I am a cardio junkie. I will gladly run for hours at a time, and I truly believe that there is no better way to start a day than a sunrise run along my favourite path. I also have a tendency to avoid strength training at all costs.
I am also a physiotherapist who is passionate about helping runners get back to crushing their running goals, being stronger than ever and staying injury free.
Unfortunately, I am well aware of the fact that those two identities are somewhat ironic.
For a long time, I was delighting in tracking my ever-increasing mileage each week, ignoring the advice that I gave to clients on a daily basis about the importance of strength training, and signing up for every race that I could manage to squeeze into my schedule.
So began my seamless transition into injury.
As a physio, I knew that I was on the fast track to disaster, yet I felt invincible. Perhaps it’s more a question of being lazy. Either way, I was not impressed as it became increasingly apparent that my bad habits were catching up to me.
Hobbling into the off-season with aches and pains, I vowed to finally address the underlying factors that had been contributing to the injuries that I was fighting through. Focusing on strength and mobility throughout the quieter months meant that I could attack the following season healthier, faster, stronger and more in love with running than ever before.
Whether your goal is to get through next season without injury, to finally snag that PB or to up your game with some longer distance races, planning your off-season appropriately is an essential first step in setting yourself up for success.
Here are a few pointers that I frequently share with my clients (and even adhere to myself!):
1. Give yourself some time off
- Sleep in on the weekend, grab a beer with friends, dust off your cross country skis, and enjoy the entire stack of pancakes with extra maple syrup.
- Don’t worry about running for a while, but when you do lace up, wave to every single runner who you pass along the way and leave that Garmin at home. After a season of following training plans, it’s liberating to run at whatever pace suits you that day and for whatever distance seems right just because you feel like it.
- Try something new that forces you to move in different ways. Most runners move in the same plane of motion over and over again. Humans are built to move in multiple directions, and when we don’t, the result is often injury.
2. “Prehab” to avoid rehab by strengthening
- While there are numerous muscles that play a role in maintaining great running form, the most common culprits that we see are:
1. The core. Think of the glutes, lower back muscles and deep abdominals as the foundation for all movement. As you run, energy travels through your body as a result of the impact of your foot on the ground and your muscles contracting to propel you forward. Your core acts as a hub for transferring that energy. If a runner’s core is weak, that energy transfer becomes less efficient. In addition to slowing you down, inefficient motion can cause another body part to receive more than its share of energy, or load. This can lead to injury as those tissues are not designed to withstand that excess demand. Injuries can also develop when a runner’s movement patterns change as a result of asymmetrical transfer of energy. With a strong core, we are able to transfer energy efficiently, ultimately creating a faster, more powerful gait pattern that is less prone to injury.
2. The hips. The main stabilizer of your leg when standing on one leg is the gluteus medius. When you run, you’re essentially landing and balancing on one leg thousands of times in a row. If this hip stabilizing muscle is not strong enough, there is often a huge amount of stress on your knee, ankle and foot, ultimately leading to injury.
In 2007, Dr. Reed Ferber of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary completed a study of 284 runners complaining of a wide variety of knee, ankle and foot injuries. He found that 93% of participants had weak hip muscles. Impressively, 90% of those runners were pain free following a six week targeted strength program. Strength training works!
- Try to incorporate strength training 2 times a week, focusing on multi-joint, body weight exercises such as lunges, squats, and planks. Build gradually, and remember that simplicity is often the best policy.
3. Check your gait
- Get an analysis early in your training. Unless you understand your movement patterns, it is impossible to properly address any limitations to your strength, mobility, flexibility, and ultimately, your performance.
- Don’t forget how valuable running drills can be in cueing a proper gait pattern. Even the best runners in the world do drills on a daily basis in order to remind themselves not to reach too far in their stride, teach their bodies to land below their centre of mass and keep their cadence up. Some good examples include: strides, high knees, skipping, side shuffling, and butt kicks.
4. Focus on and plan for just one or two goals for next season
- Meb Keflezighi won the Boston marathon last spring. The guy runs for a living and has a whole team of coaches, medical professionals and sponsors behind him. How many marathons did he run last season? Two! This is a good reminder that our bodies need time to recover. If a pro runner has only one ‘A’ race to focus on at a time, how can those of us who are not training as a full time gig expect to be racing hard all season while still avoiding injury and exhaustion? Pick a goal or two that you’re really excited about, and base your season, including your off-season, on whatever you need to do to help you to achieve that goal.
Lindsay Scott is a physiotherapist at Totum Life Science. She is currently training in Advanced Orthopedic Manual Therapy through the Canadian Physiotherapy Association. A passionate runner and triathlete herself, Lindsay has a particular interest in working with athletes of all levels to identify and address underlying factors contributing to injury. She can be reached at email@example.com.