Improve your functional strength and muscle elasticity for better running this season and beyond.
Coach Al Lyman, CSCS
Runners and triathletes are a stubborn and dedicated bunch, whose approach to training is often rooted in traditional thinking. When it comes to running, traditional thinking states that all a runner need do to improve is to just run, and run, and run some more, without paying much attention to other aspects of overall fitness such as functional and core strength, or maintaining muscle and joint mobility and elasticity. The problem with that thinking is that running, in and of itself, does NOT make you stronger, and it’s not an activity that helps you stay more mobile and flexible.
Why does strength or flexibility matter? Over time, as we age and as the miles pile up, if we do nothing but just run, we will become weaker and tighter and eventually that weakness and tightness will ruin our performance and increase our injury risk. In what is a cruel reality, if you just run and ignore the other aspects of a smart, balanced training program, you will end up losing the ability to do the ONE thing you most want to do, which is run!
A Balanced Training Program
There are many different elements of a balanced and successful training program that contribute to peak performance. Running itself is obviously the centerpiece, but each of the other elements, be it strength training, flexibility training, or mental training, all also very important to be successful in an ultra or to run well off the bike. The major challenge we all face is that running itself doesn’t make you strong, elastic, or flexible! If you want to run better, faster, and easier, especially as you age, then you must consider how to address the two most basic, fundamental, and often misunderstood elements that are absolutely essential to both staying injury free, and running easier and faster. These elements need to be addressed when you are NOT running and are:
- Stiffness and Strength: to run well and stay injury free, you need stiff and strong legs and a strong core that WON’T collapse when your feet make contact with the ground during the stance phase of running. If your legs collapse even slightly and your landing is “soft,” the energy that you need to power forward will dissipate and be lost. Your heart will have to beat faster and work harder to make up the difference because of that lost energy. The result: your heart rate goes up and your speed stays the same or drops.
- Elasticity and Mobility: to run well and stay injury free, you need elastic, mobile, and flexible hips and legs that are able to absorb the impact stress of running and move freely and effortlessly through a full range of motion. If you lose elasticity around your hips, your stride will shorten and your body as a whole will be much less capable of absorbing ground impact forces. The result: you will run slower for the same effort and your risk of injury will rise dramatically!
Simply put, running by itself, won’t reward you with the strength or elasticity you need. You have to supplement your running program with some functional strength training and flexibility training that is designed to build and maintain a strong, balanced, and elastic body.
What Happens When We Run?
In order to understand the elements of stiffness and elasticity and WHY they are so important, we need a basic understanding of what happens up and down our “kinetic chain” during running. Obviously, we don’t think much about it when we are actually running but these nervous and musculoskeletal system actions dramatically impact how we should plan our training routine.
Reactivity and Your Nervous System
Nearly 50% of the energy that’s required to run comes directly from elastic energy return of the muscles! That’s right, regardless of your heart rate, your age, or the weight of your racing flats, half of the energy needed to run comes from how well your muscles “snap back” and return energy to help you move forward! Your hips and legs are acting essentially like coil springs, stretching, tensing, compressing, and recoiling, as energy is released propelling you forward.
To take advantage of this reactivity and run faster and easier, you need to improve your muscles ability to absorb and return energy, and improve your neuromuscular coordination so that very little energy is lost during the transfer from ground contact to push-off!
Eccentric and Concentric Muscle Actions
In addition to this elastic return of energy, your muscles are also contracting in very specific ways during various phases of the stride. For example, your hamstrings contract eccentrically during recovery to slow down, or decelerate, the forward swing momentum of your upper thigh. During the stance phase, your calf and Achilles tendon also contract eccentrically to keep your feet from collapsing into your shin. Similarly, your quadriceps contract eccentrically during the stance phase, to decelerate your body and prevent it from collapsing to the ground against the forces of gravity.
In case you are unaware, eccentric muscle contractions are those where the muscle lengthens as it is contracting, effectively tearing the muscle! (Think of the negative portion of a strength exercise, such as lowering a weight to the floor). Concentric muscle contractions, on the other hand, are the opposite. During those contractions, the muscle is shortening as it is contracting (think of the “up” phase of a biceps curl). Concentric contractions occur in the glute and hamstring as you push off during the power phase of the stride. See the graphic below, which does a great job of visually showing what I have just described.
Understanding how certain types of running can place very specific eccentric or concentric stress on the body is important to knowing how to optimally train. For example, running downhill involves dramatic eccentric contractions to our legs that are very damaging! I’m sure you’ve experienced sore quads after running a race or training run that has lots of downhill running. Similarly, running uphill requires very strong glutes and hamstrings to contract concentrically to power you up the hill.
Beyond simply including downhill and uphill running in your training program, you need to include supplemental strength training in your routine that enhances your ability to run down, and up, or on the flat, more easily with a lower risk of injury. Also, when you understand how your muscles function during running, you realize that “traditional” strength training usually won’t provide the right kinds of strength that is needed. For example, a typical leg curl performed on a machine to strengthen the hamstrings produces a very different kind of stress to the hamstring than what actually occurs during the recovery phase of the stride. The machine movement is concentric, and the running stress is eccentric! Remember: the strength exercises we choose must mimic the actual movements and stressors that occur during running, in order to provide the benefits we seek!
Rotation Throughout the Entire Chain
In addition to these muscular contractions, there is also a great deal of rotation going on up and down our “chain” that, if restricted or reduced, reduces performance and increases risk of injury. See the graphic to the right and follow the arrows to see the many forms of rotation throughout your spine, legs, and hips that happen when you run.
Without mobile and elastic hips that allow this rotation to happen freely without restriction, you can’t drive your knee forward from the hips easily and powerfully during the recovery phase of the stride cycle, which is a critical element of good running form. Without mobile and elastic hips, your legs will have to absorb more of the pounding and impact forces, leading to a much greater risk of injury to your calf, Achilles, or hamstring. Without strength and balance in your hips through all planes of motion (side to side, not just front to back), your risk of injury from ITB syndrome or Piriformis syndrome, or some other malady, is much greater.
To summarize, if you want to be able to keep running and avoid injury and ultimately run faster and easier, you need to do more than just run! Your daily training objectives need to include supplemental training that will:
- Improve the mobility and elasticity of your hips and legs:
º Better reactive return of energy, more speed, and much less risk of injury.
- Improve your running-specific functional strength:
º Less collapsing during the stance phase (eccentric)
º Improved resiliency and resistance to fatigue (eccentric)
º Reduced risk of injury
º Improved power and speed (concentric)
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I know some will be resistant to a change in routine and to adding the strength and flexibility training that is needed. It IS out-of-the-box thinking to consider that what you do when you are NOT running is often as important as running itself. There’s an old saying that comes to mind that goes something like this: “Our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness.” When it comes to many runners, especially those who have been at it for a long time, I think this is true!
Our dedication and desire to maintain our “running only” routine certainly is one reason for our success, but at the same time, as our bodies change and grow gradually weaker and tighter and more imbalanced, our dedication to our routine can become a weakness that leads to frustration, plateauing, and injury. Take my advice and begin to incorporate running-specific core and functional strength exercises into your program as soon as possible to develop a foundation of strength that is an ideal platform for technique improvement, injury resistance, and improved performance! Best of luck!
This informative article was written by Coach Al Lyman, CSCS, owner and founder of Pursuit Fitness LLC