The Top 3 Strategies To Help Runners Strengthen Their Legs, Improve Their Performance, And Avoid Pain And Injury
It is exceptionally unnerving that it’s actually rare to find a dedicated runner who does not experience aches, pains, and injuries on a regular basis. I’m struck speechless at the fact that this activity, which is inherently natural for humans, can cause so many problems in the body. And make no bones about it. Running injury rates are practically stratospheric, and we have an epidemic of weak, injured runners on our hands. They don’t call it “runner’s knee” for nothin’, after all.
In fact, I’ve heard it said that running is one of the top 10 forms of physical recreation, and also one of the top 10 highest injury-producing forms of recreation. Now, I don’t know if that’s statistically accurate or not, but I do know that running is extremely popular and that a lot of runners are running injured. And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a big – BIG – problem. If that wasn’t enough already, many runners have even accepted that running in pain or running injured is totally normal – that it just comes with the territory. And you know what? That kindof makes me think that we need a new paradigm shift for running. Those little aches and pains are the bane of runners around the world, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Now, a couple weeks ago, a woman asked me if I had any solutions for strengthening the legs in order to help prevent running injuries. I had to tell her with a calm demeanor, “Why, yes. Yes, I do.” What I really wanted to do was squeeze her by the arms and gleefully exclaim, “Do I ever!”
And if you don’t know my back story, I was a classic case of the injured runner, and it got so bad that I literally ran myself into debilitation. Three years of physical therapy later, I still couldn’t run more than 10 feet without significant pain, and during my time in PT, two doctors told me that I would likely never run again. It’s a long story that I won’t go into here, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve got a little bit of experience with running injuries. But more importantly than that, I’ve got a lot of experience with how to get OUT of that vicious cycle. I’ve been running pain and injury-free since 2009 – which continues to amaze me to this day because not only does it go completely against the norm in modern running culture, but it’s practically a miracle that I’m able to run like I do today given my past injuries.
One of the vital lessons I learned the hard way is that strengthening the legs (and the body, in general) is one of the most crucial aspects to not just preventing injuries, but improving your running performance as well. Runners tend to fixate on endurance, but the subtle truth is that strength is the key to endurance. If you don’t have a strong body, your endurance threshold will be much lower (you won’t be able to last as long). And I’m not just talking about your heart and lungs here either. Your muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissues need to be strong in order to be resilient. And unfortunately, running is not an adequate solution for this.
Sure, there will always be some people who can get away with murder when it comes to running. They can have the worst technique, the worst program, and the worst diet and still stay injury-free. And that’s absolutely true in some cases. However, for the vast majority of runners, extra, non-running measures need to be taken in order to stay injury-free and improve performance. It’s just a necessary by-product of our culture today.
For example, if you sit down for several hours a day – at work, at home, in the car, etc. – then chances are high that you’re going to develop very tight hips (among many other problems). This is going to result in things like muscle imbalances, residual muscle tension, limited range of motion, and sensory motor amnesia, among other things. And running in-and-of-itself is not a suitable activity to reverse those problems. It takes additional intervention in the training department to resolve these issues and prevent them in the future.
The Top 3 Strength Training Strategies For Runners
The fact of the matter is that in order to be a strong runner, you need to have a strong body. But this isn’t necessarily just about traditional strength training, per se. There are many training methods and tools we can use, and we ought to select the most suitable ones that will give us the best bang for our buck. I’ve listed the top three methods for you here.
Please note that I’ve listed the general methods, not the specifics. This is intentional because every runner has different needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all strength training, movement, or workout program that will be appropriate for everyone. It takes an individualized approach in every single case, and you’ll have to study and practice these approaches in order to succeed (or hire a coach). But regardless, for strengthening the body to prevent injuries in runners, these are the main areas to start with, and I’ve found each one to be critical to my own success in remaining a strong, injury-free runner.
1) Lay A Foundation Of Strength By Prehabilitating Your Body Against Injury – You’ll notice that I did not list strength training first on this list, which may strike you as strange since strength is the ultimate goal of these recommendations. The reason for this is because the value of strength training is muted when there are pre-existing conditions in the body that case dysfunction or micro-dysfunction. And everyone, I repeat, everyone has pre-existing conditions. We all carry a lifetime of issues that have developed in each of our body’s. So, nobody has a 100% clean slate.
When it comes to running, one of the most common forms of dysfunction is limited Range of Motion (ROM) in most or all of the joints, and muscle imbalances all throughout the body, among other things. So, before going gung-ho into a strength training routine, it’s important to establish a baseline level of your joint mobility, muscle tissue quality, and strength. This is where Joint Mobility Training and Yoga come in, both of which are superb tools for these purposes.
Obviously, there are many different options to choose from when it comes to these areas. Here are a few I recommend…
2) Employ A Comprehensive Strength Training Program – We tend to think of strength training as a way to make us better, and that’s true. But strength training is also a method for preventing us from getting worse. Strength training helps to prevent muscle loss, and the resulting strength loss. Strength training helps to prevent the body from aging prematurely, among many other things. So, in a way, strength training is a form of self-administered rehabilitation – just not in the classic sense. And in our modern culture, almost everyone needs this – every runner included.
Now, there are many ways to strengthen the body, and some are more conventional/traditional than others. All have value and are valid for runners. One can lift weights, perform calisthenics or other bodyweight exercises, swing kettlebells or clubbells, among many other things. What’s important is that runners actually do this. It’s also crucial that runners train their whole body for strength. Doing some crunches and lunges is not enough, and practically defeats the purpose. Suffice to say, you need a whole body strength training program that is progressive and adaptable and can be done 2-4 times per week for most people.
Again, there are a lot of different options and tons of directions I could point you, but here are a few places you can get started…
3) Use Your Legs The Way Nature Intended – A prehabilitation routine and strength training program is a great start, and will get you most of the way there. And many people will be just fine with those two elements. But if you want to really go the distance and do everything you can to strengthen your body, then you’ll also want to start incorporating some natural movement training (aka MovNat) into your regime. There are three main activities that will best-serve runners whom want to focus on improving the strength of their legs: Sprinting, Jumping, and Balancing.
Sprinting is a no-brainer, and if you’re a runner who does not sprint from time to time, then you are really short-changing yourself. And jumping is a great movement to not only strengthen the legs, but to also practice good running technique fundamentals because running is basically a coordinated series of one-legged jumps. Balancing has specific strength benefits as well, among other things, and especially when it is performed with additional weight and in a variety of stances (standing, squatting, kneeling, etc.). Plus, it’s a very practical skill to have, especially as we age.
Some of these skills are self-explanatory (though still merit instruction and even a coach, in some cases), but here is a short list to get you started…
Bonus Strategy: Make Sure You’re Not Doing Things That Will Directly Weaken Your Legs – Most of these are common sense, but they bear repeating. Do your best to avoid sedentary activity. And when you are running, try to avoid specializing in one or two speeds/gaits to the exclusion of all others (click here to find out why). And if you’re a runner, you should also be a walker, too.
Now, if that sounds like a lot of tedious work, then I’m sorry. I, too, wish there was a magic pill that made all our dreams come true, but the fact of the matter is that if you want to stay injury-free, continually improve your performance, and enjoy a higher quality of life, it’s going to take some real work. The good news is that I know you’re not the type of person who shies away from that type of thing.
So, my recommendation to you is to take a quick survey of how you’re measuring up in those three departments, and then prioritize your focus around the one area that is most lacking. Then go from there. And if you’re an over-achiever, then this article might be a good place to visit next: How to Run every Single Day for a Whole Year.
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CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach
P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/samsjnr/