How to Prevent Common Running Injuries with Mobility and Strength Training
While some running injuries can be attributed to overuse, the source almost always stems from something much deeper and can't be properly fixed without changing the body's true mechanics.
According to Yale Medicine about 50% of runners get injured every year. These injuries include everything from IT band syndrome, to shin splints and stress fractures. The most common questions I receive as a running coach almost always pertain to running-related injuries. Oftentimes people want an “easy fix,” like getting new shoes or resting for a few days. Trust me, I wish there was an easy fix. If so, I’d be a millionaire.
What Causes Common Running Injuries?
From what I have seen over the years, the origin of most runner injuries is usually anatomic; issues stemming from muscle imbalances or weaknesses in the body that force other muscles to overcompensate in order to produce certain movement patterns (Example: Weak glutes causing the IT band to overwork). These muscle imbalances can also stem from a lack of range of motion (movement restriction), which puts stress on bones and joints and can lead to injuries. My advice is, if you want to rehab an injury as well as avoid it in the future, you have to find the origin of the problem in order to fix the pain. If you don't, it will continue to reoccur. No shoes or rest day can repair your biomechanics. You have to do it yourself!
Mobility and Strength are Essential to Prevent Running Injuries
Mobility is the way the human body moves, and the term "strength" can be defined as the body's ability to produce certain movement patterns in a powerful and efficient way. While everybody moves a little differently, our bodies are all designed to function the same way. They are made up of the same bones, ligaments, muscles and joints, which are all connected and designed to produce functional and efficient movement patterns. Runners can disrupt these natural movement patterns if their mechanics are restricted from either a lack of natural range of motion, or from underdeveloped muscles.
Although it may feel as though your legs are the only part of your body you use while running, there is actually much more to it! Your stride cycle requires proper hip function, as well as core and upper-body strength. Like I said before, the muscles and joints in our bodies are designed to work together. If certain muscles lack strength or if there is a restriction in movement anywhere, the whole system can be disrupted, which over time can result in injury (this falling stance drill is a great way to work on perfecting your stride).
IT Band Syndrome is One of the Most Common Running Injuries
IT band syndrome (ITBS) is one of the most common injuries amongst runners. It occurs when there is excessive overuse of the same pattern of movement. The IT band is made up of soft tissue, and runs along the outside of the thigh, from your hips to your knees. Inflammation from ITBS is usually a result of excessive rubbing over the tibial tubercle. It feels like an irritating tightness on the outside of the knee, and can cause inflammation and soreness in the hips as well. Oftentimes, ITBS is a result of muscle imbalances or a lack of range of motion in your hips, glutes, or hamstrings (weak hip adductors or weak gluteus medius muscles, try this running gate drill to help). It can also be caused by increasing training volume (mileage) too quickly (too much sudden stress on the body). Hip and core strength plays a major part in avoiding ITBS. Core strength stabilizes your trunk and pelvis, helping your posture stay strong when you run. If you have any weaknesses in your core or hips, or a lack of range of motion in your hips, it can cause a disruption to the normal functionality and purpose of your IT band.
How to Prevent Runner’s Knee
Another common injury is runner's knee. It's a broad term used to describe the pain you feel in the front of your knee cap when doing things like bending, running, squatting, or walking down stairs. Runner's knee can be caused by a structural deficit, or can be a result of under-active glutes, which is why it’s so important for runners to incorporate strength training into their routine. I like to look at lean muscle (developed through strength training by doing movements like squats, and lateral lunges) as a cushion to your bones and joints. If you don’t have lean muscle to protect your bones and joints, the impact from running, over time, can cause wear and tear resulting in injuries like shin splints and stress fractures. Spanish squats are an excellent corrective exercise to reduce knee compression in order to strengthen your glutes and help absorb the impact (shock absorption) on your knees while running.
Ankle Strength is Imperative in Order to Run Efficiently
Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and achilles tendon tightness can all stem from weak ankle strength or mobility, which can lead to the inability to properly fire your calf muscles (along with the rest of the muscles in your posterior chain) when you run. Improving ankle strength not only helps you run faster and more economically, but also allows you to expend less energy to produce the same pace. Exercise-induced enhancement of your ankle's ability to produce both dorsi and plantar flexion (plantar flexion is the ability to flex your foot up, and dorsiflexion is the ability to point your foot down toward the floor) improves overall strength in your ankle's muscle-tendon capacities, which in turn enables you to run more efficiently and more powerfully. I recommend the "ankle dance" to promote multi-directional movement, which is crucial for getting you out of the repetitive linear pattern required when running.
Warming Up: Dynamic vs. Static Stretching
Properly warming up your body requires dynamic movement. Too often, I see people simply static stretching before they run. Static stretching is when you stretch in place--like reaching down to your toes to stretch your hamstrings. And sure, while it may feel good and likely loosens you up a bit, static stretching actually elongates your muscles and reduces their overall elasticity. In order to produce an efficient stride cycle (and to be able to do it for a while, like on long runs) your muscles need that elasticity to not only absorb the impact on your bones and joints when you land, but to also create the power and strength endurance running requires. Static stretching is great for post-run, just not before. Calf activation through bouncing on your toes helps get your body ready to fire the fast-twitch muscle fibers you need in order to pop off the ground in your stride.
Sleep, Recovery & WHOOP
I can’t stress enough how important it is to base your workouts on the quality of your sleep and recovery the night before. This is why I highly recommend WHOOP. It has truly been a game-changer in my own personal programming in terms of having an overall awareness of how recovered my body is and what type of strain my body is prepared for on that specific day.
When you work out, whether it's sprints, weightlifting, or kettlebell training, the strain on your body causes tiny micro-tears in your muscle fibers (totally normal). It’s not until after you workout, when your body is resting (specifically during REM and deep sleep, the restorative stages of sleep) that it naturally begins to repair these muscle fiber tears in order to build stronger, leaner muscles. If you don’t allow yourself proper sleep and recovery time you won’t be able to get stronger, faster, and healthier. Think about it like this: It’s the difference between working out on broken muscle fibers and never truly allowing them to recover, or working out on strong muscles which are fully recovered and ready to perform. Through 24/7 heart rate monitoring, WHOOP measures the quality of your sleep and tracks the time you spend in restorative stages. Based on your sleep and other physiological biomarkers like resting heart rate, heart rate variability, and respiratory rate, WHOOP gives you a daily recovery score each morning. This serves as a recommendation for if your body is primed to take on high strain (intense workout), only moderate exercise, or if it needs to rest. Programming your workouts based on recovery can be the difference between saving your body from an injury, or running into one (no pun intended, and check out How Often Should You Run?). Learn more at runwithmeg.com