by Sandy LeBlanc
I have yet to meet a symmetrical person. We’re all a little wonky, either due to structural differences like leg length discrepancy or scoliosis, and/or habitual imbalances such as playing a single sided sport, handedness or poor posture. For most people, these imbalances don’t affect quality of life—until you add a highly repetitive, sagittal plane sport such as long distance running. The good news is: we can fix many of these imbalances with strategic strength and flexibility training.
Strength training should be functional strength, where the whole body is participating and working synergistically. Just as our sport is fluid and dynamic, our strength training needs to teach the heart, lungs, muscles, connective tissues, joints, nervous system and brain to work well together. Functional strength training translates well to strong, injury-free running.
Here are four key areas of focus to help keep our bodies in balance:
SINGLE SIDED EXERCISE
You’ll immediately know which side is stronger with single sided exercise. While it may take a little longer to exercise one leg at a time, it’s critically important. Doing a thorough, single sided workout at least twice a week can do wonders to fix imbalances. Here’s a great example:
Forward Lunge & Twist (A)
What it does: Strengthens quads (including inner quads) and glutes, evens out strength differences from left to right, hones alignment protecting the knee, works the core (especially oblique abdominals).
How to do it: Come into a split stance lunge with both knees at 90 degrees. Keep your upper body vertical, with shoulders back. Keep knees are aligned with your feet (not drifting to the midline). Hold a weight with arms extended forward, then rotate the upper body toward the front hip. Repeat 10 times per leg, completing 2 or 3 sets.
Many running injuries can be prevented by activating and strengthening your stabilizers, especially your glutes and adductors/inner quads. Many of us suffer these days from sleepy glutes… glutes that have forgotten their job! This happens because of too much sitting, not eno ugh movement and especially, not enough squatting. Same goes for inner thighs. These muscles stabilize two of the most-used joints in running: your knees and hips. Here’s a great single-sided way to strengthen your glutes.
One-Leg Deadlift (B)
What it does: Fires up your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and inner quads/adductors, both on the standing leg and the leg that’s elevated. It also challenges your balance, proprioception and agility, which are valuable in running since we do land one foot at a time.
How to do it: Hold a weight, keeping your gaze forward the whole time. Squeeze the shoulder blades back and engage the lower abs. Then, balance on one foot, extend the upper body forward, and the other leg straight back with foot flexed. Exhale as you stand up, trying not to touch the ground with the moving foot. Repeat 10 times per leg, completing 2 or 3 sets.
Everyone talks about core and posture, and rightly so. Your strong core and balanced posture will help you get to the finish when the going gets tough. The first step is to be aware of your posture. As you’re sitting reading this, take note of your posture: legs crossed? Head leaning forward? Lower back rounded? (Confession: me too, much of the time.) The fact is, our everyday posture translates into our running posture. There are many exercises and techniques to strengthening the core. I favour core exercises that integrate every muscle group between your diaphragm and your pelvic floor.
Bird Dog (C)
What it does: An ace in functional strength training! Trains your back, abdominals, glutes and shoulders. It also works on balance and fixing side-to-side differences.
How to do it: Start on all fours, keeping a neutral spine, head aligned. You can use a weight in one hand. Extend that arm forward and extend the opposite leg back, keeping the back foot. Then tuck the hand and knee together under you. Repeat 10 times per side, completing 2 or 3 sets.
Maintaining adequate flexibility in your legs and hips is a delicate balance between the challenges of your training runs, your strength training, and your recovery. As we work our muscles, we create tiny microscopic tears in the myosin and actin fibres. As they repair, our muscles get stronger. However in this process, the waste products of carbon dioxide and lactic acid can get stuck. This is why you’re sore 24 to 48 hours after a workout—unless you stretch.
Tight muscles can create tension on the joints. And that can set you up for injury. Stretching facilitates the healing process, along with other modalities like yoga, foam rolling and massage. They stimulate better blood circulation, so you can unstick the waste products and fuel the healing process with oxygen and other essential nutrients.
You likely already know some basic stretches, so make sure you’re doing them regularly. Think methodically about which muscles groups you’ve used in your training, such as the quads, hamstrings and calves.
Also consider your iliotibial (IT) band, which gets tight when we push distance or speed. With strategic strength and flexibility training, you’ll be ready to take your running to the next level. Good luck with your training!
Sandy LeBlanc has instructed over 20 Half Marathon training programs at the High Park Running Room store in Toronto. She is also a personal trainer, strength coach and yoga teacher at her own studio, Fit Journey. For more information, visit fitjourney.ca.