Running is easily one of the most popular forms of exercise in the United States, and as 5ks, 10ks, and half and full marathons become more popular, the number of runners is ever growing. Unfortunately, as a runner you are often so passionate about running that it becomes the only form of exercise you do. In the beginning this isn’t an issue. Your running times decrease, your mileage increases, and you think all is well. But then you start to feel little aches and pains in your hips or back or hamstrings. What happened? You thought you made the appropriate, gradual increases. Why is the pain there? Chances are the missing link is strength training! There is a lot of benefit in combining strength training with your cardiovascular training so that you can minimize injuries and maximize your gains at the same time.
So what strengthening exercises should I be doing? Some key muscle groups to include are your hip flexors and abductors. The hip flexors are the muscles that bend your hip upward and advance your leg while running, while the abductors are the muscles that hold you up while standing on one leg, as in running. Both of these muscle groups are often weak in runners and overlooked in strengthening programs. Strong hip flexors can increase your speed and endurance, while your hip abductors are important in maintaining your balance, thereby preventing injury to your knees and ankles. Strength training should be performed two to four times a week and can involve resistance bands, free weights, and circuit weight machines. Some exercises that require minimal equipment and can be performed almost anywhere include:
• Side-stepping with a resistance band- Using a small, looped resistance band around both ankles, step side-ways while maintaining an athletic bend in your hips and knees. Step down a hall and then return, facing the same direction throughout. Make sure to keep your toes pointing straight ahead.
• Steamboats with resistance bands- Using a looped resistance band around one ankle and anchored to something strong, advance your leg forward against the resistance. Turn 90 degrees and repeat in side-ways direction. Turn 90 degrees and perform backwards. Finally, turn the final 90 degrees to perform to the other side. Maintain straight, yet unlocked legs throughout. Be sure to do this on both legs.
• Lunges- Step one leg forward and bend both knees in a staggered stance. Bend until the rear knee approaches the ground, while keeping the forward knee located above the foot. Then, straighten both legs, as you retreat back to your original position. Repeat back and forth with each leg.
• Single-legged squats – While holding onto something stable, slowly bend and straighten one leg, keeping the opposite knee bent. Perform in front of a mirror so you can see yourself. Make sure your knee stays in line between your hip and toes.
• Planks- Hold yourself up on your forearms and toes, keeping your body straight from end to end.
• Mountain Climbers- Get on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Alternately bring each knee forward towards your chest, between your arms.
• Side-lying hip abductors – Lie on your side, and back against a wall. Slide your top leg in a pillow case, up and down the wall, keeping your body straight on it’s side. Perform on both sides.
Form is the key with all exercises! You may want to have your physical therapist or other fitness professional watch you to make sure your form is correct. You may want to start with 10 repetitions of each exercise until your muscles are used to them. Then, you can add repetitions and/or sets gradually, working towards 3 sets of 15 repetitions each, two to four times a week.
Running is an excellent exercise to participate in and has numerous mental and physical health gains. It is a sport you can take with you anywhere you go, and which does not require you to rely on anyone else. It can be part of a lifelong health plan, as long as you stay healthy and injury free!
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Jen Seaton PT, DPT was a physical therapist with Tidewater Physical Therapy until she moved out of the area. Jen earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise from Virginia Tech and continued to Virginia Commonwealth University, Medical College of Virginia for her Doctor of Physical Therapy.