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.

 

Taper Adaptations

Tapering for a race is really difficult for many runners. I know that there are some elite athletes who don’t really taper at all, although, they may take the two days before a race off. An important, possibly critical, difference between elite runners (many not all) and us not so elite runners is we all work typically full-time jobs. This means we don’t have the same opportunity to recover between our runs during training and thus we reach race day more depleted making tapering more important for the average runner.

I’ve tried both three week tapers and two week tapers. I didn’t find any difference between the two. Again, that’s me. Other people may be different. Tapering is– as many aspects of running are– very runner dependent.

The professional research based recommendation is three to four weeks. This is because a taper  is giving your body the time and rest needed to take all the training you’ve been doing and lock it into place in your various bodily systems.

For ultrarunners, your aerobic system has pretty much reached maximum conditioning. Other system haven’t. There are actual changes down to the protein synthesis level. Some of the adaptations that your  body makes during your taper are:

  1. Training causes minor tears to muscles. The muscle need a chance to rebound and repair.
  2. Immune system needs time to get rid of any inflammation and repair cells.
  3. Hormone profile rebounds which takes some time especially cortisol and testosterone. Both of these become depleted during your training.
  4. Red blood cells become consistently damaged when you’re running high miles, so your having to manage that while training. The taper allows those to be repaired and to increase. This is important for oxygen transportation to muscles.
  5. Metabolic wise, rest allows you to store more  glycogen in your muscles and liver.
  6. Running 100 miles is a mental as well as physical challenge. We also tend to be a bit sleep deprived which has both physical an mental components impacting our performance. It improves your vigor and mood.
  7. Many ultrarunners have some level of dehydration pretty much all the time. The taper gives you time to balance your hydration.

In addition to sleep and reducing your running, nutrition is a major part of recovery. Eat healthy whole foods, which will give you what you  need and reduce the chance of gaining weight close to the race once your body is using less calories to rebuild.

Regardless of whether you run by time or miles, you should reduce your running by 20% each week beginning three weeks from race. You on’t need to reduce the intensity, but you shouldn’t increase it. You can maintain the number of runs per week. It’s very important that you keep in mind you are going to feel better as your body rests and recovers (the point of the taper), but you shouldn’t increase your efforts. You’ll need to use pace rather than perceived effort during your runs. You’re not going to lose any fitness by giving yourself the three weeks to rest and repair.

Here is an easy way to remember the “rules” of tapering:

Trust in your training

Adjust your Calorie Intake

Perfect your race day strategy

Embrace the “free” time

Rest and recover

Coming to Terms with a DNF

At some point in an ultrarunner’s career there will be a DNF, Did Not Finish. They happen for many reasons. Regardless of the reason, in the moment, it feels like an absolutely legitimate reason. Then there is the next morning, where you’ve slept and eaten a real meal, at that time, your reason for pulling out of the race may feel like the wrong decision.

It’s hard not to beat yourself up over, what you see as, a less than adequate reason for the DNF. And maybe some self criticism is warranted, doubtful but maybe. The problem is it gets you no where. It doesn’t help you improve. It doesn’t make the DNF go away. It doesn’t make you feel like getting back out there.

I have three DNFs. All three of them were in the same year! The first was at the Speedgoat 50k. My dropping from the race wasn’t voluntary. I missed the cut off by five minutes. The second was at my first 100 miler, Pony Express 100. I went into the race injured. I had rolled my ankle 5 weeks before and then proceeded to run on it for a relay run for 50 miles. I couldn’t let my team down and knew when I chose to do the relay, I was putting my 100 at risk. At mile 75 of the 100, my knee was so painful I could barely walk. I decided it wasn’t worth risking a long time injury. My last DNF was at Buffalo Run 50 miler. I pulled out 12 miles from the finish with mild hypothermia. I had stayed in an aid station waiting for warm broth. During the time I was there my body temperature dropped, since I wasn’t moving. The next morning I went out and finished the last 12 miles.

It sucks to get a DNF. I remember each of these very vividly. I did beat myself up after each and everyone, especially the Buffalo Run 100. After sulking for a week, I decided I was done and I was going to learn from each of these experiences. I went back and asked myself several questions about each.

What when wrong?

What could have prevented the DNF?

What can I do to include these prevention strategies in my training in the future?

Ultimately, I decided two of the three could have been prevented. I realized my training for Speedgoat was not what it should have been to make the cut off times. For Buffalo, I learned to never stay in an aid station for more than what is absolutely necessary. I talk to my crew about this every time. I also learned how to better educate my crew and how to pick crew who will throw me back out into the cold, even if it’s a blizzard.

You can look at a DNF in two different ways and you’ll likely see both in each DNF you have beginning with the Did Not Finish and concluding Did Nothing Fatal.

 

 

 

Where am I? Proprioception.

Proprioceptors are the sensors in your muscles and tendons, which govern your balance. They tell your brain where your body is in relation to itself and other objects in your environment. Having good proprioception is essential to runners, especially trail runners, who are constantly being asked to shift their weight to adjust for the terrain. It’s also important for winter running.

Proprioception is something runners should be working to improve all the time, but it’s even more important after an injury. Injuries to muscles and tendons damage the proprioceptors. If proprioceptors are not functioning properly, you’re much more likely to get re-injured.

Take an ankle sprain for example. It’s your proprioceptors, which would send a message to your brain to prevent the initial roll of the ankle, but if you rolled it anyway the likelihood of rolling it again increases especially within the next four to six weeks after an injury. Injury prevention isn’t the only thing that improves with these exercises. Your speed will also improve.

Here is an easy test to give you an idea where you’re at proprioceptionwise. Stand up, balance on one leg and close your eyes. If you immediately put your foot to the ground because you lost your balance, you have some work to do.

It’s not difficult or time consuming to include a few proprioception exercises into your routine. You can do them after a run or do them when you’re hanging out watching TV. If you have kids, they’ll find the exercises fun and you can make it into a game (and teach them about their bodies). You don’t need any special equipment, but there are things that you can buy to make things more challenging as you improve. A stability cushion is $16.50 on Amazon. A  wobble balance board is $22.

Even if you choose to purchase either the cushion or the board, you should start on the flat ground. Stand on a flat hard surface. Take off your shoes (you can put them back on if it’s too difficult). Now, stand on one leg for 30 seconds. Then do the other leg. If you can do this easily, increase the time to 60 seconds. From there, you can close your eyes.

Other single leg balance exercises that can help improve your proprioception are:
Air Plane: standing on your right leg, hold your arms out like wings, bend over lifting your left leg up and back, and make a straight line from head to your left foot. Once you’ve mastered this. touch your right toes with your left finger tips and then your right, returning to arms straight out between each touch.

Single leg squats: stand on one leg, roll your hips forward and squat. You can bend the leg your not standing on and touch it down onto a step or stool or you can hold it straight in front of you for a piston squat.

Ball toss: stand on one leg and toss a tennis ball at a wall or to another person and catch it while remaining on the one leg.

Here are some exercises you can try on either the cushion or the balance board once you have achieved that level.

Block It

We all get stuck in a rut, but it can be really easy to do with your workout routine. I know I’m guilty of this on multiple occasions, with both my running and with my strength workouts.  There are a few problems with the rut: first, you don’t make any progress; second, you lose motivation; third, it’s boring!

The first is the most important for runners who want to improve. Not all runners want to improve. They are content running their six miles four days a week at a comfortable pace. That’s not me. I want to get better and I like to see progress. Even if improvement isn’t your think, staying motivated to get out there and not being bored the entire time should be enough for you to want to change things up every few weeks.

Many runners work through their training in blocks. Blocks can be four, six or eight weeks long and during each block you focus on a different aspect of your running. That doesn’t mean you drop other aspects of training, they just aren’t the focus point. Other runners switch things around by every other week. And still others, do a rotation over a ten-day period.

Strength Blocks: Starting a block rotation with strength is great because the number one goal of strength training for runners is to reduce risk of injuries. There are three types of strength training typically used by runners. First is body weight. This uses light weights or no weights with high repetitions. The idea is it builds strength and stability without the mass. Second is plyometrics. Plyometrics are explosive movements, such as jumping and springing. These are great but need to be implemented in small dosages especially at the beginning. Third is heavy lifting. Heavy lifting is low repetitions and max weight which strengths your connective tissue. Lifts should be done very slow and controlled. You’re runs during a strength rotation should be lower in intensity because you’re kicking up the intensity with strength training.

Speed Blocks: during your speed block you’re going to have an intense speed workout once a week and then throw in some fartleks during your long run. For your weekly intense session, choose different types of work outs. Don’t just do 800s. There’s nothing wrong with doing a week of 800s, just don’t make it an every week thing. Use pyramids, tempo runs, ladders, or 400s.

Hill Blocks: during your hill block you will have one run a week dedicated to running hills and then you’ll throw in extra hills for your long run. You can run hill repeats or find a long steady climb to conquer. If you’re doing short repeats, walking the downhill is fine, but you’ll have to find some longer downhills to practice downhill running. Downhills will tear up your legs if you don’t build them into your training.

Build Blocks: As endurance runners, especially at ultra-distances, your long run is going to stay in the weekly rotation. However, if you’re not doing a build phase, you’ll only do one long run a week rather than the back to backs. You can also choose to run one long run and then the next day a ten-mile run. But if you’re not in a build block, you’re not increasing the miles on that second day.

The important part is that you are changing things and challenging your body in new ways. Using the same workouts doesn’t get you more of the same results. It gets you a flatline.

 

Running Preggers: Relaxin

I wish I were trying to be cute and leaving the “G” off Relaxing, but Relaxin is a hormone produced in increasing amounts during pregnancy. It’s a necessary hormone, but as an athlete, it’s not something you want in increased amounts. Relaxin is a protein-based hormone found in men and non-pregnant women. Pregnant women have ten times the amount as non-pregnant women.

Relaxin relaxes the blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons in your body. It begins its work in the beginning of pregnancy (before actually) by preventing contractions in the uterine wall and making implantation easier. It allows your blood vessels and arteries to expand to accommodate the extra blood volume. As you’re baby grows and shoves your internal organs into your ribcage you’ll be glad relaxin has made expansion of your abdominal muscles and ribcage possible. What you’ll be most happy about is relaxin ensures that your pelvis will be able to expand not only to accommodate your growing child, but to allow the child to be born.

Relaxed tendons are a problem if you are an athlete. It can be problematic if you’re not an athlete and you just want to go about your day without any pain or discomfort in your joints. Instability in your ankles, hips, and knees is something runners try to minimize and correct through strength training. When you’re pregnant, strength training isn’t going to help and you really, on some level, don’t want it to help because that baby has to exit somehow.

The instability can cause achiness and pain in your joints with just everyday activities, let alone running. Relaxed tendons and ligaments places you at higher risk of injury, even when doing exercises you have been doing for years pre-pregnancy.

What all of this means for pregnant runners is be careful and rethink increasing your miles or the intensity of your running workouts during your pregnancy, especially, during the first and third trimester when relaxin levels are at their highest. You’re also likely to feel increased soreness after runs, especially, in your pelvic girdle, hips, and lower back. Try using a maternity belt to help reduce the pressure of the baby on your pelvic joints.

You’ll likely have to decrease your miles and your pace as your son or daughter grow and their debut approaches. Reducing your miles to prevent injury, especially, an injury that could stop you from getting back to running after baby is born, is a small price to pay. Cross training with low impact exercises, such as swimming and cycling, will become your go to activities at the gym. I know this can be frustrating, but keep in mind it also means you’re closer to holding your little one in your arms.

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.