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Strength Training Part 1: Introduction

Posted Feb 16 2012 6:53am
A runner friend of mine and I were talking about strength work recently & she brought up the very excellent point that although some runners know they need to do it, they just really don't know what to do, or how to start, or how much/how often to do, or where to fit it in. So I thought I would share a little of what I do & why, in case it's useful. :)

( Disclaimer:   I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or health professional of any kind. Everything I know about strength training & running, I've learned from sports medicine doctors / physical therapists / trainers / etc. -- it's not like I'm just making shit up -- but it's information that's mostly come to me in the context of dealing with my own nagging injuries, so it's possible that you might have different issues / injuries that need something a little different. Also, I hope I don't actually have to say this, but if you try anything and it hurts, you should probably stop & check in with a pro before continuing. Also, if you ARE a doctor / PT / exercise professional and anything here sounds sketchy or like I've misunderstood it, also do please let me know so I can fix it! Cool? Cool.)

What Is the Deal With Running Injuries? (A lightening-fast overview)

Maybe the first thing to get out there is that most running injuries are overuse injuries -- ie, it's not like football or basketball or something where you have people dislocating joints or twisting ankles or tearing their ACLs all the time due to a single traumatic event. Our injuries more often come on slowly over a long period of time. This is mainly because
- Running involves a relatively small, repetitive set of motions.
- It relies heavily on certain muscle groups and very little on others, which can cause imbalances in muscle strength & tightness.
- Very few people are biomechanically perfect; in most people, tiny flaws & inefficiencies go unnoticed, but when you do the same motion over and over, thousands and thousands of times a week, the effects are magnified & bigger problems can result.

These are the root causes of most running injuries.

Three million years ago, hunting antelope on the savanna or whatever, this was less of a problem. Yes, we did a good amount of running, but we also did a bunch of other stuff like climbing, dancing, building, carrying heavy things, etc. that helped keep all our muscle groups strong and balanced. These days, because most of us have limited free time & don't have to physically exert ourselves all that much to make a living, we're more susceptible to finding one activity we like to do & just doing that all the time (eg, running).

The Origin Tale: How Angela Came to Strength Training

Back in the day when I first started running track & cross country, I went many many years without a running injury (other than my ever-present MTSS/shin splints). For this, I credit the facts that a) I was doing gymnastics at the time, which is pretty off-the-charts in terms of a full-body workout; b) I did a lot of horseback riding, which does wonders for the posterior kinetic chain; and c) track & cross-country included twice-weekly strength training sessions in addition to running practice. I did less running in college/grad school but also did a lot of lifting, swimming, karate, & also started playing polo. Post-school, I continued riding/polo & karate for a while.

But then I started getting back into running more seriously, and I quit riding/polo. Once that happened, it took me less than a year to develop an overuse injury. It started as an achy hip, which got achier and achier in spite of my valiant efforts to ignore it & treat it at home with ibuprofen & ice. Then I had two achy hips, which I continued trying to self-treat & run through, & this is all what led up to the Great RNR SJ Debacle, or as I like to call it, Sufferfest '10.

Cue sports medicine doctor -> physical therapy -> all strength training, all the time.

This was when I first heard the term posterior kinetic chain. It is pretty much PT speak for "stuff runners like to ignore."

It was also when I first heard the term pelvic stability, which is the extent to which your pelvis stays square and even when you run. ( Hint: Even among runners, most of ours really don't.)

My biggest problems were weakened glute meds & hamstrings compared to my quads, and hip abductors that were not balanced strength-wise. To quote one of my PTs, "Probably 75% of all running injuries we see are the result of a lack of consistent strength training for the core & pelvic stability muscles."

It took 4 months for me to get strong enough to go back to safely building significant mileage. For the first time in a very, very long time, I was able to go back to running 45-55 miles pain-free last fall.

So you are crazy if you think I am *ever* ditching strength work ever again.

What/Where/When/How often/etc.?

People often overestimate what is involved in strength training. They ask, "Do I have to join a CrossFit gym/Pilates class/yoga studio? Do I have to spend 3 hours a week in the weight room? Do I have to do one of those Boot Camp circuit-train-ey things?"

No, no, and no. CrossFit and yoga and Pilates are all wonderful and good-for-you activities and many people enjoy them, and from what I understand, if you have the time & resources and enjoy some of that stuff, you are probably good as far as getting in enough strength training to avoid an overuse injury from running.

But if you don't, fear not! It can be way, way simpler than that. Do you have a few minutes at home, a few times a week? You're golden. (Remember, I'm just talking about doing enough to maintain balance between muscle groups & prevent overuse injuries, not getting crazy ripped. Crazy ripped is a different blog.)

Before we delve into specific exercises, here are my top tips for beginning a strength program:

- Start small. If you are intimidated by strength work, don't really want to do it, or are worried about adding something new and big to your weekly routine, choose one or two exercises at first and make your goal just to do a set or two of something. Do you have 5 minutes, three days a week? Perfect! The routine that seems manageable is the one you're most likely to stick to. Just like with running, you can increase from there.

- Distract yourself. The nice thing about at-home, isometric exercises is that you can do them really anywhere. Watch TV. Listen to music or a podcast. Whatever. If you've committed to five minutes (or whatever), set a timer. Another friend of mine got started by committing to doing strength exercises for "3 pop songs every other day."

- Keep track of things. Just as with mileage, writing down what you do, when, & how much keeps you accountable and also gives you a sense of accomplishment. It also helps you keep track of which muscles you're exercising so that you can make sure you don't over-work one set of muscles while ignoring others, and lets you see your progress as you begin to spend a few more minutes or do more sets or reps.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I actually share some exercises. :)
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