Do you run to keep fit or do you keep fit to run?
Of course, we have to be fit to run. If we want to reduce injury risk and make our running easier and more efficient we should incorporate various types of body conditioning aside from the running we do.
Why is body conditioning is so important for runners?
Running is obviously a great exercise. It burns calories and can help with weight management. Running develops the heart and the circulatory system and according to a study of 55,000 adults published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology ‘running, even 5 to 10 min/day and at slow speeds <6 miles/h, is associated with markedly reduced risks of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease’ (Leisure-Time Running Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk).
The benefits of regular running are well-documented. Unfortunately, so too are the numerous injuries that runners suffer from. These injuries vary in their type and seriousness. Some manifest as niggles that can be uncomfortable but don’t necessarily cause the runner to stop or rest, others can take weeks to fix. What nearly all running injuries have in common is overload. Aside from the traumatic injuries, .e.g. rabbit-hole twisted ankles and kicking a rock, most running injuries occur comparatively gradually and are a result of particular tissues (muscles, tendons, bones) not being strong enough to take the stress. This stress can be incurred by doing too much too soon, biomechanical imbalance, or simply running farther or faster than the body is able to support.
Our bodies need to be able to support our running. Running is a very repetitive action, just running for 30 minutes is likely to involve more than 5,000 foot strikes; that’s a lot of stress even if we are biomechanically perfect (whatever that is). Perpetually stressing something that is not strong enough and it will break, and if a human is involved then there will likely be plenty of pain before that occurs.
So we need to be fit to run and especially fit to continue running
What if we are not biomechanically perfect? Of course, nobody is perfect and we all have our own imperfections. With regards to running, we might have lazy or underdeveloped muscles, we might have different leg lengths, or our running technique could be poor. For example, the major propulsion muscles for running are the glutes — the buttocks — and if they are weak or not activating properly then our hamstrings will be forced to compensate and become overloaded. Not surprisingly, our calf muscles will also be called upon to work harder than they should. So, you can see that a weak link in the chain not only breaks the chain, but it weakens other links. this is what often makes self-diagnosis or running injuries so difficult. Tight hamstrings? Stretch them out that will ease it. Err, no. Treat the cause not the symptom.
Conditioning the body will help keep injury at bay. It will increase the body’s tolerance to stress and also reduce the cause of the stress.
What are the most important body conditioning exercises for runners?
It really depends on the individual, because we’ve all got our own vulnerabilities. Indeed, if you have ever been to a sports therapist to address a running problem then you might have a good idea of your own. In general, it is very common amongst runners for the glutes not to be pulling their weight. This could be because they are weak or poorly activating, or both. If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or driving then this could be you. That is why lunges and squats are highly recommended.
Runners also need strong cores, if we cannot keep our limbs in position due to fatigue then form will break down and stress occurs at points that are not best able to handle it. A strong body is a resilient body.
Some of these exercises detailed below are best done as a separate session, but most can also be incorporated into the warm-ups we do before running or racing (and of course, you do include a warm-up don’t you).
Great for warm-up, and as part of a conditioning session. They help to develop the vital gluteal muscles (buttocks). Underdeveloped glutes are widely recognised as being responsible for many running-related injuries. Some of our athletes prefer to loosen up a little before doing these rather than jumping straight in as mentioned in the video.
Another exercise that is great for warm-up, and as part of a conditioning session. Squats also help to develop the vital gluteal muscles (buttocks) and help with flexibility in hamstrings and calf muscles. The video below, from ‘Running Technique TV’, shows correct form. Important points: keep feet fully planted flat on the ground including heel, and do not allow the back to bend.
The single-leg squat is a great running-specific exercise for strengthening and rehabilitation. Single leg squats also target the vital gluteal muscles (buttocks). This video shows how to perform the exercise with good form using a simple but effective prop.
Hips and Core
Often overlooked by runners, but these areas should be kept in tip-top shape. Yes, the legs do the work, but they need a strong and stable platform from which to work. Once the muscles that control the pelvis get fatigued, form falls apart reducing running speed, economy and placing the runner at high risks of injury as alignment and balance are compromised.
Another excellent video below gives some clear instructions for exercises that will help you become fitter and stronger in the areas that matter for runners.
Cook Hip Lift
Many runners suffer the consequences of poor glute (buttock muscles) strength. The glutes are a primary driver of the running action, if they are weak or not working properly, the hamstrings take the strain.
Use the Cook hip lift as pre-run exercise and also as part of a conditioning session.
Cross Over Lunge
More glute training.
Can your thinking affect strength training?
Yes, it is possible to build muscle without doing any physical exercise, and you can read more in our article about using your brain to build muscle.