a training program specifically for runners who want to improve, but may not have an idea of the next steps to take.