The Secret Ingredient
Blog by Raechel Bugner, PT, DPT
The Holidays are over, it’s a new year, and most runners have resolutions to get faster and stronger before their race seasons start… if you’re living in NYC, that motivation can quickly dwindle when you step out your door January 2nd to snow and below freezing temperatures.
Winter weekends feel better spent curled up indoors binge watching Netflix and before you know it March is here and the time has arrived to begin training for your Spring race….another winter has come and gone and you’ve made 0 progress towards those “New Year, New me” running goals. Sound familiar?
Let’s talk about how we can make this year different.
Getting faster doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be pounding the pavement every day (through rain, snow, and freezing temps) in February. Sure, eventually you’ll need to start feathering some speed work into your runs, but rather than risk a catastrophic slip and fall trying to run hill repeats or speed workouts on the slick and snowy paths of Central Park, why not use these winter months to get stronger in the convenience of your own living room? Improving speed and running economy can be achieved from the comfort (and warmth) of your own home with the help of a set of dumbbells or resistance bands and a little bit of space.
Research has shown that strength training 2-3 times per week can improve running economy (the ability to run faster at the same distance or run further at the same pace) in recreational runners- this means, you can start working on increasing your pace without spending hours outdoors in the cold. Research also shows a correlation between muscular weakness and increased incidence of injuries in runners; in addition to getting faster, spending some time strength training may also stave off injuries once you’re in the thick of your race season. Building a strength program during the winter allows you to establish a routine before you get caught up in this year’s marathon (or half marathon) training schedule- the idea here is to carry those strength workouts right into your marathon training without slacking off as your miles pick up.
As a Physical Therapist working with the endurance community of New York City, I see a decent number of banged up, panicked runners walk through the doors of our clinic just a few weeks away from their races wondering how they got injured when they haven’t missed a run and worried they might not make it to the finish line. Most of the time, runners are eager to talk about all of the runs they’ve completed thus far in their training cycle, but their enthusiasm quickly fades off when asked about their strength training regimen. Frequently their injuries are partially (if not solely) the result of muscle imbalances that could have been prevented had they strength trained as religiously as they ran.
Now, let’s switch off the TV, clear some space in your living room, and follow these steps toward making yourself a faster, STRONGER, runner:
- Pick exercises that are functional to running- this means being upright and, ideally at some point, on one leg training balance and proprioception (a fancy term for knowing your body’s position and where you are in space) while you strengthen. Running is essentially a series of single leg balance drills that requires skilled muscular and proprioceptive response in order to move efficiently; if you get too caught up in strengthening isolated muscle groups without challenging balance, you’re missing a huge opportunity to improve running economy.
- Move in different directions. Running is primarily a forward moving (sagittal plane) activity. Every muscle has fibers that run in each plane of motion (sagittal/ forward and back, frontal/ side to side, and transverse/rotational) If you only strength train muscles in the sagittal plane, you open the door to overuse injuries and you miss out on an opportunity to take advantage of gaining strength in the other two planes that each muscle can work in.
- Don’t forget to strengthen arms and core. Just because your legs feel like they deserve all the credit for a race well run, doesn’t mean you should neglect the rest of your body. Having an active core and an efficient arm swing are key to optimal run form and efficiency. Again, be sure to train these muscle groups in multiple planes- crunches are a sagittal plane exercise, so try killing two birds with one stone by strengthening core and arms simultaneously using planks and driving your hips in all three planes.
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