Running is one of the most natural forms of human movement. The ability to run upright on two legs is rare in mammals yet most toddlers run
before they walk. As we grow into adults with more responsibilities and more sedentary lifestyles, our bodies lose the innate ability to run fast and efficiently. Many factors contribute to the challenges all runners face as we enter the early, middle, and late phases of adulthood, but none contributes to the demise of runners more than poor balance.
For the past year I have emphasized to my physical therapy clients and in my own training the importance of functional strengthening to reduce running-related injuries and to improve performance. The reason functional strengthening works for runners lies in the balance component of every functional strengthening exercise. Gravity, resistance, single leg postures, and dynamic motion sufficient to raise the heart rate are the building blocks for improving balance and performance in runners. Balance plays a huge role in the success of runners over 40 years old. One of the physiological changes with age is a decline in single leg balance ability. Coupled with a progressive decrease in muscle bulk and aerobic capacity, targeted training with an emphasis on balance and core strength should be the focus of aging runners year round.
Most runners have marveled at the ease with which some runners can effortlessly fly down a technical, rock-strewn trail at a 6-minute per mile pace. While some individuals are naturally more sure on their feet, most accomplished technical runners work on balance and agility to gain confidence and ease on uneven surfaces. Courses such as The Rut 50k contain extended stretches of scree and loose rock which requires confidence and agility to avoid falling and injury. With proper training, running technical terrain is the closest feeling to flying without actually leaving the ground. Below are a few training suggestions to improve your speed and safety while running when the pavement ends and the trail turns into a ridge line.
1. Single Leg Strengthening Exercises:
- Stand on one leg with your big toe planted into the floor. Engage your core (gluteal, abdominal, lumbar musculature) and use gravity with or without dumbbells, weight bars, a medicine ball, or a pulley system to teach your body to stabilize in a single leg position.
- Add dynamic partial squats, trunk rotation, and reaching motions for greater challenge.
2. Running Specific Agility Training:
- Moving lightly and confidently on your feet comes only with training. Set up an agility course inside or outside. Work on foot placement, accuracy, eyes open, and eyes closed. Incorporate plyometrics and bounding in your agility training at a training heart rate.
- Practice bounding uphill and rapid foot placement on technical terrain of varying gradients. Try running from rock surface to rock surface rather than avoiding rocks.
- Relax when running on technical terrain and let your natural balance reactions and core strength do the stabilizing.
3. Core Conditioning:
- Build core strength in supine, prone, sitting, and standing positions.
- Utilize Swiss Ball, Bosu Ball, Reformer, and gravity to train your core.
- Planks are an excellent way to build core strength, especially if you incorporate reciprocal (alternating) arm and leg movements. Crunches, push-ups, pull-ups, mountain climbers, and burpees utilize core strength while combining functional extremity motion.
4. Foot and Ankle Mobility and Strengthening:
- Protect your lower leg, foot, and ankle from injury and overuse through proper conditioning. Ankle joint mobility is necessary for proper running mechanics and to reduce the risk of ankle sprain. Killian Jornet is hands down the fastest downhill runner yet he has never sprained his ankle.
- Theraband ankle strengthening is a good start, but incorporate ankle and foot specific single leg balance and mobility exercises in weight bearing to truly protect and prepare your foot and ankle for running.
For a balance and conditioning program to take your running to the next level or to address a chronic running injury issue, contact the Sapphire Physical Therapy staff for a one-on-one running evaluation.
John Fiore, PT
Sapphire Physical Therapy