Back Strength and Running

This is the third blog post in a series about how each major muscle group in your body plays a role in your running. Runners definitely don’t want a bulky upper body to weigh them down, but our upper body plays a significant role in our running form and our efficiency. If you don’t pay attention to muscle groups other than the legs, you set the stage for injuries both up and down the kinetic chain. Our muscles don’t work in isolation.
Strength in our back is not only important in running but in daily life. Many people who sit for long durations of time at their job inevitably develop back pain. As a runner it is important to have strength in your mid and lower back to stabilize the spin and pelvis. A strong back is able to evenly distribute the force of you hitting the ground with each foot plant because of this even distribution of force you are less likely to suffer an injury. Back strength also contributes to maintaining good running form without over rotation, and, as we know, good running form, not only reduces injury risk, but it increases running efficiency (are we catching the theme here from the last two posts?).
As you increase your miles a strong back becomes more important because the increase means you will be running farther while your body is tired. This is also true for ultrarunners who train with back to back long runs. Soft tissues break down as we run and there are two things you need to do to reduce this and to help your body recover. First is rest. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, only increase your miles by 10% a week, and every fourth week reduce your miles by 20-25%. The second is strength. Soft tissue breakdown in your back can lead to injuries, especially in your hips and lower legs.
Over rotation of your torso due to a weak upper body causes your hips and legs to turn as well. They need to maintain a forward motion. A weak lower back also puts extra strain on your hamstrings, which can alter your stride and cause injuries in your hips, knees, and ankles.
Using high repetitions and low weight will help prevent building bulky shoulders. If theses are too easy for you, increase repetitions and keep the weight as low as you can. If these are too hard, lower the weight and then the repetitions as needed. By the end of the third set you should feel a burn in your shoulders and it should be difficult to perform the last repetitions.
Here are some exercises to help increase your mid and low back strength. Back extensions three repetitions hold for 15-45 seconds. Planks three repetitions 15-60 seconds. Bird dogs three sets 10-12 repetitions hold for 3-5 seconds at the top
How to perform back extensions: lay on your belly and lift your legs and upper body, hold it.
How to perform planks: get into the beginning push up position and hold. Your stomach should be held tight and your back straight. You can also lower yourself on your forearms.
How to perform bird dogs: get on your hands and knees lift your right arm and left leg straight out. Do the same thing with the left arm and right leg.
Adding strength workouts to your training program can be difficult because you just want to run and it can be hard to find the time. Thirty minutes three to four days a week will make a major difference. Keep in mind the first goal is to make sure you keep running and strength will help prevent injuries.

Shoulder Strenght and Running

This is the second blog post in a series about how each major muscle group in your body plays a role in your running. Runners definitely don’t want a bulky upper body to weigh them down, but our upper body plays a significant role in our running form and our efficiency. If you don’t pay attention to muscle groups other than the legs, you set the stage for injuries both up and down the kinetic chain. Our muscles don’t work in isolation.
Weak shoulders tend to become rounded and collapse inward as you get tired toward the end of a race. Collapsing in this way impedes your diaphragm’s ability to expand and bring in sufficient air to continue to fuel your muscles. You need to have enough flexibility and strength in your shoulders to maintain proper form and allow your diaphragm to function. Your shoulders assist in maintaining a smooth and efficient arm swing (covered in the last post). Shoulders also help you maintain proper form, which impacts your efficiency. Efficiency means your body is burning the least amount of energy in can to maintain the movement and speed you need to perform well.
Running is more complex than people think. It’s not just a forward motion. There is rotation involved as well and over rotation wastes energy and throws off your running form increasing the risk of injury in another part of the body. Strong shoulders prevent over rotation. Your shoulders should be held back opening up your chest and not compressing your diaphragm You should be upright and not hunched over. I often tell runners to imagine there is a string from the center of your sternum reaching up to the moon or sun. This will get you in the proper from.
Using high repetitions and low weight will help prevent building bulky shoulders. If theses are too easy for you, increase repetitions and keep the weight as low as you can. If these are too hard, lower the weight and then the repetitions as needed. By the end of the third set you should feel a burn in your shoulders and it should be difficult to perform the last repetitions.
Exercises that will help you strengthen your shoulders include: push-ups perform three sets of 10-12; Renegade rows three sets of 10-12 repetitions; shoulder press three sets, 10-12 reps
How to perform renegade rows: place light weight dumbbells on the floor shoulder width apart. Get into the starting push-up position with one hand gripping a dumbbell. Pull your arm up through your elbow, pointing your elbow up toward the ceiling.
How to perform shoulder press: Take two light weight dumbbells and hold them at shoulder height press them over your head until your arm is fully extended. Lower them slowly.

Arm Strength and Running

This post is the first in a series of posts on what role various parts of our bodies play in running and how giving them some attention can improve our running. I’m going to work from the top to the bottom. So, what role do your arms play in running?
Your arms are important in running. Try running without them moving and you’ll find out just how important they are. Our arms propel us forward and help us maintain balance. They also catch us when we fall, hold our handheld water bottles, and make it much easier to eat and carry a hydration pack. It’s good to have arms.
Our legs move in relation to our arms. The faster we move our arms the faster our legs move. I often tell triathletes and ultraunners to focus on their arms as specific points in their races. For triathletes, it is after the transition from the bike to the run when you feel like a newborn baby giraffe.  For ultrarunners, it when you just don’t think you can take another step.
Holding our arms in the proper form is going to improve our efficiency andendurance as runners. Runners arms should be bent at about a 90 degree angle and swing pretty much straight back and forward without crossing the mid-line of your chest. Your arm should go back until your hand passes just above the hips and come forward until your elbow is close to your waist. Elbows should point backward. Your arms and hands should be held loose, but not flopping around like rubber.
If you don’t have an efficient arm swing you’re going to burn more energy than someone who does. In distance running, you want to burn as little energy with each step as you can at the speed you want to go. Too much crossover causes you to over rotate your torso. Over rotation of the torso wastes energy and can cause injuries down the kinetic chain by changing your foot plant and the alignment in your hips, knees, and ankles.
Your arms help with balance, especially, during a trail descent. Hold them out from your body and assist your core a bit to stabilize you.
Strengthening your arms will help you maintain the proper arm swing and running form throughout your run and keeps your legs moving forward when they are tired. You don’t want large arm muscles because they just add weight you have to haul around. It’s a balance. Strive for lean muscle rather than bulk. To maintain lean muscle complete more repetitions and use less weight.
The exercise shouldn’t be easy and you should feel it by the time you finish a set and the last set should be hard. If you can’t do the number of reps listed below do what you can and work up. If it’s too easy, add more reps before you add more weight.
Here are some easy things you can do to increase and maintain arm strength: push-ups 3 sets of 12-15 reps; tricep press 3 sets 10-12 reps; bicep curls 3 sets 12-15 reps; flies with arms straight and then bent 3 sets 10-12 reps.

Injury Prone or Under Prepared?

Recently, a runner told me he was injury prone because he ran his first marathon and got shin splints and then a week later his achilles tendon started hurting. He wanted to know what to do to address the shinsplints and what type of training plan is good for an injury prone runner.
Just because you end up with different injuries in close proximity does not mean you are an injury prone runner. You could just be a beginning runner or new to the distance or type of race you have chosen. If you are an experienced runner in both time as a runner and at the distance/type of running, and continue experience a reoccuring injury or multiple injuries in a row, you may be an injury prone runner. However, if you have not been running long, increased your distance, or changed from road to trail running (or the other way), you are probably under prepared.
Let’s address under prepared runners first. The runner may actually have prepared to the best of their ability and still have some aches and pains that extend beyond a few days after a race, such as shin splints or IT band issues. This is very normal especially for a runner who is taking on the marathon for the first time. Most beginning marathon training programs build miles up to, but not beyond, a single twenty mile long run. If you tack on 6.2 more miles in one go, you’re likely to have some aches and pains. As you gain more experience you can increase the number of 20 mile long runs and build your miles beyond the twenty mile mark. This will reduce the chances of aches and pains after a marathon.
Let’s look at what I mean by under prepared. Training for any race should include race specific training as much as possible. This means if the race includes hills (up and down), run hills in training. If it includes trails, run trails in training. If it includes roads, run roads in training. All of these will impact your body in a different way, so if you don’t train specifically for the challenges of your race, you are likely to be sore or even get injured.
Both experienced and new runners can neglect strength training or not realize how important it is in training. Runners do not need or want big muscles, but strengthening muscle supportive muscle groups can prevent injury and post race aches. Runners as a group tend to have weak hips and tight hamstrings. Weak hips contribute to a multitude of common running injuries such as shin splints, runners knee, and IT band syndrome. Your hips work to stabilize your legs as you run. They make sure your leg swings back and forth with the right alignment and speed. Include a hip strengthening workout three times a week in your training. It only takes a short amount of time and you don’t need a gym membership. You can search the internet or use the one above. Tight hamstrings reduce your range of motion for your leg swing and if you over stride you can strain or tear them.
What’s an injury prone runner? An experienced runner who struggles with chronic, reoccurring, or consecutive injuries on an ongoing basis. Runners who fit in this category can do a few things to increase the likelihood that they will be able to continue running and participate in races. First, either go see a physical therapist or google rehabilitation of whatever condition you have. Use the strength exercises four days a week. It can take three to four months to feel a difference, especially if it is a chronic issue. Even if it is a reoccurring issue and you don’t currently have symptoms or they go away, keep up the exercises for 4-6 months.
Second, use a foam roller at least every other day. Roll on the area for two minutes at a time and don’t neglect the surrounding muscles because if they are tight, it will pull on the injured area. Stress fractures are another matter. Do not roll on a stress fracture. Follow your doctors instructions for any stress fracture.
Third, change your training program to reduce impact. A normal training program has a rest week every fourth week, which means miles are reduced by 20-25% for the week. Injury prone runners should change the rest week to a pool running week, mini-trampoline running, or an elliptical (zero impact machine) week. If you look through my training programs you will find such a program.
If you are new to running or new to the distance you are running, take a hard look at whether that could be the cause of your injuries or if you are actually an injury prone runner. Using the injury prone training program will keep you running, but you may not make the same gains you would if you took the steps under the new/under prepared runner section.

Aerobic vs. Sport Specific Fitness

I’m fit right? Many people who are physically fit believe they can cross over into another sport and their fitness should translate. This may be true to some extend, but if the sports are different enough, things do not translate.
There are multiple aspect of fitness that make you a strong runner (or strong any other type of athlete. Aerobic fitness is the stimulation and strengthening of the heart and lungs, which improves the bodies ability to transform oxygen you breath in to energy your muscles can use. Having enough oxygen throughout your body is critical to participating in endurance events, okay and life.
Aerobic fitness is important but it’s not enough if you want to be a strong athlete in a particular sport. Strength in the muscles specific to the sport does not always crossover and complete crossover is pretty much impossible. You can compare muscle development between athletes of different sports to see proof, unless they make special effort to achieve more balanced strength. Runners have more balanced development throughout the legs. Sometimes the calves and quads can be more developed. Cyclists typically have larger quads, specifically the one on the outside. Swimmers have larger shoulders and arms. Those who play team sports requiring a lot of lateral movement are going to have stronger supporting muscles in the legs and core.
Running uses every muscle in your body as to most other sports. The difference is in the role each plays and the level of reliance on that particular muscle group. The major muscles of the legs are the most used in running. There are smaller, support, muscles in the legs used as well. At times these support muscles are recruited to pull more of the load than normal when the big boys become fatigued or injured. Even within the running community there are going to be differences in leg development because of the training each runner does.
Muscles and tendons remember. Neuro-pathways or muscle memory develops with experience. Your body becomes more efficient in form. When you repeat a motion over and over again, it becomes ingrained and you don’t have to put much, if any, thought into it. The less you have to think about each movement the faster you will become. The reduced attention required allows you to focus on one aspect of your body and make tweaks here and there to improve your form reducing injury and energy consumption. For runners, leg turn over, cadence, and stride length are all improved by building neuro-pathways. In contrast, soccer and American football players have unmatched agility (foot movement) because they work on it day in and day out.
The range of motion required by your muscles is different for different sports and on the other side the muscles and tendons which tend to tighten up are different depending on your sport. Flexibility in the hamstrings and hip flexors is important for running because they control the movement of your leg swing. Flexibility in those muscles is not as important for swimming or rowing.
Bottom line here is don’t get frustrated when you really struggle when cross training or picking up another sport. Fitness encompasses many aspects and unless you make an effort to maintain balance across these you’re not going to be at the same level in each sport. Individual strengths also separate athletes in the same sports.

River Crossing

River water levels are pretty high right now with all the snow runoff. The news has covered multiple deaths or near enough over the past month of people who have ended up in the water one way or another and never made it back out.
As trail runners, we bound through rivers on a regular, if not frequent basis, without much of a thought. With the level of water in Utah’s rivers, I suspect most runners would stop and think about crossing the river. I would. There are definitely going to be times where the risk is too high to cross a river. You’ll have to make that call depending on your experience, the availability of security items, and what you have to loose.
Here are some tips for safely crossing a river:
First take a look around and decide if the section of the river that meets the trial is the best place to cross at the time. There are a lot of conditions which can effect the volume of water flowing including: weather, temperature, time of year, and debris. The safest route on one day can be different on another, so even if you’ve crossed at the same point the day before, make sure it is still safe to cross in the present.
Prepare to cross by releasing the clip on your hydration pack (chest and/or waist). If you go down in the water, you need to be able to get the pack off. The pack will weigh you down and is another object for the water to grab onto. If you have other things about your waist, take them off and stick them in your pack or clip them on. You can even try throwing them over to the other side.
Foot placement and shoes are key factors in getting across so make sure your shoes are secure and that you have the proper ones on. You’re not going to be able to see the bottom of the river. Slipping because of wet or rolling rocks is a definite possibility. You also have the force of the water pushing against you to content with. I know some runners put plastic bags over their feet, cross barefoot, and some hikers carry sandals for crossing. You are more likely to slip with sandals or with bags over your feet. Wet shoes is better than wet head to toe. As for the barefoot, you need to protect your feet from sharp rocks, sticks and other such stray objects beneath the surface of the water. Wet feet are better than bleeding feet.
Check down river as well as up river. You don’t want to cross where there is wood, trees, branches along or overhanging the banks. If you are swept downriver, you can get pushed against these and actually pulled under them. Not a good place to be. Rocks and curves in the river can create an eddy, which is a place where the water actually flows upstream. These can be a safe haven.
Look for rocks protruding from the river. Behind the rock the current is usually not as strong, but along either side it can have more force. Standing behind the rock can give you a break from the force of the river. Do not cross in the whitewater part of a wave
Crossing where the river is narrow may make sense at first glance, but the current is actually stronger at narrow points. An island in the middle of the river is a better point because it breaks up the current and force of the river.
Use trekking poles or a large stick to help you balance and to probe the river in front of you checking for large rocks or deeper parts. If you are out with a running partner or two, cross together. If you walk side by side, the person more upstream will break the force of the water for the person next to them.
If you do go down and are being swept down stream, put your feet down river. It’s better to have your feet hit something rather than your head.

Trail Runner Road Running?

As a trail runner, I have looked at road runners with curiosity, especially those that run canyon roads. I always wonder why would you run on the road if you are right by a beautiful trail?

Is there a place for road running in a trail runners training? Yep. There are a number of reasons to run on the road as a trail runner. It’s not ideal and I try to avoid it when I can.

On vacation, it can be difficult to find nearby trails where you can get your daily dose of running, but you definitely don’t want to skip your run, so you head out on the road. Another reason to run on the road while on vacation is if you are in a place where the city because of buildings or culture is an attraction. There’s no better way to explore than running up and down streets.

Winter can be a challenging time to find trails clear enough of snow that they are runnable and not all runners take winter off or change to a winter sport. Road running in the winter poses its own challenges because it gets dark earlier and light later, make sure and take a headlamp, tail light, and reflective vest. You also need to watch for sliding cars.

Convenience is another one. Sometimes you just don’t have time to get to the mountain, but you need to run. Runners are busy people with family and work obligations. Fitting in a run can be a challenge some days. It’s okay to run on the road when you’re short on time. The trail will still love you.

Supporting a fellow runner. Beginning runners can be hesitant to jump right to trail running. If you’re pulling someone into running. Running on the road is permissible, in fact, supporting a fellow runner who is running the road is pretty much always permissible. Trail runners are some of the most community oriented runners who would give you their last drop of water or piece of food on the trail.

Recovering from an injury, especially one involving twisting of a joint. The uneven surface, rocks, roots, and river crossings ubiquitous in trail running increases the risk of re-injury. Running on the even predictable surface of a road may get you back out running earlier than if you wait until your body is ready for a trail. And the earlier you can get back out there, the less fitness you lose.

Running on the road is different than running on trails, pretty obvious. I suggest road shoes rather than your trail shoes for a few reasons. The pavement will ruin your trail shoes and trail shoes have thinner bottoms than road shoes. If you are going to be running on the road for more than a week or two, think about grabbing a pair of road shoes.

Definitely invest in a reflective vest, headlamp, and tail light if you’re running in the dark. Cars need to be able to see you as early as possible. Wearing earbuds is also something to think about because you need to be able to hear the cars approaching you.

I know there is research out there that says your body adjusts to the surface you are running on and that there is the same impact to your body regardless of what you are running on, however, my experience is different. My muscles feel the road a lot more than the trail. I can run a fifty-mile race on trail and not be sore, but if I run a marathon on the road, I’m sore.