What does strong enough mean? Or in the case of this title, strong enough to run? Would deadlifting 200lbs make you strong enough to run? Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to running and being strong, expressing strength is more a matter of resisting forces put on it, than creating them. although you will create force into the ground to push you forward.
Everybody runs or can run, but not everyone that runs does so efficiently with good form. Sometimes it looks a little wonky, like Elaine Benes trying to dance or like a calf trying to walk for the first time. While running is a natural movement (for some), it does require a number of things to work synergistically so as not to get injured. How often are you thinking of stride length, frequency, how your foot is landing, hip shifts, arm movement, etc when you go for a simple run or jog. Or maybe its yogging, it might be a soft ‘J.” Probably never.
Strength has more to do with running than you think, and it doesn’t just stop at the legs. Think of running as a full body exercise, where all your muscles are coordinated to fire to ensure you absorb the forces appropriately. And if there is a weak link in the chain, you can bet that your body will find it, and expose it.
Everyone can run, but not everyone SHOULD…..right away.
As a runner you may think that strength training doesn’t necessarily apply to you as running is all you need to either stay or get in shape. I had that thought once, and it didn’t work out too well for me. Achy knees and a lot of hip pain from poor mechanics. Don’t let my mistake be your downfall. Let’s learn from it.
Mechanics or Phases of Running
Breaking down the mechanics of a stride, it’s a series of single leg exercises, with 2 different phases:
Stance- This is where the all your bodyweight is on a single leg and typically where breakdowns occur. This phase can also be broken down into smaller phases:
Initial Contact- Your foot first hits the ground, and as you touch down, the knee and ankle flex a little to absorb the force of the ground, and the foot pronates or turns in slightly. This can create the first break down if we don’t have a requisite amount of strength or motor control.
Midstance- Once the foot and leg are underneath the hip, you enter what is the midstance phase. This is where all your weight is on the one leg. Again, there is potential for injury here. An over pronation at the foot can cause a chain reaction up the leg into the knee and hip. Hip stability is also vital here as you need to be able to load the base leg in order to set yourself up for the propulsion phase. It’s a basic load and explode situation. Your muscles, tendons, and fascia are all storing up elastic energy from the previous phase, waiting to use it. Lacking necessary joint stability and strength will hinder your stride, and really, your ability to run efficiently.
Propulsion- The final stage where the foot starts to come off the ground, starting with the heel. This is where you will use all that stored/absorbed energy and push off to get into the next phase. The ankle, knee, and hip all go through extension in order to achieve this. Additionally, your foot/ankle should supinate, however this doesn’t always occur due to poor mechanics or poor shoes. Either way, this is another instance in which we need to corrections during running.
Swing- From the moment your foot loses contact with the ground, till the moment it touches down again is the swing. In this phase, your body needs to prep the leg and foot for that initial contact phase again.
There is a third phase where both feet are simultaneously off the ground, and if you freeze frame a runner, they appear to be floating or hovering off the ground.
So as you can note above, each phase of running comes with the potential for injury if the right mechanics aren’t in place. This means a combination of strength, stability and mobility. Thankfully we can incorporate strength training that focuses on those three aspects, and we can likely avoid injury or any aches and pains. Then we can get back to doing what we love, which is running.
Putting together a strength program for a runner is a little tricky as you want to build as much strength as you need to avoid injury and resist the forces of running, but without putting on weight that may potentially slow you down.
Single Leg Exercises– Being that running is largely a single leg exercise repeated over and over again, it’s important to include these into your program. That doesn’t mean eliminating bilateral exercises like squats and deadlifts, as those will set a large strength base. It just means adding in more single leg variations to maintain or improve hip stability.
- Single Leg Deadlift
- Split Squats
Core Strength & Stability– Everyone uses these terms, but no one really knows what they mean. In terms of running, the core needs to be strong and stable in order for the body to transfer forces from the lower body to the upper body, otherwise we just look like one of those wacky inflatable tube guys outside car dealerships. And no one wants to look like that when they run. Nor do we want to have any injuries or pain when we’re running. If we lack the necessary core stability, meaning the control of the movement of the hips, it could result in hanging out on passive structures instead. Have you ever gone for a run and your back was killing you halfway in or when you finished? Yea that’s one, poor mechanics, but also lack of muscular strength and the ability to stabilize the hips.
- Anti-Extension – Plank
- Anti Lateral Flexion – Side Plank
- Anti Rotation – Pallof Press
Hip Extension Activation & Strength– The main mover for hip extension should be the glutes, however many end up predominantly using their hamstrings. Hamstring injuries occur in part because they aren’t strong enough to control the eccentric contraction of the muscle, meaning a contraction as the muscle lengthens. But also because the hamstrings compensate for a lack of glute strength. It’s vital to the health of your hamstrings to get your glutes strong. Then you can focus on strengthening the hamstrings via eccentric exercises.
- Glute Bridge
- Hip Thrust
- Lateral Band Walks
- Supine Hip Extension
- Nordic Curls
- Hamstring Curls via TRX, Glide Discs, Stability Ball
Running is a simple way to exercise and probably one of the most accessible to those of all levels, from beginner to advanced. Now that the weather is getting nice, more and more people will be out there running. Just because you can run, doesn’t mean you have to run or should. Take account of your strength and stability, but also look at your own mechanics to see if running is for you. Then you can move on to what could be the most important, whether or not you actually enjoy running.
by Chris Cooper