Our friend Dan has asked whether we warm up/down or stretch to aid our running. He recently had an operation to replace a torn ACL and is just starting his running journey. Dan, here are our (uneducated) words of wisdom. Obviously we are not doctors/ physios etc but of you are feeling tired or sore, this is what has worked for us.
In general we believe injury prevention when running is mostly about muscle balance and form, so obviously don’t sprint out the front door every time, but unfortunately even if you warm up and warm down you won’t be protecting yourself from injury if the mechanics of your running aren’t working correctly. Stretching however definitely has its place.
But basically good form is heads, shoulders, knees and toes. [Head (up), shoulders (back), knees (forward/out), toes (slightly down)]
The thing is, good running form feels really strange to start and can be hard to keep up, so here are a few things that will set you up to run with good form.
Strength and exercises:
You’ll notice when you start to adjust your running form, some muscles, like your calves, might take more of a pounding than they used to (but hopefully others will take far less). These are the exercises we’ll do (usually when we aren’t running or running far) to stop us slumping over and reverting back to our old joint crushing ways.
Embracing your inner yogi
Real yoga is NOT just stretching, it is a full-on strength exercise. We have found yoga is fantastic to balance strength and flexibility. One of the key things for us is that yoga poses are full, functional movements meaning they hone in on groups and series of related muscles rather than focusing on singular movements like you might do at the gym. It is especially good to strengthen ankles and quads (balancing), to improve posture, and to keep hamstrings the right length. Check out this doozy from Tim Senesi, even if you only do part of it, it’s the best video we’ve found for running (especially the forearm plank leg raise at 15m43s).
Core holds it all together
I don’t think Tony Horton had unemployed trail running bums in mind when he created ‘P90x’, but we love his US Drill-Sergeant sadism and over-enthusiastic 2000’s gym junkie vibe (think “that’s my brother!” or “he’s a madman!”).
Within P90x is a short and sweet 12 minute core workout video called “Ab-ripper X”. This is an absolute killer and we can’t even do the whole thing, but a strong core will keep your head, shoulders, knees and toes in the right place, especially to begin as you are trying to maintain your body in what is initially a pretty foreign position.
Plyometric conditioning – “I hate it…but I love it”
Plyometrics is building strength through self-weight bearing and jumping related exercises. It is also apparently “the mother of all P90X” videos (Yessir Tony). Dynamic strength building translates really well to running injury prevention because you are basically exaggerating the movements you put your body under when you run.
Slip on minimalist shoes
We acknowledge this could be a huge change, but the most important thing about footwear isn’t cushioning or support but to allow yourself to get feedback about your landing. The human body has an unbelievable ability to make adjustments in microsecond to feel what’s wrong, adjust and get the most efficient stride depending on how your foot lands – all it needs is good feedback. Think about how your body might move if you ran from a carport onto the sand at the beach – you would instantly feel the difference and your stride would change.
A shoe should be (in order of importance) hard, flat (popularly known as “zero drop”), wide at the toe box then have a rounded heel. This will get you landing properly on your fore-foot and well attuned to feeling if something is off.
Be sure to transition slowly. Now we have gone minimalist we can’t imagine going back.
Stretching and pain relief:
So we aren’t complete nutters, and we do stretch. Almost exclusively after a run or at least after we’ve started. It’s basically a form of pain relief and we’ll focus on whatever has been feeling the worst rather than have a full routine.
Most are a few less intense yoga poses that work really well
- Calf step downs
- Crescent (hip flexors)
- Downward dog (hamstrings)
- Threading the needle (ITB)
- Upward bow (ITB)
- Extended triangle (groin)
Get out your golf balls
Your fascia acts as your whole body sleeve under your skin, it keeps all the organs in. Christopher Macdougall’s book ‘Natural born heroes’ talks all about it and it’s the basis of yin yoga.
Many physios advocate rolling your ITB on a foam roller, this breaks up the fascia around the muscle. While good form should mean you need to do this less, it does still work well to loosen the ITB, if you can handle it. But for mere mortals, foam rollers suck. They hurt like hell and it’s hard to build up the desire to do it everyday (they are also not so portable so we elected not bring one on the trail).
An alternative method of ITB relief is the leg fold (see below). It’s great because it’s slow gentle and you can even do it while eating dinner (hell French table manners are weird enough anyway). When we have a big day on the trail we aren’t always up for yoga at night so this is a great easy ITB stretch that you can do every night. If you are tight it will be really painful so go easy on yourself.
We carry a golf ball with us everywhere and roll the bottom of our feet, especially the arches. It’s a cheap and dirty version of Chinese reflexology (maybe less dirty depending where you go…). The plantar fascia is one sheet that runs under your feet and up your legs, so we stand on the ball and to roll our feet over it until we hear the gentle cracking noise of the tissue breaking up. It’s amazingly connected and you’ll be surprised how it eases pain in the achilles, heel, calves and higher. Outside online wrote about it here.
The harping on above has taken us a few years to adopt so if you are overwhelmed just consider picking up one or two at a time and adapting it to suit you. Once it’s embedded you can try a second. The most important thing is to be pain free so you can have fun with your running, then you’ll never stop learning new tricks!