The Runner’s Body as a System: Creating More Holistic Training

While running, your body is orchestrating a complex symphony of muscle movements that help you absorb shock, transfer energy, and stay upright. The coordination to run efficiently is astounding. Your left leg muscles must work in harmony with your core muscles to keep you balanced. This is happening while your right arm is swinging forward and your left leg is in the swing phase of your stride.

And for the most part, this all happens without you thinking too much about it.

Most runners only start to think about their muscles when something breaks down. As soon as an injury pops up – a sharp knee pain or an inflamed achilles – they rush to apply ice, rest for a few days, and pop some Advil. It’s too bad this strategy rarely fixes the cause of the injury.

In fact, runners have no idea why they’re injured. Go on any message board and you’ll find questions like:

  1. “Can core fix my shin splints?”
  2. “I have ITBS and my doctor told me to do a few stretches. Will I be able to run in a week?”
  3. “I took six months off to fix plantar fasciitis and it hasn’t gone away. Help!”

You can’t stretch your way to a pain-free IT band or ignore your plantar fasciitis for months and expect the pain to disappear. What is causing the pain will still be there: a particular weakness, imbalance, improper form, or simply doing too much running before you’re ready for it. Quick fixes like icing and rest rarely work for serious injuries.

The standard RICE treatment – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation – is only your first round of attack on your injury. It treats the symptoms of swelling and pain but isn’t the best long-term solution.


Musculature as a System

Runners ignore that their musculature is a system. Your achilles does not work alone. It works in a complex chain of coordinated muscle movement that, when running, propels you forward.

Using the first question above, of course core can’t directly banish your shin splint pain. But it depends on what’s causing your shin splints. If strengthening your core area keeps you more upright and less hunched over when you run, that change in posture could help alleviate your pain.

Dave Csonka at Naturally Engineered forwarded me a fascinating article from Men’s Health describing how muscles work. There are a lot of insights you can glean from this article, but several that stuck with me are:

  1. Most running injuries are caused by weak/tight hips.
  2. Everything is connected.
  3. Posture matters because soft tissue has a memory.

This information can dramatically help you as a runner. One of the best preventative strategies you can take to reduce your chance of injury and ensure more consistent training is to strengthen your hips. The ITB Rehab Routine does a great job at this and is something I personally do several times every week. It helped me get over a 6 month ITB injury and I’ve been injury-free for nearly two years (while running more than ever).

Runners need to remember that everything is connected and train accordingly. In the gym, this means training movements and not muscles. Bicep curls? Calf raises? Hamstring curls? Unless you’re a body builder, they’re useless. Multi-joint exercises that work entire movements are what you’re after: squats, dead lifts, pull ups, bench press, and pistol squats work well because they don’t isolate a particular muscle.

These exercises mimic what you do in everyday life: bending down to pick your child off the floor, pulling yourself up out of a pool, and pushing your couch against the wall. Tricep extensions aren’t very functional when it comes to real life.

Next, there’s posture. Posture matters even when you’re sitting at your computer (you’re slouching right now – stop!). According to that article, soft tissue remembers the position that it’s in – in other words, your muscles adapt to your slouch and it becomes your natural way of carrying yourself. Tightness in your upper back can manifest in pain in your heel if your posture is bad enough.

Posture while you’re running is even more important. Knowing how to move correctly when you’re running can help you prevent injuries and delay fatigue. Here’s a quick and dirty guide to fixing your running form:

  • Keep your back tall so a straight line is formed between your head and ankles.
  • Maintain a slight forward lean, but lean from your ankles so that straight line is maintained.
  • Each stride should have your foot coming down underneath your center of mass. No over-striding – your foot shouldn’t land in front of your knee.
  • Generally speaking, you should be landing with a flat foot (a midfoot strike). Even some elite runners heel strike, but just make sure you don’t heel strike while over-striding. The duo of over-striding and heel striking is the real problem.
  • Maintain a high cadence of about 180 steps per minute which will help you reduce over-striding.  This isn’t a magic number, but the point is to reduce over-striding. This cue can help you accomplish that. Peter Larson has a great post on the relationship between stride rate, injuries, and running form.

When your body is running the way it was designed to run, impact forces will be more evenly distributed. Your muscles and tendons will be better suited to absorb shock and redistribute energy into forward momentum. Less strain will be put on your back and legs from maintaining correct posture. Your chance of injury will be dramatically reduced.

Lifting at the gym (or home gym exercises) from the perspective of whole body strength will help you develop more coordinated muscles that know how to work in concert with one another to produce more efficient movements. A more athletic runner will get injured less and be able to race faster.

When you understand that your body works as one unit and you plan your training more holistically your results will speak for themselves. Not every coach will tell you that slouching at your computer may cause a running injury, but I believe it can. Posture matters.

If you like what you see here on Strength Running, please use one of the Share buttons below to spread the good word.

I want to hear from YOU: has your training changed to incorporate more whole body exercises? Have you improved your running form and experienced less pain? Share your experience with other Strength Runners so we can all learn how to improve.

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  1. Aaron Harrell says:

    I have a quick story about total body exercises. I have been a huge kettlebell fan for about three years, so total body and core training have been a staple of my regimen for years. But calf problems over the last couple of years have plagued my running. I went to Physical therapy for rehab and discovered that I have specific weaknesses that were not addressed in a total body regimen. So for now, I am working on hamstring and hip strength. I am slowly adding in more general exercises like push ups and lunges while my area-specific exercises continue. Thank you for your continued thoughts on strength training for runners, I have always thought that it was key.

    • Thanks so much for the comment Aaron. It sounds like you’re on the right path and you know how to rehab your particular weaknesses. That’s half the battle! Thanks again, cheers.

  2. Another interesting read Fitz, you clearly have a passion for this given the quality information you post on your blog. In regard to balancing the body I picked up the “Turkish get up” from your site and I think that makes a difference. Do you use it much?

    • Hey PJ, thanks for the kind words! I definitely have a passion for this stuff and get really frustrated when runners get hurt. I hope I’m helping as many as possible design better training programs. The TGU is a great exercise but I don’t do it often. I have in the past, but more of a diagnostic exercise to determine imbalances. It’s easier to do with a kettlebell and I don’t have access to one of those. Thanks again!

  3. Great read Fitz.
    Totally agree with how important this is. Specifically watching our posture. We’ve all become too good at sitting and have ended up with bodies that lend itself to doing that. Improving posture in our daily living will have an enormous effect on posture while running, and therefore chances of injury.

    I’ve come up with my own take on running form (similar to what you suggest), summarised down into the 4 simple ‘SOFT’ principles. Find out more here:

  4. I wholeheartedly agree. Knowing why you are injured is the best line of defense it fixing the weakness to avoid the injury again. It is interesting that you post this article now. Are you trying to drive the point home with me? lol I’m so glad that you take the time to do your research and that you focus on such a breadth of information. Look how much your knowledge and desire to find more of it helps everyone. Thanks so much!

  5. Thanks as always for the great insights Fitz. Many people’s blogs have helped me during my return to running, including David’s “Naturally Engineered” site, but none more than yours.

    I do have one question about general soreness and adaptation – if at all possible, should you avoid icing and NSAIDs and allow your body to adapt instead of masking the pain? Is the same true for injuries?

    Thanks again for everything!

    • I think some “general soreness” as you put it is normal. Personally, I take Advil maybe 1-2 times per year and ice only when something is substantially sore/inflamed. I’d rather spend some extra time doing flexibility exercises to warm up, shorten the volume/intensity of my next workout, and then sleep more to promote recovery. Injuries are an acute pain, so ice in the beginning stages i probably best.

  6. Heather says:

    For most of my life, I’ve had pain in my left hip and lower back; it got worse when I took up running a couple years ago. I worked with a physical therapist for about a year on strenghtening my hips and glutes and now I’m pretty much pain free and ran 2 10ks this year. The exercises the PT has me doing are very similar to the Mertyl routine you posted.

  7. Another solid post Fitz, love the links you provide to other resources as well. And yes, I was slouching, thanks for reminding me. Not sure that my slouching is what caused my hamstring strain, but there are definitely a lot broader causes than just “tight hamstrings”, as I’ve learned all too well the past few months. I need to develop a Hamstring Rehab Routine, I guess.

  8. There’s too much emphasis on short strides and quick cadence.. Don’t worry much about shortening your stride or stepping faster, if it’s unnatural it’ll be worse for you.
    If you’re running quickly, you can’t (as in, really, your body won’t work) step under your center of mass. Yeah, physics says.. Bio-mechanics disagrees. Bio-mechanics wins.

    • Hi Lee – the emphasis on a quicker cadence (not necessarily “short” strides – just not over-striding strides) is backed by a lot of research. Check out Pete Larsons round-up and thoughts on a lot of recent articles: Taking faster steps is more important if you have a very slow stride rate. I’d recommend most runners to increase their stride rate 5-10% if they’re experiencing injuries or if their rate is 160 per minute or lower.

      Runners won’t land directly under their center of mass, but it’s a good mental cue to try to follow. You’ll have a harder time over-striding if you try to land underneath your body.

  9. Thanks for this. I’ve been plagued by stress fractures (4 in 5 years), and no amount of physical therapy, rehab, cross training, drastically cutting mileage, etc., has really helped to keep them away. I’ll take some time to look through these links.

  10. Love that I came across your website. I have been increasing my mileage slowly over the course of 2-3 years from 30/40-70mpw. On & off over the past 2 yrs, my left side hip gets rotated and causes low back, glute and lateral hamstring pain/tightness. I do lots of core/hip strengthening & mobility stuff to prevent. I end up having to get a couple massages and a couple chiro adjustments to get it worked out and than I am fine for 2-3 months and it starts up again. PT & Chiro have not been that helpful. I really want to get as good as I can and need to get this figured out so that my body can handle the mileage for my next marathon training cycle without breaking down.

  11. Great article. We do well remembering that the body is an interconnected system of self-supporting organs, rather than a collection of gears and levers than can be manipulated haphazardly without repercussions.


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