All one has to do is search the internet to see the endless ways one can address running injury prevention and performance. Unfortunately, much of the information publicly available lacks any true functional value. Training programs which work for some runners fail for others. Shoes which are exceptional for some runners create problems for others. Nutrition and hydration regimes which keep some runners going for hours do not agree with others. This scenario describes a source of frustration for distance runners. If one follows a designed training program, purchases top notch gear, and is cognizant of nutrition & hydration needs, then why do running injuries plaque so many runners? The main reason lies in the part(s) of the body we DO NOT train adequately; the upper body.
Distance running requires a tremendous amount of dedication and patience. Working toward a goal such as a half-marathon, marathon, 50k, 50-mile, or 100-mile event may at times seem daunting and unattainable. Persistence, training, and attention to detail make the sacrifices worthwhile. Strength training must be a regular component of every endurance running training program. Limiting running injuries and achieving your performance goals are earned through strength training.
Running for long distances places repetitive forces through the body for a prolonged period. Muscle fatigue results in running biomechanical substitutions. Running fast increases the forces (although for a shorter duration per foot strike) the body must process in order for efficient forward motion. Simply putting in long miles of running will not prepare your body for the specific, cumulative effects of running. The UPPER BODY is an often overlooked component of both running performance and injury prevention. I have learned from my personal strength training oversights and research into the mechanisms behind running injuries.
A strong upper body and core will allow your body to neutralize the rotational and impact forces associated with distance running. Upper body strength in general, and our latissimus dorsi, shoulder girdle, triceps, and pectoralis muscle strength specifically aid in propelling us forward. The importance of upper body strength increases with running duration and intensity. Running efficiency will increase with upper body strength. A strong core (abdominals, back musculature, gluteus medius, and gluteus maximus) dampens torsional forces and “tie together” the upper body and lower body motion to produce an efficient, powerful running stride. A strong body (not just strong quads and hamstrings) is an injury-free body!
Most runners steer clear of regular upper body strengthening as extra bulk and body mass are not a typical trait of endurance runners. The type of upper body strengthening one does determines how the muscles will respond. Functional upper body strengthening incorporates resistance to mimic the forces we are subjected to while running. Bulk is limited by high repetitions within one’s cardiovascular threshold. Form while strength training is vital in order to avoid bad postural habits which may be carried over to running.
Weight machines should be avoided for running-specific training. Simple items such as dumbbells, kettle bells, balance boards, thera balls, thera band, and Bosu balls make up the foundation of a functional upper body strengthening program for runners. Begin your upper body strengthening program with a physical therapy consultation to design an upper body strengthening program based on an individual running analysis. Group classes are a great way to keep your level of motivation high. Feel free to email me with any specific questions or for some upper body strengthening exercise examples.
John Fiore, PT