How many times have your patients asked you, “What should I do in the gym to run better?” Unless you give them a credible answer, they’re likely to drudge themselves into the weight room and do more seated knee extensions and crunches. Well, I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way since then!
Most runners, by nature, are creatures of habit. Unfortunately, they take these bad habits – the way they sit, stand, and walk – into their running form. Their tight hip flexors and poor postural awareness show in their running form. And guess what they do in the gym? The same person who can’t fire their glutes during a bridge now throws a weighted barbell on their shoulders and struggles to move around for 45 minutes. The next day they denounce strength training for hurting them or making them overly sore. That’s a pretty poor (though typical) outcome.
We need to intervene.
1. Develop postural strength
Ever heard the phrase “don’t fire a cannon from a canoe”? All the muscles that propel a runner attach directly or indirectly to the spine and pelvis. If that foundation isn’t grounded, shorter soft tissue will strain muscles and tendons. It may cause minor nuisances such as low back pain and hamstring soreness, or even result in long-term chronic injury and compromised running economy.
The gym provides the perfect environment to refine postural awareness. I aim to give my runners positive feedback – targets they can see and feel – as they move through an exercise program. The mirror is a powerful feedback tool, and away from logging mile after mile on the road, the athletes can take some time to build better movement habits. So the next time I give my runners a cue for a “quiet back” while running, they will have this mental image. Postural awareness during lifting will build a foundation for running and for more advanced lifts. Which brings us to #2…
2. Drive from the hips to build more power
Research shows that the more force you apply to the ground during running, the better the running economy. But here’s a catch-22: the faster you run, the less you’re in contact with the ground, which makes it harder to apply this increased force demand. The solution is twofold:
- Focus on neuromuscular training to build a solid strength reserve
- Improve elasticity to deliver the strength quickly
Simply running more miles or employing higher repetition work doesn’t cut it. Truly optimizing the runner requires lifting quite heavily and explosively. And since the muscular work from the hips increases more than from other joints as speed increases, the bulk of this force needs to come from the hips. (Note: correct technique is critical to ensure this force transfers into running economy)
So, is optimizing the runner as simple as maintaining good posture and driving from the hips? Well, yes… sort of! What you do in the gym improves running economy. However, as clinicians, we know there are a lot of structural, soft tissue, and inhibited movement patterns we must address before our patients can meet these key demands. We should focus on these characteristics on day one, even during the initial evaluation, because it’s one thing to improve a patient’s symptoms and another to improve their times and prevent injury.