Physio and injury prevention expert Paul Hobrough tells Euan Crumley why it’s so important to make stretching, as well as strength and conditioning exercises, part of your regime
By nature, athletes – particularly endurance runners – are creatures of habit. Talk to the average club runner and they’ll have
a range of well-used, tried and tested theories and practices when it comes to their training methods.
How many of you, however, would contemplate thinking a little bit differently? About breaking some of those habits and working on how to improve beyond the simple act of logging the miles and getting the speed sessions ticked off?
Strength and conditioning training, as well as stretching, is a crucial part of any serious athlete’s regime but can be the first thing to go for those who find themselves tight for time and struggling to balance the demands of athletic pursuits with everyday life.
As physio and injury prevention expert Paul Hobrough argues, however, any athlete who is looking to improve but is neglecting this aspect of their preparation is merely setting themselves up for failure – and likely injury.
“Nowadays, sports science tell us that, really, your likelihood of gaining a personal best in the absence of strength and conditioning is more of a wish or a prayer than it is an actual goal,” he says and, here, he outlines why it’s time for training priorities to change.
Decide how committed you want to be
I think the strength and conditioning and stretching side of things is so important. People will hit a plateau pretty quickly, just by running – and some will be happy with that – but if you really want to go on to be the very best and you subscribe to the idea of marginal gains … this isn’t even a marginal gain, it is a major factor of your training and if you’re not doing it then I would argue that you’re just the same as every other jogger who is going out there and doing it just for a bit of weight loss.
You’re not really committed to your running if you’re not committing a good 20-30% of your training time to doing this.
Approach training from a different angle
I work with runners all day, every day and I can tell you that when they come in and they have an injury, fixing the injury is not the difficult part.
I would say to people ‘it might take a couple of sessions to get the pain under control’ but stopping it from coming back is where all the expertise lies.
You might have shin splints or runner’s knee but why? Where has that come from? Where is the issue that is causing this? We have to really take our time to look at the body.
Some people need to completely deconstruct from the core outwards and for others it’s simply that they’ve got something like an underactive glute on one side.
I think that people, when they get to a certain level, think a lot about technique and they’re not looking from the other angle.
They will be saying things like ‘I’ve got to bring that knee drive through centrally, don’t let the foot swing out to the side’ rather than saying ‘that’s telling me to do something in my technique and half of it is negative ie ‘DON’T let that happen’.
They should instead be thinking ‘why is my foot swinging out? Do I have tight adductors? Is my lateral glute a bit weak? Let’s go and get those tested and see where the weakness is that is causing that biomechanical problem’.
Don’t just say ‘I’ve got to fix this’ because you’re never going to get there and by trying to do that technical change without first looking at what needs to be stronger or longer or whatever, there lies injury, because the reason your foot is swinging out is that it is trying to avoid overloading something somewhere.
Come at that side of things from a completely different angle. ‘If there is a problem in my technique then what is there that needs fixing before I consider taking that on to the track or on to the roads and start trying to do it?’
Being a well-rounded athlete
I would argue that there are far too many people out there doing junk miles. You will read that someone like Mo Farah is running 125 miles a week and that’s what people focus on.
But you’d probably find that 50% of what they are doing is going nowhere to helping them. It’s actually making them exhausted and it’s not making them a faster runner, that’s for sure.
It’s maybe giving them a little bit more endurance but you’ve got to look at your performance as being like a bunch of graphic equalisers.
I need my endurance to be high, I need my strength to be high, I need my anaerobic threshold to be high, I need my strength to be high, I need my proprioception and balance to be high, I need my nutrition to be right.
You’ve got all of these different things that need to be at the optimal for your body and by concentrating on big mileage weeks you’re basically saying ‘there’s only one part of that graphic equaliser that I’m going to focus on’ and it doesn’t make for a well-rounded athlete.
Ignore THAT person at your club who says strength training is nonsense
When you get towards the more recreational runner, there are so many training errors that occur.
They are desperate to get the run in and the run becomes the focus of the obsession. They are at work all day, they might do an eight, nine-hour day where most of it is sat at a desk and then they feel ‘I’ve got to fit that run in’.
There’s no attention to any detail for any warm-up and certainly no attention to detail for any cooldown. They jump up, with their hip flexors having been at 90 degrees all day, and they want to be at 130 degrees when they go running.
Those two things just don’t match up so people are not taking sufficient time to ensure their body is in a position where they CAN run effectively and make the best use of their session.
I’ve done these sessions before myself. You’re squeezing your run in so you get up at 5am and the last thing you want to do is spend 20 minutes stretching. It’s more a case of ‘I’m just going to get the run done and wake up 20 minutes later’.
This kind of thing happens all the time but these are all risks that you take every single time you do it. To me, it’s the same as driving around without your seatbelt on. You might well get that journey done without there being a problem and the more times you get away with it, the more likely you are to do it. It’s the same with doing your strength and conditioning with your running.
There’s always going to be someone at a running club who has never stretched, never done any strength work but gets faster every year and tells everyone that does it that it’s all nonsense. That’s a genetics thing but for the rest of us mere mortals we need these extra things in our lives because, without them, we’re on a crash course for injury.
Train your weaknesses. Small things make a big difference When you find people who are being properly coached and managed, their approach becomes much more like I see it ie ‘what’s the goal and what’s the plethora of stuff we’ve got to look at to make it happen?’
The first thing you do is train your weaknesses. You don’t do what everyone else does on a Tuesday because it doesn’t suit you – or you build that session into something that does suit you.
There are people I’ve worked with where we’ve literally been looking at the balance of one ankle and we’ve been focused around that. There are others where it’s all around one glute that won’t work and you spend so much time going through it. Then there’s others where if you can just get that person to land stronger we can have less time with the foot in contact with the ground, we can shorten the running stride and you’re doing strength and conditioning drills so you change that stride pattern.
You’ve got to do the strength and conditioning around that to be able to sustain that. Then you start looking through the eye of a needle at what needs to be done.
Take stock. And be honest with yourself
If you really want to improve your ability and your speed then you’ve got to start looking at ‘where am I now?’. Be honest with yourself – don’t base it on your best ever week’s training. ‘Where am I now? What are my previous injuries? What are my weaknesses?’
Adopt the approach of ‘Let’s do some tests and let’s work on what I need to work on versus where my goal is’ and your training programme will write itself. It will contain lots of strength and conditioning because if you’re genuinely looking at your weaknesses and where you want to get to and those weaknesses don’t already include strength and conditioning then it will be psychology or nutrition that’s holding you back.
Answering athletes who say: “I don’t have the time for this”
To that person who says that to me I’d ask ‘what are your goals? What do you want to achieve from your running?
People don’t buy a drill, they buy a hole in the wall. What that means is that you want the outcome, you’re not really worried about how you get there. Forget everything you’ve read, forget everything everyone’s told you, forget what you’ve done in the past, what do you want to do now?
Sub-20 minutes for a parkrun would be a common theme so to that runner the conversation might go something like this.
‘Where are you now?’
‘How long have you been at 21:30?’
‘When in that time have you ever changed your training programme?’
‘Pretty much never.’
‘You always do what you’ve always done and you’ll always get what you’ve always got so what could we do differently then? Do you think that, running 5km, you’d be better if you did more quality sessions then got a bit stronger?’
I’d be certain that runner would drop that time. Whether they go sub-20 or not, a lot of that is down to them – psychology, diet, that sort of stuff, but if this person is then going to tell me that they are running four times a week and they have to fit runs I’d say ‘why do you have to fit four runs in?’
Why can’t we do one strength and conditioning session, one of those sessions is Kenyan hills or hill reps – something that is going to work on your glute strength, lower back strength – and another session might involve doing 10 minutes of strength and range of movement drills?
Then, in the evenings before you go to bed, I’m going to get you to do two exercises. It’s going to be four minutes of your time but you’ll do it every night so you’re starting to build up your strength and conditioning. However, all of the runs you do are going to be at this intensity and then, 12 weeks down the line, we’re going to get you good to go to run a parkrun and stay away from them until then.
Let’s work on the process to get there. If your outcome is a sub-20, I can work with whatever you’ve got to get you there but you’ve got to listen to what I’m saying and you’ve got to forget everything you’ve ever done.
It’s people’s unwillingness to change and the thought of ‘but that’s not what everyone at the club does’. If that’s a social thing then, fine, go on and do that but then you need to understand that you’re a social runner.
If you want to achieve this thing, and your own personal journey, then we’re going to have to take it up a bit. It depends on what you want and what you’re prepared to do to get it.
Paul Hobrough’s top five exercises to get you started
SINGLE LEG SQUAT: “Gives you strength in your glute, around your knee, around your calf, ankle range of movement, knee range of movement and hip range of movement. It’s a very, very functional exercise,” says Hobrough.
GLUTE ACTIVATION: “Lie on your front kicking your heel back. Without strong glutes you can’t expect to run fast. You’re going to overload the hamstring and you’re going to be wobbly around the core.”
TFL/ITB STRETCH: “20% of runners will suffer with knee pain. If you keep that TFL (tensor fasciae latae muscle) stretched off then there’s less likelihood that you’re going to get ITB friction syndrome.”
CALF RAISES AND TOE RAISES: “If you think about it, everything below the knee is so important. Down there you have got plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonopothy, shin splints, stress fractures, it goes on and on and on … so those exercises take care of most of that. “
All of these exercises and more can be found in Paul Hobrough’s latest book, The Runner’s Expert Guide to Stretching, which is published by Bloomsbury Sport.
» Paul Hobrough is a chartered physiotherapist, sports scientist and Clinical Director of Physio & Therapy UK