Strength and conditioning can benefit long distance runners in many ways, says Graeme Everard
Training for distance running is demanding on your body and shouldn’t just be about running and getting in as many miles as possible. If you are not strong in certain areas and not technically sound when running you will eventually break down and potentially not make it to the start line.
Working at improving your posture, adding in simple strength and conditioning exercises, stretches and running drills will improve your functional stability, running technique, improve your performance and help you to avoid common overuse running injuries.
Improving your running posture can translate to greater efficiency, endurance, speed and fewer injuries. Better posture is something that can be achieved in a relatively short time, but needs constantly reinforcing. Ideally the head, shoulders and pelvis should be stacked in line with each other. Other daily activities and work postures can impact performance and may need addressing.
See whether you are sticking your chin out away from your body and if you have shortened the length of the back of your neck.
Tuck your chin in and lengthen the back of your neck – as you do this, you will feel taller.
Most endurance athletes forget about their upper body and many have very rounded shoulders and tight pectorals. If your shoulders are positioned forwards and the pec muscles shortened when running, you will most probably drive your arms across your body rather than forward and back, which is inefficient.
Position your shoulders back and imagine that you are tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets and hold your chest high. This will lengthen your pec muscles and open up your chest. If you cannot achieve this you will have to add stretches for your pecs into your conditioning programme.
You will need to maintain this good position when running and a functional exercise to perform to help you with this is ‘Running Arms’. Holding small weighted dumbbells in each hand and remembering the good posture mentioned, drive your elbows backwards and forwards while keeping your elbows bent at a 90º angle for 3 sets of 30 seconds. (PIC 1)
Imagine your pelvis is a bucket full to the brim with water. If the bucket were tilted, water would fall from the bucket. The bucket therefore needs to be kept upright, in a neutral position, to stop the water from spilling. If your pelvis is not in a neutral position when standing and running you will be putting more strain on your lower back and this may affect your stride length and running efficiency.
Tilt your pelvis as far forward as you can and as far back as you can. In the middle is your pelvis’s neutral position. Gently tighten your core muscles (the lower abdominal muscles, the trans abs). Pilates exercises are an ideal way of addressing poor core stability. It is worth considering adding a class into your conditioning programme.
Ideally your feet should be symmetrical pointing forwards or slightly outwards and your knees should follow the line of your second toe when you bend your knee. The knee is basically a hinge joint with some rotation when it is flexed and if your knees are not tracking well this can be a source of many overuse running injuries.
Single leg standing with support – bend your knee, ensuring the knee follows the line of the second toe. A common fault is for the knee to pull inwards. (PIC 2)
Performing balancing exercises before setting out on your runs will encourage good posture and help switch on your stabilising muscles. The photo below demonstrates a simple balancing exercise. It is important to remember the good posture points mentioned – hold your leg up and knee bent at a 90º angle, foot and ankle bent at 90º and shoulders back and arm bent also at 90º angle. Your balancing leg should be straight. Balancing on one leg, holding 3×20 seconds – you can challenge yourself further by turning your head. (PIC 3)
Muscle strength/imbalances and functional stability
Many endurance athletes do not have good strength and functional stability and this can result in injury and time away from training. A good sports physiotherapist experienced in working with runners can identify shortfalls and provide a suitable rehabilitation programme that can help prevent overuse injuries.
Glutes and hips
It is important that your hips are stable and that the gluteus muscles are strong and being used appropriately for efficient running. Common problems include delayed recruitment of the gluteus maximus with substitution of the deeper gluteal muscles causing recurrent buttock tightness and pain, the hips and knees rotating inwards due to weakness of the gluteus medius muscles or dominance of the inner thigh hip adductors and a shortened stride length due to dominance of the hip flexor and tensor fascia lata muscles (TFL).
A simple test that you can do at home to test your gluteus maximus strength and activation is to see whether you can go from sitting to standing on one leg. To perform this test successfully your glute muscles will need to fire and push you up to standing on a single leg and balance. (PIC 4)
You can check your hip stability by the single leg standing balance exercise mentioned earlier. You should be able to stand on one leg without too much effort, without the hip rotating inwards, without too much upper body compensatory movements and without adopting whole body bracing patterns such as clawing your toes and holding your breath.
To check your hip extension range (the Thomas test), perch on the edge of a strong table or physio plinth, pull one leg up to your chest with knee bent and lay down with opposite leg left extended out with knee bent. Your hip of this leg should be able to extend past neutral. (PIC 5)
The self-check exercises mentioned above can be used for rehabilitation. Hip flexor stretches should be included in your programme. A common weakness in endurance runners is of hip abduction in an extended hip position. A good exercise to do is to lie on one side, with upper hip extended, maintaining pelvis position, lift and lower the leg slowly and controlled for 30 seconds and then hold in the higher position and then repeat this three times. (PIC 6)
If you would like to strengthen and challenge your glutes and hips further, a good all-round glute and hip exercise is to tie a theraband loop just above your knees – remembering good posture – squat down and then walk sideways stretching the theraband. This exercise will really work your hips and glute muscles. (PIC 7)
Single leg bridge repetitions and holds with opposite leg extension is another good exercise for glute recruitment. (PIC 8)
Weakness of the deeper calf muscles is common in endurance athletes especially on eccentric loading (lowering down from the heel raise). After injury, calf bulk is often reduced and needs specific loading exercises to be fully rehabilitated. Repetitive loading can reduce the joint reaction ‘the spring’ in the joints, which will ultimately affect performance.
Most runners with strong calf muscles should be able to manage at least 3×20 single leg calf raises with a straight leg, to exercise the gastrocnemius and 3×20 single leg calf raises with a bent leg, to exercise the deeper calf flexor muscles.
Incorporate calf raises into your training, both bent knee and straight knee raises. Make sure that you raise up and lower down slowly and with control (counting 1 to 3 up and 1 to 3 down is a good technique). Begin with sets of five and increase as you get stronger. (PICS 9a/9b)
Make sure that you do calf stretches as well – both with a bent knee and a straight knee – maintaining the inner arch of your foot and not allowing the foot to drop into pronation. (PIC 10)
A foot and ankle roll drill is a great way of encouraging good foot placement and efficient use of your feet and calves and can be added into your pre-run warm-up and running drills. Aim for a mid-foot strike/flat foot and roll-up on to your toes pushing off through all the toes and not just picking your legs up with the hip flexors. (PIC 11)
Running drills can be a great way of encouraging good posture, improving functional stability, improving biomechanical efficiency and running performance. These need to be done correctly and need to be functional so that the learnt movement patterns are readily transferrable into your running technique.
In order to prepare for your distance-running events, it is important to respect your body and spend some time conditioning it for this type of training. It is important to get the mileage in, but it is also important to spend time to ensure that you are running efficiently as possible and have the underlying flexibility and functional stability needed for demanding distance events.
We realise that endurance training is time-consuming, but many of the drills and exercises can be used as part of a warm-up before runs and as most of the exercises are low impact, they can be done on your recovery days. For a more individualised programme we would recommend booking in with an experienced sports physiotherapist for a full body MOT assessment or running technique assessment. It must be remembered that it is never too late to begin to address your running technique!
» Graeme Everard is senior physiotherapist and director at Coach House Sports Physiotherapy Clinic and physio to the GB mountain running team. CSPC specialises in complex sports injuries and has physios experienced in treating runners and assessing technique and habits which affect biomechanical efficiency. See cspc.co.uk
» The exercises shown in this article are carried out by GB international Charlene Thomas