Now that you’ve learned how to appropriately fuel your body to achieve your best gains yet, it’s time to discuss ways maximize your physical training protocols. The most common mistake I see endurance athletes make is to neglect their strength and resistance training. There is a misconception that this may not be necessary or may hinder performance. While aerobic endurance is a vital component of endurance sports and marathon running, muscular endurance and strength are essential to optimize the time spent running. By engaging in the appropriate exercises you can improve speed and distance while suffering from less aches, pains and injuries. There are 3 aspects of muscular health I find make the biggest difference in both general day-to-day activities and high level athletic performance. They include a healthy core, proper posture and alignment, and a functional posterior kinetic chain (aka – your gluteal muscles!).
A healthy Core
Most trainers will define the core differently. What I consider the core are your deepest muscles surrounding your trunk that essentially hold your organs in your body. They include the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the transverse abdominal muscles, and the multifidus muscles. These muscles work synergistically to stabilize the torso. High impact activities, such as running, mean these muscles have to work harder and better to keep you upright and moving. It is particularly important for women to be mindful of their core, especially if they’ve had children. Some red flags that these muscles are not working as well as they should be include the following:
- Incontinence: This is a problem even if it’s just a drop or 2. You should never lose urine unintentionally and you should NEVER leak while running.
- Hip/Pelvic/Low back pain: while these are common ailments they are often a sign that your deep core isn’t working as well as it should be.
- A feeling of “heaviness” in the pelvis: this is more prevalent among women who have had children and can be a sign of pelvic organ prolapse.
- Abdominal bulge that doesn’t seem to get any better with diet or exercise: This is a sign of diastasis rectus abdominis (DRA). Again this is more common among parous women but I have seen nulliparous women (and even men) who suffer from DRA. It means connective tissue is not supporting your organs and needs to be addressed.
These are all symptom of core dysfunction and I would highly recommend those experiencing any of these symptoms to seek out the help of a pelvic floor physiotherapist and a qualified fitness professional. These symptoms don nott have to be present to mean that your core needs work. Running can be difficult on the body and if there are any muscular imbalances, no matter how small and asymptomatic, they can become exacerbated by running and lead to any of the conditions described above.
Posture and Alignment
We’ve all heard it before, sit straight, stand tall, don’t slouch; but posture is about much more than what these phrases suggest. Good posture is about making sure the body is aligned properly and this neutral position may be different for every person. When in neutral spine muscles work better, they’re happier and healthier – meaning less injuries! What does this mean for running? Improved core functioning, the extremities are better supported, and performance is enhanced, to name a few. It also means forces are translated through the body appropriately which leads to less injuries and more efficient muscle mechanics. With every heel strike the impact that translates through the body can equate to 3 times that of your body weight. The capacity to translate those forces appropriately are vital to a runner’s athletic performance and health.
Proper posture and alignment doesn’t happen over night, it takes conditioning and a properly designed corrective exercise program. Alignment issues results from a broad range of muscles imbalances and can present in many ways. Here are some examples:
- Rounded upper back and shoulders
- Head projected forward in front of the body
- Flat bum (posterior pelvic tilt)– nothing irritates me more when I hear someone telling people to tuck their bum in, it’s supposed to stick out!
- Flat lower back (there is supposed to be a small curve there) and often presents with a posterior pelvic tilt.
- Too big of a low back curve
- Whole body weight shifted too far forward or too far back on feet
- Chest sticking out so the small curve in the back is sitting to high (around the 12th rib)
These are just a few examples and result in inappropriate biomechanical movement patterns leading to pain, injuries, and ultimately weaker athletic performance.
Strengthen those Glutes!
If I were to describe the gluteal muscles as a whole I would call them the golden child; the one that can do almost anything but often chooses not to. This muscle group becomes inhibited by so many variables; the most common ones being low back pain, poor posture, and pelvic floor dysfunction. With each foot strike a runner needs to use their gluteal muscles to extend their hip in order to project themselves forward. They also stabilize the pelvis and helps to prevent over-pronation (flat arch). Optimal gluteal function can often be the determining factor between your best race time versus an injury that takes you away from running for months at a time. For the marathon runners, these muscles need be not only strong and powerful but they have to a very high muscular endurance capacity. For that reason, these muscles need to be exercised every day at a low intensity! Exercises that I love for that purpose are variations of glute bridges, clamshells, and squats. Also, be mindful to keep the bum untucked! When the pelvis is posteriorly rotated the glutes are not able to activate appropriately which leads to muscle compensations and can lead down a dangerous road of injuries.
Poor core functioning, improper alignment, and weak glutes can lead to a series of common running injuries that can be prevented or minimized with the right exercise program. Some of these common ailments can include runner’s knee, iliotibial band syndrome, strains & sprains, tendonitis, shin splints, stress fractures, muscle spasms, and the list of pelvic floor symptoms described earlier. While many people consider this to be the price everyone must pay as a marathon runner, the truth is the pain and injuries can be minimized. These are all symptoms of a larger problem: the body is not working as well as it should, and as well as it could be. By addressing the root cause of these issues pain can be minimized and race performance can be drastically improved.
The focus of this blog has been on your training regime, but just because the race is over doesn’t mean your work is done. The body has been through a lot in this process so now it’s time to recover from the big day, restore nutrients, and rehab muscles. This is especially important if you’re planning to race again since this period can steer how well you do in your next training season and big race. A Kinesiologist is a great resource to work with to optimize training regiments and make the most of your recovery time. Pair that with a nutrition and supplementation plan developed by a Naturopathic Doctor, and you have set yourself up for the best and healthiest running season yet. The benefit of working with a collaborative group of healthcare practitioners is you have a team in your corner – your success is our success!