The Benefits of Regular Stretching and Strength Training
I often hear from runners that they avoid regularly stretching or strength training because they’d rather spend the time running. Who wouldn’t? Once daily work, family and general life demands are completed, there are only a few precious minutes left to exercise. What better way to use that time than lacing up the shoes and hitting the road. While this approach can lead to short term satisfaction, it jeopardizes long term success.
It’s important to make sure that your body can tolerate the demands that running will place on it. This means that you shouldn’t ignore those tight hip flexor muscles or weak calf muscles unless you’re willing to face the consequences of injury and time away from running. While it’s seemingly impossible to prevent all running-related injuries, regular stretching and strengthening exercises to key areas can go a long way toward keeping you healthy.
Here are 5 exercises to target common areas of need that won’t require a gym membership or an extra hour in your day.
Hip Flexor Stretch
This stretch can be done anywhere (such as waiting in line for your morning coffee) and will help alleviate knee, hip and low back pain. Stand as shown with the front foot a step length ahead of the back foot. Keeping both feet pointed straight ahead, shift your weight forward toward the front foot by bending your knee. Keeping your back knee straight, squeeze your glutes and perform a posterior pelvic tilt (i.e., tuck your tail) without moving your back. You should feel the stretch in front of your hip in the back leg. Hold this position for 30 seconds and do this stretch frequently throughout the day.
Although the calf muscles are a primary running muscle, regular running is not enough to prevent age-associated weakness and changes in elasticity. Those of you over the age of 35 that have experienced a calf strain, Achilles tendinopathy or plantar fasciitis can attest to this. Ending each run with single-leg heel raises off of a step can help reduce injury risk and maintain calf muscle power production necessary to run well. Each repetition should be done quickly, completing the full up-and-down movement within 1 second. Start with 20 on each side and build up to 40-60.
Hamstring Strengthening on Ball
While its purpose is self-explanatory, this exercise can be quite challenging.. This exercise will not only target the hamstring muscles, but can be very demanding to your core muscles. Start by lying on your back on the floor with your knees straight and lower legs placed on a physioball. Your arms should be on the floor slightly out from your sides. Lift your hips off the floor about 6” (bridge) and hold; do not let your legs roll off the ball. While holding the bridge position, pull the ball closer to your hips by bending your knees then return the ball back to the starting position. Repeat 15 times, keeping the bridge position throughout. To make it more challenging, you can cross your arms over your chest, do with only one leg on the ball, or a combination of both.
Hip mobility is a common area of concern for runners, especially when considering the hours spent sitting during the day. The key to this exercise is moving your hip through its full motion while keeping your back and pelvis stable by contracting your core muscles. Start with your forearms and knees on the floor, and then lift one knee off the floor by pushing down with your toes. By keeping the knee off the floor, the hip muscles on this side are also challenged. Next, lift the opposite leg entirely off the floor and simulate the circular motion of moving it over a hurdle. Perform the circular motion 15-20 times, keeping the opposite knee off the floor throughout. Switch legs and repeat.
This is a great exercise to do right before and after a run to loosen up the hip muscles. Begin by standing tall and holding on to a stationary object (e.g., railing or wall) for balance. Shift all your weight onto one foot so the other leg can swing free of the ground. Keeping the unweighted leg relaxed, move your pelvis side-to-side in a rhythm so the leg swings with long pendulum arcs. The leg should swing across your body then out to the side, and then across again. This swing direction nicely stretches the muscles of your outer hip and inner thigh. Repeat 15 times with each leg.
This pendulum motion can also be done with your swing leg moving forward and backward to stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors.
Improved strength and flexibility will become obvious after a brief period of consistently doing the above exercises. The next step is to ensure that you are taking advantage of these gains by using good running form. This includes such things as keeping your pelvis level, not over-striding and avoiding too much up and down movement of your body’s center of mass. Building strength and flexibility is an important part of running with good form, and will keep you out on the roads and trails enjoying the sport you love.