3 Ways Runners Can Stay Injury Free
By Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc Kin(c), CSCS, CEP
It’s difficult to get runners in the gym. However, numerous studies show improved running performance and reduced injury risk when runners include strength and/or plyometric exercises to their endurance program. Most fear that if they lift a weight, they will instantly turn into the Hulk, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Let me see if I can change your mind.
The review paper titled Effects of Strength Training on Endurance Capacity in Top-Level Endurance Athletes, discusses concurrent strength and endurance training in highly trained endurance athletes (Aagaard & Andersen, 2010).
Previous research in this area is equivocal. Some studies show improvement in endurance performance while others have found an attenuated cardiovascular response.
Aagaard and Andersen (2010) found that the benefits of endurance training and the benefits of strength exercises for runners were both seen without any negative effects to endurance running performance in moderately-trained to elite top-level athletes. The muscle size did not change and capillary density was not affected.
What worked was a heavy resistance strength training protocol.
This is what they found:
- improved neuromuscular communication (rate of force development and maximal voluntary contraction)
- increased tendon stiffness,
- increased the percentage of Type IIA muscle fibers
“…strength training can lead to enhanced long-term (>30 min) and short-term (<15 min) endurance capacity both in well-trained individuals and highly trained top-level endurance athletes, especially with the use of high-volume, heavy-resistance strength training protocols.” –Aagaard & Andersen (2010)
Other studies have found that adding plyometric training to a running program improved running economy with no negative effects to the cardiovascular system (Paavolainen, et al., 1999; Saunders, et al., 2006; Turner, et al., 2003).
Lastly, a study with female cross-country runners, found that supplementing the running program with strength training (not plyometrics) also led to improvements in running economy (Johnston, Quinn, Kertzer, & Vroman, 1997).
Having said that, I know you’re tying up your runners and heading to the gym, but before you go, make sure to apply these 3 tips to ensure you stay injury free in the gym…and on the track.
1) Learn the difference between the squat and hip hinge pattern
The barbell back squat is traditionally seen as a “basic” lift; however, most runners perform this lift incorrectly.
Top 3 Problems Runners Have:
- Insufficient depth
- Rounded back
- Valgus (inward) knee
Technique Fix Tip: THE GOBLET SQUAT
• Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest lengthwise with your elbows pointing downward
• Sit in between your feet while keeping your chest up/out
• Squat ass-to-grass with your hip-crease below your knee-crease
• Finish with your elbows on the inside of your thighs
• Allow your torso to lean forward slightly to maintain balance over your mid-foot
• Do not allow your back to round forward – stay tight and strong in your core throughout the exercise
Over several weeks, progress to the heaviest dumbbell you can find. Not only is this challenging for the legs, but the core and spinal erectors get a great workout too. I recommend all runners be able to perform perfect heavy Goblet Squats before attempting barbell front or high-bar back squats.
You can trust the motor pattern, mobility and stability with deep Goblet Squats will help you achieve your goals of increasing strength in your legs and hips while also increasing core stability.
On to the hip hinge…
This movement pattern is essential for performing perfect Deadlifts, Olympic lifts and Russian Kettlebell Swings. For optimal utilization of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, back extensors), the hip hinge with zero back flexion/extension is imperative to improve athletic potential and running performance. Being able to tap into the posterior chain will also help reduce injury risk associated with distance running.
Technique Fix Tip: STANDING HIP HINGE DRILL
• Stand with your feet 8-10” apart
• Place one hand on your low back and one on your stomach
• Slightly bend your knees
• Push your hips back, back, back while you bow forward – you should feel tension in your hamstrings as you reach 90 degrees at your hips
• Use your hands to feel if your back starts to round
• Stay long and tight in your core and keep your chest out
Learn and own this movement. Apply it to your training – a great exercise for runners is the Romanian Deadlift. Hold a loaded barbell with a double overhand grip in front of your thighs. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep the bar close to your legs and perform the hip hinge as described above. Once the bar passes your knees, return to the standing position. To build strength, perform sets of 5 or less with at least 2-minutes rest between sets.
Being able to move through the hips will develop strong-ass glutes and hamstrings while sparing the spine and knees.
2) Correct for muscle imbalances
Due to the nature of the running stride (especially at slow paces), the body and joints move through a particular range of motion over and over again. This highly repetitive nature results in common muscle imbalances to form in runners compared to non-runners.
If you are looking for a great resource on muscle imbalances, make sure to check out Muscle Imbalances Revealed:
Shirley Sharmann (2002), in Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, writes that runners typically have overdeveloped hamstrings and typically weak hips. Weak hips can lead to a host of injuries, not only seen at the hip joint, but also at the knees. Runners with weak gluteus maximus muscles are prone to hamstring strains whereas runners with weak hip abductors and hip stabilizers have been shown to be prone to lateral knee pain.
Before going on runs, make sure to activate the glutes in your warm-up. My favorite drill is the Super Dog, an exercise I got from fitness expert, Nick Tumminello. Kneel on a mat and bring one knee to your chest. Extend your other leg and rest your upper body on your elbows. Bringing your knee to your chest flexes the hip and prevents lumbar extension during this exercise. Lift the straight leg upward, while trying to extend your hip. Perform 12 to 15-reps per side and perform two sets.
Another great warm-up drill for runners involves activating the deep hip flexors. Lie on your back with a mini-band wrapped around your feet. Bring your knees to your chest. Keep one knee held tight with your stomach while pressing the opposite leg away. Hold the end position for 5-seconds. Perform 8- to 10-reps per side.
3) Be smart when choosing your exercises
Not all exercises are created equal. The Iron Cross is a common warm-up exercise seen at track and field meets which attempts to warm-up the hip flexors while dynamically stretching the hamstrings. Here, the runner lies face up with his or her arms out to the sides. One foot is brought to the opposite hand with a straight leg. This warm-up exercise forces lumbar rotation and flexion upon a fixed torso, which is a recipe for disc disaster. Dynamic loads directed to the spine in this nature are unsafe and may result in injury.
Instead, perform the Knee-Hug Crossover Lunge. This drill works on hip range of motion while activating the legs and hips in the standing position. This exercise will have more functional carryover to running and be more effective at warming you up compared to the Iron Cross. Plus, the dynamic rotational load is removed, thus, sparing the spine.
Stand tall and hug one knee – feel a stretch under your thigh and into your glute. Release the hug and with control, step the same leg backwards, diagonally behind your stance leg. Some refer to this as a “curtsey” lunge. Keep your shoulders and hips square – you should feel a good stretch in your hip. Stay tall and drive your front foot down to stand back up. Repeat on the other side and perform 10 per side, twice, before your run.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc Kin(c), CSCS, CEP is a Personal Trainer and Freelance Fitness Writer based in St. John’s, NL, Canada. He is a regular contributor to many major health and fitness magazines such as Canadian Running, Men’s Fitness, and Oxygen. Jon ran track and field for 9 years with 15:13 and 32:15 personal bests in the road 5-km and 10-km races respectively. You can reach Jon and read more of his work at www.StrongerRunner.com.
Aagaard, P., & Andersen, J. L. (2010). Review: Effects of strength training on endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports , 20 (2), 39-47.
Johnston, R. E., Quinn, T. J., Kertzer, R., & Vroman, N. B. (1997). Strength training in female distance runners: Impact on running economy. J Strength Cond Res , 11, 224-229.
Paavolainen, L., Hakkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Nummela, A., & Rusko, H. (1999). Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology , 86, 1527-1533.
Sahrmann, S. A. (2002). Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. St. Louis, Missouri, USA: Mosby.
Saunders, P. U., Telford, R. D., Pyne, D. B., Peltola, E. M., Cunningham, R. B., Gore, C. J., et al. (2006). Short-term plyometric training improves running economy in highly trained middle and long distance runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 20 (4), 947-954.
Turner, A. M., Owings, M., & Schwane, J. A. (2003). Improvements in running economy after 6 weeks of plyometric training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 17 (1), 60-67.
Huge thanks, Jon.
If you would like improve your speed and accomplish the sport goals that they desired, you can check out Adam Kessler’s Run Faster Method:
Rick Kaselj, MS