This series of articles will dive into how runners can maximize their training hours, improve their overall health and wellness and greatly reduce the risk of injury, all while they still improve their running times. It will aim to help recreational / amateur runners see that you can spend more time with your family, have better energy and presence (not beat down and tired), and still enjoy the running community. I’m writing these because I have had so many broken down runners join our facility with mechanical issues, joint pain and flexibility problems that take years to reverse. I see an easier way, and I hope it can help a few people make better, more informed decisions about their approach to running, health and fitness. Check out Part 1 here.
One of the major issues surrounding most running programs (especially Google’d running programs) is that they lack structure in strength training and running technique work. Part 2 will dive into why strength training is required for runners to reduce injuries, keep ligaments strong and durable and ultimately give you much faster run times.
Muscular weaknesses, imbalances, lack of flexibility / joint mobility and beaten down ligaments. All of these things are common in runners, and all of these things are best fixed through a proper strength program. If we think about running, it is repeating the same movement pattern over and over again. Let’s say…just for the sake of argument (because almost no recreational runners do)…you have perfect running mechanics. That is awesome! However, at a certain pace OR distance, even the BEST mechanics will break down. Your muscles will quit and you will start compensating. These compensations cause the pain that you feel in your body. Let’s look at some common ones:
Plantar Fasciitis: A common issue nagging many runners are their feet. Rather than making your feet and ankles stronger (lots of muscles down there), more durable, or have more muscular endurance, we prop them up with orthotics. This causes the foot to become lazy and inactive, relying on layers of foam to null the pain and cut of receptors to your other muscles and your brain. The cause ends up being that you are able to do your miles!!! YAY!….Well, because you cut off those receptors, you’ll likely be dealing with some achilles, knee or back pain instead. When the foot is inactive, the leg and hip muscles that support your ankles, knees and hips don’t fire correctly and will start to break down. Your $150 custom orthotics and $200 custom foam running shoes just bought you some more problems.
Solution: If you are a running or walking for a dedicated time above 2-3hrs / week and NOT performing SMR on your feet and achilles you should start immediately. This is required maintenance. A Friendship coach and Physical Therapist, Jenny Borda, has done studies and worked extensively on this. See some videos of her here: Achilles SMR, and feet care. I also find it VERY beneficial to voodoo band my feet and ankles BEFORE a run – How to video here.
On top of that, you should be performing feet and ankle strengthening exercises. When we first start running people through these exercises they will typically struggle to continue for more than 5 minutes consecutively, runners should seek to acquire an abundance of strength and endurance with these exercises to support themselves through longer duration runs.
ITBS (Runner’s Knee): This tension down the outside of your legs running into your knee can cause a massive amount of discomfort and sidelines many athletes. A few years back an “AMAZING FIX” came out — Foam Rolling. All of the sudden, runners all over the world starting purchasing foam rollers by the millions. Temporarily, it “fixed” their ITBS, it was like magic. I experienced this frequently in the height of my running days in the Army, where as an infantryman we would log well over 30 miles each week between rucking and running. I found, like many others, that foam rolling was a very temporary fix to a bigger underlying issue. It wasn’t until I started strengthening my legs (years later) that I removed knee pain almost entirely.
Most runners have terribly weak glutes and hamstrings. Adding to this, often runners haven’t spend any time getting their hip, knee and ankle joints into end ranges of motion (sometimes EVER, but often not in YEARS). **Quick aside — Every single person reading this should be moving their joints into every possible end range, every single day…it will add QUALITY years to your life.** TRY THIS as a start!
So, with a weak glute (often poor form adds to this) those muscles become overworked relatively quickly once start running. The result is that the knee loses the main muscles to abduct (pull away from the midline), and the adductors kick on. The knee is continuously pulled inward as a result.
Over time this causes a lot of trauma to the knee ligaments, tension throughout the groin and overworked glutes and hamstrings. This is an issue that requires a multi-faceted fix.
Solution: First, you must start testing yourself. First with bodyweight, then with some weight. The majority of runners that come through our doors cannot do a proper bodyweight squat through full motion, and many cannot perform a proper lunge. This is a major issue, and a lot of times, if we can fix the squat and the lunge and gain the ability to perform these movements under added resistance (weight), then we can fix the issue.
However, having the muscular capability to run properly does not mean that you always will. So first, address the weakness. Having a qualified fitness professional watch you squat and lunge should provide you answers, and then start working on strengthening those movements with flawless knee position, and perform them barefoot (see ankle & foot issues above).
Both of these fixes, feet & ankle strength + hip and leg mechanics / strength, have almost completely removed my foot, knee and back pain. I’m able to run at a higher intensity level for longer, without the negative repercussions and at a bodyweight 45lbs heavier, which I choose to be at for CrossFit. I still have the bad running mechanics built from the compensations of my youth, and I am constantly trying to recorrect those. In Part 3, we will dive into how running drills, form work, and MM aerobic work can fit into a running program to really take you to the next level!
Let’s look at how someone who needs to implement some strength protocols might add it into their week:
Monday – AM Intervals (<40 minutes, faster than race pace), PM Foot exercises & Yoga
Tuesday – Strength: Front Squats, Glute-Ham Raises & Lunges
Wednesday – 30-40minutes Recovery & Low impact – Bike or Row (DO NOT beat a bad movement pattern)
Thursday – Distance run (pay close attention to your body, do not fight through pain, listen to it – These runs should STOP if you feel pain or breakdown, not when you hit a mileage or time).
Friday – Strength: Deadlifts, Pull-ups, Core & Posture strength, breathing & foot drills.
Saturday – Yoga or Swimming
Sunday – Full rest.
If we breakdown what running really boils down to it is this:
- A) Do you have the leg strength to drive your bodyweight? Maybe, but can you squat and lunge as well as you run? True balance requires all 3 to be strong.
- B) Does that leg strength have the endurance to carry you for the time required for your race? Most likely, it does not.
- C) Do you have the required aerobic system to get oxygen to the muscles at the pace your legs can achieve? If not, this is low-hanging fruit.
- D) Are your muscles & ligaments healthy enough to take the repeated trauma of the movement? The better the movement, the less trauma each step has.
We can best fix A & D through strength training. We can work on C in a multitude of ways, in reality we are better off training the aerobic system in a variety of ways to teach better breathing patterns without overtraining one pattern. And B can be achieved through many mediums, however this is the one where specifically we do need to work on our running technique and form.
The epiphany I hope to induce is that: Running 4-6 times per week is making you a worse runner, not a better one. If you’re not improving your running, OR you are experiencing pain, then your best answer lies NOT in running more, but in strength training, yoga or imbalance specific exercises (ankle/foot, etc.).
If you have been running, and running only for exercise, ask yourself what your limitations are? If you do not know, then you need to find out – otherwise you will wait until you experience pain or plateaus before you look for answers. If you wait that long, you are just building up more muscle-memory that will need to be corrected. Be proactive, or if you already have these issues, be reactive and start getting into some of these protocols NOW. I wish I would have had this knowledge when I was 23 and running all day. I ran my 2-mile Army PT test in 11:14, but my knees were swollen like softballs and I could barely walk afterwards.
If you know you need help, you may contact us here.
Author Jeff Binek is the Owner of Friendship CrossFit. He has helped hundreds of athletes, young and old, marathoners and rec. runners to pain free running PRs.