Whether it’s to strengthen your heart, reduce stress, lose weight or just feel better, many of us are lacing up our sneakers and hitting the pavement. In 2017, as many as 56 million Americans did some kind of running or jogging. And at least 18.1 million of those Americans signed up for a race of some kind in 2018, according to the latest U.S. Running Trends Report.
As common as running is, though, both novice and expert runners often experience running-related injuries that are entirely preventable.
Fortunately, your Orthology team knows the secret to staying injury-free. So what’s the key to staying on track according to the Orthology experts? Elliott Caponetti, Physical Therapist at Orthology Nicollet Mall, takes over the Orthology Blog this week to share the best way to improve your running performance and stay in the race.
The Core of the Matter
Regardless of whether you’re a beginner who aspires to run a 5k or an avid runner who is planning on running a full marathon, building strength and endurance in the muscles that make up your core is essential in preventing injury and maximizing your overall performance.
When you think of the muscles that make up your core, does a rock-solid six-pack come to mind? While that muscle—the rectus abdominis—might look great when lounging on a beach, it’s actually the least important when it comes to true strength and stability.
To understand which muscles support the spine and pelvis and protect you from injury while running, we need to look much deeper:
- The transverse abdominis is a deep abdominal muscle that stabilizes your spine, keeping it in a neutral position.
- Located deep in your lower back, the multifidus’s main function is to keep the spine stable by preventing excess motion.
- The erector spinalis, which runs along each side of your spine, helps extend your trunk (which keeps you upright).
- The quadratus lumborum is what helps you bend side-to-side while also stabilizing your hips.
- Finally, hip abductors keep both your hips and your knees in control when your foot strikes the ground.
Together, these muscles work together to reduce the likelihood of developing a running related injury—but only when they’re well conditioned.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Many runners focus only on planning out and grading their running programs in terms of distance or time, and completely neglect core conditioning. But the core muscles are the foundation for the entire body. If the foundation is unstable and prone to fatigue, then everything that’s attached to the core will be unstable, too.
As a runner’s foot strikes the ground, energy is transferred from the foot, up the calf and thigh, and finally to the core. This force causes the spine and hips to rotate, which helps drive the other leg forward to take the next step.
But if a runner’s core isn’t strong enough to handle the force generated from each step, they’ll waste unnecessary energy trying to stabilize that force throughout the run. And, because running requires such a great deal of stamina to begin with, the core must be conditioned to be strong but also to have endurance to stay strong throughout a lengthy run.
Working together, strength and endurance in the core will help maximize the efficiency of each stride and actually reduce the amount of energy required for a run altogether.
Stay Injury Free
In addition to improving efficiency, a well-conditioned core will help a runner to maintain proper posture and movement mechanics during a long run.
If a runner has inadequate core strength, improper posture such as a forward slouch can sneak in as a runner fatigues, leading to unnatural stress on the spine, joints and other muscles.
Those other muscles will begin to work harder to attempt to compensate as core muscles fatigue, too, often resulting in poor running mechanics. Common compensation strategies include excessive hip drop and trunk sway, inward bowing of the knee, and uneven stride length.
If left untreated, poor posture and compensation strategies can lead to injuries including iliotibial band syndrome, shin splints, herniated discs, osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease.
When any Orthology providers work with a runner, we typically select exercises that use the runner’s own body weight as resistance, and that force the runner to stabilize their spine by activating these deep core muscles. A classic example is the plank position, which, when done properly, engage muscles in your core, through your back, and into through your shoulders and legs.
Your provider will also likely focus on balance exercises, such as a single-leg stand. Balance exercises force you to use your core muscles in order to stabilize their body from external forces, and can be especially important for outdoor runners as outdoor trails often run over uneven ground. Ready to take your single-leg stand up a notch? Close your eyes, make arm circles, or balance on a Bosu Ball while maintaining your balance for 30 seconds.
As you progress, your provider will incorporate plyometrics such as jump squats or burpees to your exercise routine to help strengthen your core and help your body adjust to excessive force. For example, when a runner is running up and down hills, their body will require both more energy output and much better control of their core.
For all of these exercises and at every stage as a runner, proper form is crucial. Your provider will assess and correct any errors in form as they work with you, as well as aid you in developing an overall running program to help you achieve your goal.
It’s also important to extend your routine after a run, too. To help prevent pain and soreness, a great post-run protocol is to use a foam roller to release any trigger points.
Work With the Experts
Regardless of whether you’re a veteran runner or if you’re just starting out, a carefully developed plan of care from your Orthology provider will not only focus on treating any current injuries, but on preventing future injuries as well.
If you’re experiencing difficulty or pain while running, schedule an appointment at an Orthology location near you. Your Orthology provider will identify muscular imbalances, strength deficits, and analyze your unique running mechanics to identify any compensation patterns.
Armed with this information, we’re all here to develop a recovery program tailored to your lifestyle to help you accomplish your goals.