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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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