Hip Engagement: Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part post on engaging and strengthening your hips to improve your running and to reduce your injury risk. Here is a link to the first part.

When we analyze our injuries, as we recover from them, we look for ways to prevent the same injury and reduce the risk of other injuries we fear will follow. At times we forget to look upstream and downstream in the kinetic chain. Lower body injuries often times begin in the hips and thus, hip strength and engagement should become an essential part of our training.

  1. Knee-out running.

This one is going to feel awkward, but it helps with knee alignment and getting the max benefit from engaging your glutes. This is a drill not the way that you will run. Part of what the glute does is rotate your hip outward. This outward turn allows you to get maximal hip extension. It’s easiest to practice this on a line such as on a track or the white line at the edge of the road. Try to keep your knee turned out a bit while your feet remain directly beneath you. Start with short distances or 30 seconds a few times during a run and work up to longer durations of 60-90 seconds.

  1. High knees.

High knee drills are the staple of many track teams and there is a reason for it. It works the hip muscles for both legs. You use your abdominals to lift one leg while you get a lengthening in the other hip.

While you’re running be aware of your knee height because this extra length in your hip flexor is going to give you more power. You don’t want to exaggerate the movement like you do in drills, but just checking in with your lift during your run will bring your attention to it enough to make sure your engaging those muscles.

  1. Arm swing.

This one goes back to those tendons that connect your shoulder blades to the opposite hip. Maintaining a good arm swing where your wrist/hand comes to your hip on the back swing and your elbow comes in front of your hip on the forward swing, will help maintain a good strong rotation in your legs. Especially, in the later miles of an ultra. When your legs are thrashed from all the climbs and descents, have your crew remind you to run with your arms. You can also put a note in your drop bags.

  1. Strong feet.

Having a strong foot is important for efficient powerful running. Feet, although necessary to running, are remarkably the lower body muscle group most neglected by runners.  Your feet are what pushes you off the ground. Poor push off can misalign your leg as it comes forward. You also loose power if you don’t roll forward onto your toes. You can improve feet strength through single leg calf raises where you lower your heel below your toes on a step. You can also strengthen your feet using an exercise band by wrapping the band around your forefoot and holding it back with your hand to get the right amount of tension. Extend your toes out (tension pulling your forefoot to your chest), turn your foot in (tension should be pulling your forefoot to the outside0, and turn it out(tension should be pulling your forefoot to the inside).

No one wants to be injured. Research has shown over and over again many running injuries originate in the hips and spending some time each week focused on strengthening hips is well worth the time even if it cuts into running time.

Hip Engagement

This post has two parts. This is the first part. As runners, we aren’t too surprised when we end up with an injury in our quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, or pretty much anywhere in our legs. We may spend hours, days, or even weeks wondering what caused the injury- too much training, shoes, not enough sleep, too much junk food or whatever. After spending some time wondering how and why we became injured we start looking for ways to heal and then prevent future injuries.

Having strong engaged hips is essential for preventing injuries in every muscle and tendon below the hips. Increasing your hip strength and engagement leads to running faster and reducing injury risks.  Here are some drills and strategies to ensure you’re engaging and strengthening your hips to get the most bang for your buck.

  1. Lean forward, so you have your chest, over your knee, over your foot.

The forward lean while running allows you to engage your hip as the primary source of your forward momentum. It you’re upright you’re forcing your knee and ankle to do the work. You knee and ankle are supported by smaller muscles and thus they get tired and worn out faster than the bigger muscles of the hips.

  1. Mildly arch your back or at a minimum keep it neutral.

The mild arch in your back should come from just below your shoulder blades, rather than just above your pelvis at the lower back. There are tendons which connect your shoulder blade on the right to the hip on the left and the left shoulder blade to the right hip. This brings the power of your arm swing and shoulder into your running. This is something you want to maintain while running.

  1. Pawback pull.

This is one is the most complex and uses drills to perfect. The pawback ensures your foot lands beneath your center of gravity (reducing breaking) and it enhances hip extension (more power). Reducing the breaking forces when your foot hits the ground with each step and gaining more power with each push off should be enough for you to start doing this drill, but here are a few other reasons why it’s helpful: it preserves your quads because you don’t overstride, especially on downhills. It reduces shearing action inside of your shoe which reduces blisters.

How to do the pawback: from standing start by driving one leg up into a forward flexed position-knee up at a 90 degree angle. From there, flick the foot out in front of you. Then, pull it back so your foot returns to the floor. The important thing is when you pull it back flex that glute. Here is a video to make this more clear.

You’re obviously not going to do this while you’re running. How you pull these benefits into your everyday running is by being aware of your engagement of that glute and hamstring, which you’ve become very familiar with during these drills.

The next post will cover four more ways you can engage your hips and become a more powerful runner and reduce your risk of injury.

 

Nature vs. Nurture

We’ve all heard that the Kenyans are built for running-it’s in their genes. Statements like that raise more questions for me, such as: do genes(nature) limit my ability to improve my running? do my genes determine what type of training(nurture) or races I should do? How much of my improvement is from my pure stubbornness to succeed (is that genetic too?)?

I think it’s obvious that both genes and training play a role in our progress and ability in our sports. And I’m not sure if knowing which one is dominant is helpful because if it’s genes, the brain of many runners could get in the way of them making improvements through training hard due to a belief that they are limited.

There are more than 100 genes that have an impact on physical capacity. The belief that our genes determine our running performance seems reasonable, after all, our genes determine our body size and shape. Both of these influence our running performance. Those with smaller bone structures are going to be lighter on their feet. They are less likely to have non-propulsive muscle mass weighing them down.

Two measures scientists use for unraveling the nature vs. nurture questions are VO2 max and Lactate threshold. What they’ve discovered is that the degree to which VO2 max increases in response to exercise has a 47% genetic component. That leaves 53% friends-more than half. The degree to which Lactate threshold increases in response to exercise is a 55-80% genetic component. That’s a pretty big spread if you ask me.

How important is VO2 Max for ultrarunning? VO2 max is the highest rate at which your body can transport oxygen to your muscles, through blood, to provide your muscles with the energy they need. Most people can only sustain this level of effort for 8 minutes. Not helpful in an ultra that lasts up to 36 hours. Your VO2 max becomes less important as the distance of your run increases. This is not to say doing VO2 max training isn’t worth while. See my post on that here.

What about Lactate Threshold (LT)? LT is the point at which the level of lactate accumulating in your blood is higher than what your body can get rid of. During lower intensity exercise (ultrarunning by nature), lactate levels remain at or near resting levels- a steady state. Training your LT is still important. See my post referenced at the end of the last paragraph.

Other factors that determine running performance are diet, attitude toward running, daily activity pattern, amount of sleep, injuries, running efficiency, determination, and much more. What the science has concluded so far is there are just too many genes that impact sport performance to be able to predict who will be a good athlete and who will not.

So what can our genes tell us? no more than our personal experience which is the better route to go. Yes, there are companies out there who will test your DNA and tell you if you have a low, medium, or high aerobic potential, but I ask again does that really help you to know? I think this is a situation where ignorance is bliss. If we believe we have an insurmountable genetic limit, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I look out there at my fellow ultrarunners and I see the “impossible” accomplished at every race. Grit is a better predictor of our ability to succeed than any genetic test.

 

 

Downhill Training

Running downhill is the easy part, right? Wrong. Anyone who has run downhill for more than a few minutes knows it is a sure-fire way to rip up your quads. Most ultramarathons have climbs and descents of various degrees. Everyone thinks about training for those uphill climbs, but training for the downhills is just, if not more, important.

There are some coaches out there who do not advise their runners to train for downhill mountain running because of the inherent risk for injury from the increased impact and the risk of falling. However, if done with the right amount of caution and focus, downhill running can be used to great benefit during training.

I cannot imagine standing at a starting line of a race with more than 25,000 feet of descent without having done significant downhill training. Yes, downhill running does pose a higher injury risk, but not doing downhill running and starting a race with lots of downhill poses a significant DNF risk and places you at an even higher injury risk, in my opinion, because you’re tired, your form is not perfect, and it may be dark.

Learning to run downhill proficiently has major benefits. It improves strength in your legs. It reduces DOMS because your body adapts to the higher impact load. It’s a great way to make up time you’ve lost on the long climbs.

Downhill running improves leg turn-over rate for faster running on flat ground. Because of this, even runners who don’t run a lot of downhill races, training on down hill can improve your performance.

Running downhill is an art. Some people come to it naturally and others have to practice and learn all of the skills of the trade. Start with short lower grade hills and work your way up. Choose hills that are not technical. You can even start on grass hills at a park or on the road. Don’t venture out onto unknown downhills until you’re comfortable doing the ones you do know.

While your working on building the muscle strength and endurance for downhills you can work on your foot work with an agility ladder. Trail running requires quick feet. You can search YouTube for agility training and find a bunch of exercises you can start right away.

Keep your eyes at your feet but move them between 8 feet in front of you to 2 feet in front of you. Your steps should be short. You want to lean forward a bit at the ankles but not to the point that you’ll lose control of your speed. Bend your arms at the elbows and flare them out a bit to maintain balance. Make sure you’re hydrated and fueled before heading down a long descent because You don’t want to have to find things while your navigating rocks and roots.

If you’re running technical downhills, you’ll probably fall at some point, so try not to keep things in your hands and have a small first aid kit in your pack and in your car. If you feel yourself starting to fall, try to counter balance with your arms. If you’re going down, protect your head and face as much as possible with your arms and tucking your chin. Try not to stretch your arms out straight in front of you to brace for the fall because you could break something. You want to be in a pushup position, so your bent arm can absorb the force. If you’re going straight forward or straight back, try to turn onto your side and keep your arms and legs bent.

Hate Hills?

Hate Hills?

When I first started running, I didn’t like running uphill. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone because running hills is hard. It makes your legs and lungs burn. You want to stop before the hill begins or find another route without a hill. As I’ve continued to run, becoming stronger in the process, I’ve also learned to love running hills, both up and down.

They have become a welcome challenge. When I learned the value of hill training, my perspective on running hills shifted. If you’ve been running long enough, you know running down hill can be just as hard as going up. Training schedules should include a run focused on hill running (up and down) at least every other week.

Unless you only run on a treadmill or a track you’re going to come upon a hill. It’s best if you can foster a good relationship with hills. Even if you’re the kind of runner who only chooses to run routes and races where there are the least number of hills and the smallest of hills, you should find some hills to run.

Uphill running improves your form by increasing your knee lift, joint mobility and neuromuscular communication. Hills also improve your leg strength and your cardiovascular fitness. When you’re running uphill, keep your head held high and looking forward. This will help keep your hips, knees and ankles aligned. Your stride length should automatically shorten because the ground comes up to meet your foot sooner than on a level surface. Running uphill is a good time to really become aware of your body and where it is in relationship to your surroundings.

As you climb, don’t lean forward at the waist into the hill because it engages the quads and calves more than necessary and leaves the glutes and hamstrings out of the work. This may not sound too bad in a short race, but in a longer race with lots of downhill running you’re going to wish you had relied on your glutes and hamstrings for more of the climbs. A runner’s forward lean on any grade comes from the ankles not the waist.

Downhill running improves your foot speed/cadence, your range of motion and reduces your risk of injuries. Running downhill efficiently requires mindfulness and a little bravery. It’s important to maintain control as you’re speed increases. You want to keep your stride length short and your leg turnover (foot cadence) fast. Try not to dump your hips forward or lean back, which causes a breaking action. On a mild to moderate hill, try to maintain your form as if you were on flat ground. As the descent becomes more intense, you’re going to have to find a happy balance between leaning forward and breaking based on your own experience.

Hills are not only physically challenging, but psychologically challenging too. In fact, I think it’s the psychological component that really messes with us. When you’re out for your next easy run, take some time and think of a mantra you can use as you approach a hill. You can also imagine yourself conquering hills and then use that while you’re pushing up your next hill. If that’s all to new age or complicated, just think of a word you can say to yourself as you climb such as “Powerful,” or “Strong.” You can use the same word or come up with something different for your downhills.

As an ultrarunner, uphills usually translate into power hiking during races and even longer runs because it is more energy efficient to hike than try to power up at a run. However, don’t think that means you get to skip hill training. All the benefits above apply to you as well. There is a lot that goes into deciding which hills to run and which to power hike. It’s going to depend on the distance of the race/run, grade of the hill, and the length of the hill. Your physical condition will also play a role. The longer the race, the more power hiking you’re going to be doing. The steeper or longer the hill, the more likely it is you will be hiking (more on this in the next post).

A few quick exercises you can add to the end of your easy runs to help you up the hills. Do four sets each:

Foot slaps: stand with your feet hip-width apart, rock onto your heels to lift your forefoot high and then slam them to the ground. Do repetitions of twenty and increase to fifty.

Quadruped Hip Circles: Get down on all fours, extend your left leg behind you, bend it to circle to the side and forward, then straighten it back out. Do 4 reps and then change directions then do your right leg.

Reverse Sliding Lunge:With a towel beneath your left foot and your weight on your right leg, slide your left foot back into a lunge. Push through your right heel to stand. Do 10-12 reps per side.

High Step: Plant your right foot on a tall bench, so your right knee is higher than your hip. Press through your right heel until your right leg is straight. Lower back down and repeat 5-10 reps per side.

Remember: Every hill you conquer makes the next one easier, both physically and mentally.

Running Preggers: Shoes

Since the past few posts have been about shoes, I thought I should just continue the theme and just complicate the whole issue with being pregnant. There are obvious changes to a woman’s body that occur when she is pregnant that will impact what she wants and should put on her feet.

There are many articles out which stress how important it is for women who are pregnant to wear clothes and shoes that are comfortable. This is even more important if you are a runner. The recommended weight gain for a woman, with a healthy weight to start with, is 25 to 30 lbs during pregnancy. I’m not going to get into the details of where all that weight comes from, but it’s certainly not all fat (only about 7-8 lbs actually).

The weight alone is reason for you to consider your shoes. If you’re running in a shoe with minimal cushion you may want to consider running in something in the mid range. Going high cushion, if you’re not use to them, is not recommended because it can cause some instability in the ankles, knees and hips.

Pregnant runners do not want to do anything to add to the instability of their body since pregnancy hormones and an ever increasing belly does that enough. The hormone Relaxin causes our tendons and ligaments to relax in preparation for child birth. This begins to happen fairly early in pregnancy and continues until the very end.

No tendon or ligament is left behind. From head to toe your ligaments and tendons relax. This can cause instability in your hips, knees, and ankles. You’re larger belly also throws off your balance and stability. If you start to have some aches in your joints consider switching to a more supportive shoe or adding insoles, if you don’t have them already.

The hormone Relaxin also makes your feet flatten out more. The repeated flattening of your feet causes the tendons and ligaments to stretch out, possibly permanently. The translation, bigger shoes. You’re likely to go up a half size during pregnancy and may stay that way. You could also need wider shoes. Many women experience swelling in their feet and ankles too. When you do end up at the running store, and you will if you’re planning to run throughout your pregnancy, make sure you try on shoes with more support, more length and more width. Don’t just go for your tried and true shoes.

It can be hard to let go of your sleek running shoes and move into a clunky stability shoe that weights nearly double your racing flats, but preventing injury and running safe through your pregnancy is what’s important. You’ll have your favorites (just in a larger size) cradling your feet soon.

Weekly miles: With baby girl growing more now (25 weeks along), running longer has become more uncomfortable, so over the past two weeks I’ve switched from 3 two hour runs to running one hour a day.

What’s in a Shoe? Heel to Toe Drop.

Why do we care about heel to toe drop? Well, because it’s one of the aspects of a shoe that have people thinking it could help or contribute to injuries.

The heel to toe drop of a shoe is the difference of the sole’s thickness at the heel compared to at the toe of the shoe. Most shoes have a heel to toe drop of 10-12 mm, while minimalist shoes have a heel to toe drop of less than 4 mm. To give you an idea, an inch is 25.4 mm

For clarity’s sake, I want to be clear on what I mean by minimalist in this post. There are two major tenets of minimalist: first, the amount of heel to toe drop and second, the amount of cushioning. This post is talking about heel to toe drop, which I’ll use instead of the term minimalist. If amount of cushioning comes into play in this post, it will be clearly indicated.  If anyone is interested the other tenets are weight, added motion control technology and flexibility. Here is a scientific article on how a minimalist shoe is defined.

The most recent research says there’s no difference in injury rate in runners who run in a lower drop shoe as compared to those who have a higher drop shoe so long as the runners who have switched to lower or zero drop have done so with an adequate transition, which we’ll talk about in a second.

A lower heel to toe drop could be good for people with a neuroma or arthritic changes in the big toe joint because it places less pressure on the forefoot. However, they may not be good for people with plantar fasciitis or Achilles/posterior tibial tendonitis because a lower heel to toe drop requires more extension in your Achilles, knees and hips.

Transition to a lower or zero drop shoe is critical, and it can take weeks, so before you buy your zero drop shoes, make sure you’re committed to the transition. You should start by wearing your zero drop shoes for a 1-2 miles of your runs and then increase a little each week. If you start to feel soreness in your lower leg or knee, don’t increase the distance at all and think about backing off a little. This is true whether your new to running or a more experienced runner because most people walk around in shoes with a 10-15 mm heel to toe drop.

Research on body weight compared injury rate in runners in the Asics Piranha, 9mm to 4.5 heel to toe drop, and Asics Gel Cumulus, 23 mm to 13 mm heel to toe drop.  The runners who were selected to run in the Pirahna’s did a 26-week transition to the shoes. The results showed runners over 165 lbs (the average for the study group) had an injury rate four times higher than those under 165 lbs. The researchers also looked at the type of weight, so was the higher body weight due to muscle mass or height as compared to someone who is overweight due to the amount of fat they are carrying on their body. The results showed no difference, which lead to the conclusion that it is the weight regardless of where it comes from that is correlated with the higher injury rate.

What does lower injury risk when it comes to heel to toe drop? Running in shoes with different heel to toe drops. This makes your musculoskeletal system adapt and become stronger under different circumstances.

Happy running. Next up is amount of cushion.