Spring has sprung! The sun is out, the grass is getting greener, and all the running enthusiasts are off the treadmill and back outside. Maybe you’ve been thinking about joining them – but are you ready to run?
It may seem as if we’re already equipped with everything we need to run, that you can just step out the door and get going, but in order to protect yourself from injury and make sure you can enjoy running for the long haul, we’ve got to put in some work first. In order to find the positions that allow us to move efficiently and above all, pain-free, we need to build some strength and stability in the muscles and joints, as well as improving our mobility at the hips, ankles, and spine.
If you’re already a runner, I’m not saying to stop running until you achieve all of these things; but, if you’re constantly nursing “little” aches and pains during or after your runs, it’s important to be honest with yourself and maybe check how much volume you’re putting in. Meanwhile, you can start working to improve your strength and mobility so that these aches and pains don’t progress to something worse.
In Dr. Kelly Starrett’s book, “Ready to Run”, he lists 12 standards that all runners should meet:
- Neutral Feet – when standing relaxed, do your toes point forward? Or, are one or both feet pointed out like a duck? “Duck feet” typically start further up the chain, with tension in the hips. When your foot faces outward, the leg is no longer sitting in a neutral position within your hip joint, and every single step adds more wear and tear on that joint, along with different muscles being forced to compensate. No bueno.
- Flat Shoes – most of the footwear we’re used to nowadays doesn’t truly allow our foot to move like a foot should. Cramped toes, elevated heels, arch support and the like are forcing our feet to mold to our shoes, rather than allowing the foot to build the strength it was meant to, to support itself! When standing, walking, and running with proper posture, the arch of your foot is a non-weight bearing structure…so it shouldn’t need to be cushioned and supported. If you feel that your arch is “collapsing”, it tends to be more of an issue of lacking strength in the muscles of your feet – and you cannot build that strength without giving your feet the stimulus and challenge to do so. Now, before you go tossing out all your shoes and switching to the barefoot life – start slow. Try to give yourself some “barefoot time” each day, and when you’re ready to start bringing it into your run, start with running just the first 10% in minimalist shoes, building up gradually to allow your feet to adjust to the new pattern and reduce the risk of overdoing it.
- Thoracic Mobility – although runners tend to worry most about their strength and mobility from the hips down, don’t discount the important of your spinal health – particular in the mid-back. Your thoracic spine connects to many important structures, and issues here can work their way up or down the chain. Lack of mobility in the thoracic spine can force more movement in either the cervical spine (neck) or lumbar spine (low back), which can then lead to pain in these areas, or compensations in movement patterns that work their way to the hips, knees, and ankles as well. Lack of thoracic mobility can also impact the ability of our scapular to glide properly, decreasing the range of motion in our shoulders. And, our thoracic spine is connected to our rib cage, which plays a major role in proper breathing mechanics and core bracing; both of which are integral to running efficiently. Do a lot of sitting through the day? Check in on your thoracic health and get some ideas for how to improve it in this old blog post.
- Squat Technique – the squat is a great benchmark for proper mobility through the hips and ankles, as well as the ability to access power through your posterior chain. Can you perform 10 bodyweight squats with consistent good technique? Not sure what that looks like? Check out this previous blog entry all about improving your squat.
- Hip Flexion – our bodies tend to mold themselves to the positions we’re in repeatedly; so, if you spend a ton of time sitting, you may have tight hip flexors – but they can also be quite weak. We’re aiming for about 120 degrees of hip flexion for optimal running performance – can you stand on one leg, holding this amount of flexion for 30 seconds per side? Give it a try!
- Hip Extension – just as we need full range of motion in one direction of our stride, we need it in the opposite direction as well. Powerful hip extension employs our glute muscles, but may also be limited by tight hip flexors or quads. A combination of stretching the front of your thighs and strengthening the hips will help improve this component (find some suggestions here). Allowing the muscles of your posterior chain to pick up the slack will also take pressure off your knees!
- Ankle Mobility – if you’re lacking in either plantar flexion (pointing your toes) or dorsiflexion (pulling your toes towards your shins), it will change your stride pattern and add compensations throughout the foot, knee, and hip. Your ankles should be the springs of your step – you need the elastic recoil here to produce optimal power and speed during your run, not to mention the amount of walking you do in your other daily activities.
- Proper Warm-up and Cooldown – runners often short change themselves on their warm-up or cool-down, thinking they’ll just “start running slowly” and get warm along the way. Check out this video for some quick warm-up ideas:
As for the cool-down, it can be as simple as finishing with a walk and some of the same body weight movements as in your warm-up. Reduce your risk of injury and speed up your recovery with the addition of just 5-10 minutes on either end of your run!
- Compression – boost your circulation and enhance your recovery by spending some time in compression socks – you can even slip them on under your work clothes. This can be especially helpful if you’re planning on a big race, and then hopping back into your car for a long trek home.
- No “Hotspots” – make sure you’re not ignoring any aches and pains, grinding through to get your runs in, as this can lead to devastating repercussions in the long term. Instead, take a step back and try to fix the problem. Adhering to the other standards on this list may help to prevent these aches or nip them in the bud, however, if your issue continues, visit a qualified health professional, such as a physiotherapist.
- Hydration – drinking at least 2-3 litres of water per day (plus more if you’re training in a hot climate) can not only ensure your soft tissues recover properly, but can also affect your cardiovascular endurance. You can’t afford to be dehydrated! For more on why hydration is so important to all kinds of body functions, check out this article.
- Jumping and Landing – as you run, you’re constantly taking off of one leg and landing on the other. To make sure you’re expressing and absorbing these forces efficiently, practice your jumping and landing mechanics as part of your strength routine. Make sure you’re landing with neutral feet, braced core, soft knees, and that your knees aren’t caving in.
So, what can you do to reach these standards? Set yourself up for success with a proper routine; not only for your runs, but also for your strength training and recovery work in between. Schedule it into your week as a non-negotiable appointment with yourself, so that you’re never “too busy” to take care of your body – then reap the rewards!
“If you’re going to make the demands on your body that being an athlete requires, then it’s your job to support that body.” – Kelly Starrett
Need some guidance building a strength and recovery routine to support your running? Request your free consult on our training page, or comment below with any questions!