Don’t Run Away from Running
By: Megan Piersol, DPT
What do you mean I can’t run every day? Do I really have to strength train and stretch? That is so boring! I just want to run! Have these words ever come out of your mouth? Do you think running is the only way to become a better runner? Do you think that other activities just don’t fulfill your life like running? Have these thoughts and feelings ever crossed your mind? You are not alone. I once had similar thoughts of only wanting to run and not wanting to take the time to stretch, roll out my muscles, or cross train. Fortunately, I experienced an injury disguised to make me realize I needed to start taking my own medicine. I spent hours turning blue with educating runners on the importance of strength training, neurological training, varying cardio workout, core/posture work, agility drills, and flexibility, yet I just ran myself into the ground without listening to my own advice. I ignored pains and just pushed through my runs when I, of all people, knew better. Until one day, 5 years ago, I woke up after running 11 miles the previous night, stepped out of my bed, and immediately collapsed to the floor. My left quadricep (front thigh) muscles were withered away and not firing. My body had finally quit forcing me to pay attention. I let myself get to the point of my brain’s final warning signal to change. I realized that I wasn’t invincible and that even though I was a physical therapist, I could still get injured. I needed to respect my body and build this intricate, powerful machine that I was given up to its full potential. I train my patient’s this way, so why should I be any different to myself?
I am here to tell you to do as I say and as I do NOW (not as I did). Pay attention to what your body is telling you and seek out to fix it before your body makes you stop. Since my injury, I have crossed over into the realm of cross training. I couldn’t be more pleased with myself and the success I have gained. It does take some getting used to incorporate into your life. Running is still a huge passion of mine, but something that I make myself earn the right to continue. It takes dedication and persistence of mind, body, and core strengthening to keep the body more capable of running at it's best. There is always room to improve.
Cross training is a very important step in running or any sport. We are not meant to do the same thing every day. Just like cars, we get worn out and out of balance if we take the same path every day. Cross training allows the muscles used during running to take a break, further building of other muscles that can help support running, and keeps your endurance alive. It is never a good idea to just do the same routine every day. You need to break it up. If your sport is mostly running, you need to look into low-impact cardio on off days of running. This means you need to have off days from running! Find something that you love or can learn to love like swimming, biking, the elliptical, or other activity that doesn’t involve extensive running or repetitive jumping/landing. A fun way to keep up with your cardio while also working various muscles is to play a sport. Certain ballistic and agility sports like basketball, tennis, volleyball, soccer, baseball/softball that can involve jumping, landing, pivots, turning, start to stop motions, and even throwing motions help build up your running muscles (including your core). It also allows for your body to adapt to different external variants that may occur and challenge you on runs (different terrain, hills, a divot in the grass or road, etc.).
Now that we broke down the cardio, let’s get into strengthening and flexibility. One false belief is that running will make you a better runner. This is not entirely true! There are a variety of things that involve making you a good runner. We just addressed sports and other cardio activities. You also need a well-rounded strengthening and flexibility program. Strength is to include core strength, upper and lower body strength, balance, agility, and postural strength. Muscle flexibility can be achieved through foam rolling, lacrosse/tennis ball work, and stretching. You need to have enough flexibility in your muscles for your joints to operate properly. If you can’t get into the ranges needed for running, you will compensate with other muscles in the area or at neighboring joints. The most important thing is also learning how to use your strength and range of motion for ensuring that the muscles are working in the correct sequence and with the right stability/support. A physical therapist can help you learn how to feel and use your muscles properly and can provide exercises to help strengthen and support your run. Building up the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder blade can be just as important as the legs. People are often unaware that your arms can dictate what your hips and legs are doing when you are running. Good thoracic (upper back) mobility is also important to counterbalance the motion at the hip and propulsion forward when running. Posture and core control can help provide a more stable base for your legs (and arms) to “run off” of. Bringing in posture and core control with ballistic and agility drills can help connect the neurological and muscle components better creating a more efficient and coordinated system. Running is essentially a jumping sport as you jump from one leg to another in a controlled falling manner. Any weaknesses in the hips, shoulder, core, and ankles can alter your landing mechanics and performance. When you land over and over again as with running, for an “x” amount of miles, and with inefficient patterns, you are getting into the higher risk of injury territory.
Running isn’t as easy as just running. There are a lot of components to running. A lot of us were never taught how to run properly either. It is not something that we are born with. We have to be taught how to run or we may never learn this skill properly, if at all. If you were like me, I was thrown on to a soccer field and told to run after the ball. No one told me how I should run to the ball or how my body should be placed to optimize my control over the ball. I chose whatever I thought was best. I started developing my own abnormal movement patterns and compensations since the age of 6 when I laced up my soccer cleats and ran towards the ball. Then I further developed abnormal patterns when I ran up and down basketball courts, tennis courts, around the bases of a softball field, and eventually to running for exercise and endurance training. Let’s not forget that I did all this running after sitting through hours of school and eventually hours of work.
Return back to when you were a kid. You were probably out in the yard doing about 7 to 10 different activities giving your body a well-rounded muscular workout. At some point, you probably stopped and focused on just one or two sports. You may have stopped playing all together and focused on non-athletic endeavors only to recently pick up running again. Either way, you have lost that nice balance of muscle recruitment and strength. Our bodies like to cheat. You can’t rely on your body to always select the correct way of carrying out a task. Through time, the muscles become overused, potentially the wrong way, used for the wrong job, and some underused. You adapt postures not suitable for the movement patterns you are demanding from your body when running. The body becomes imbalanced creating compensations, instabilities, and/or stiffness creating more difficulty in executing the task you desire.
Physical therapy can help with creating balance, with providing guidance on re-connecting the mind with the body, with learning correct movements, with running form, and with being able to feel your muscles working together instead of against each other. You don’t have to run through the pain. You will have to start working on things that may seem “boring” to you like strength training, core work, and cross training cardio. However, once you start feeling the benefits of what these other outlets can provide for your running form, speed, and stability, you will begin to appreciate the “boring” stuff. You will notice a better balance, strength, and flow in your body that you never experienced before with non-cross trained running. You thought you felt a runner’s high before, wait until all of your muscles are working in unison and you are connecting your mind into your body! Even Stephen Curry and other professional athletes are learning the importance of the motor control (neurological strength) component needed to perform better. Shoot high with your training! We aren’t old dogs that can’t learn new tricks. Age is only a number. It is time spent doing the wrong things that contribute to our injuries and problems (yes, this makes us older). Fortunately, our brain and body is plastic and can be re-trained.