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July 15th, 2021

10 Ways to Give Your Workout Much Needed Variation

by Dave Alfano, DPT, PT, FAFS

Running is a sport that requires a set of specific predictable demands.  From the moment that our foot touches the ground until the moment that it flicks the body forward through push-off, the ankle, knee, hip, spine, arms and shoulders all go through different movement patterns to achieve what we all understand as running.  

Often too commonly, we get stuck in a rut where we do the same type of running, on the same surfaces, at the same pace, on the same incline, and in the same direction.  When the body gets loaded in the same way constantly, it becomes less resilient: and perhaps in the event that you all of a sudden do try a much faster, hillier, or longer workout, your body simply cannot handle the task…… that is unless you’ve done other loading/strength/movement patterns to build the tolerance and capacity.  Stay with me on this!

Let’s talk through some of the variables that we should be considering and more importantly building up to while both running, cross-training, and performing strength/mobility training. 

photo: @jzsnaps

1) Surfaces: When possible, try to do your recovery runs on a softer surface or even a treadmill versus all road running. There have been strong studies showing that all concrete running can lead to increases in injuries.

2) Inclines: Different muscle groups are used when we run uphill vs. downhill and we can use this to our advantage in many ways. For example, starting to introduce speed work, shorter hill sprints are a much safer way to transition due to our foot landing underneath our center of gravity and the inability to reach maximum speed.  Longer hills help to create more fatigue resistance, aerobic endurance and can also assist in actually building lower leg strength!  Downhill running also has been found to improve speed safely, but it is suggested that you start on a very small incline and work on soft surfaces! 

3) Speeds: At much slower speeds, us runners tend to use much more of our lower leg versus when running at faster speeds we require more knee and hip.  By mixing up the different intensities throughout the week, you are stressing the body in a multitude of ways.  Be careful here — a good chunk of your weekly mileage should be spent at easier paces and any new types of paces should be introduced gradually. 

4) Volume: Let’s pretend John and Mary are both running 30 miles per week.  John prefers to do his mileage by running 5 days a week with each run at 6 miles.  Mary does a 9 miler,  3 mile recovery run, 6 miles with tempo minutes, 7 miles consisting of a fartlek (where you perform minutes of faster running with minutes of easier running in between) and a 5 mile easy run. While there is no wrong or right way for how John and Mary are breaking up their weeks, Mary is giving her body different types of stimulus while John has more predictable patterns.

5) Directions: If you are doing weekly or even daily runs on a track, are all of your laps in the same direction?  If you are running on the shoulder of a road that’s slanted, are you also reversing in that direction? Too much in one direction can result in an asymmetrical loading pattern. A helpful analogy might be to think of a car that is only turning left for an extended period of time and frequently.  For sure there will be different wear patterns on the tires between the left and right side.

6) Cross-Training: Exercises such as cycling, swimming, elliptical, and even just canning the run and going for a 45-60 minute recovery walk, are all movements that have less impact on the body — but our body also recognizes them as different loading patterns.  This is a fancy way of saying that we stress our bones, tendons, and muscles in a different way than running while still reaping the benefits of the exercise.

7) Rests during workouts: In an extremely general sense, workouts with very little rest tend to be more aerobic and endurance based versus workouts with huge chunks of rest which tend to be fast and anaerobic.  Changing the rest in a workout can completely alter the stimulus achieved.  If you are doing mile repeats every week with 1 min rest, consider progressing to different rests;  it’s important also to recognize where you are in your training block and when your goal race is.

8) Strength/Plyometrics: If you are a runner and are looking to stay healthy, it is important to load/strengthen your body in different ways; this can be direction, speed, weight/resistance, or order of movement. Take for example a lateral lunge or resisted skater jumps:  moving side to side in the frontal plane will engage parts of the body and stress these structures differently when we run in a straight line.  Another good example is a loaded (using weight) single leg heel raise or a rear foot elevated split squat.  Performing these exercises which typically work the calf and knee/hip complex with more weight will make these structures work much harder, which in turn if done correctly, will build more “capacity” (ability to run longer) while decreasing the chance of getting hurt. The research on strength training for runners is strong

9) Mobility: Between your time at the desk for work and your time running, what are you doing movement wise? The amount of movement needed for running has been well researched and we have a good idea of how much is needed to safely perform these tasks.  The idea of “stretching” is one that has been disputed amongst the research biomechanical world;  however you’re never too young or old to learn how to be a better mover!  Move your hips from side to side, feel your arches’ ability to fully pronate and supinate, rotate your thoracic spine side to side, and perform movements in all three planes of motion (forward/back, side to side, and rotation).

10) Footwear: Although footwear hardly constitutes a workout in itself, it can provide another avenue of variability.  A study published back  in 2013 found that using more than one pair of training shoes (of different heel to toe drops) reduced injury by almost 40%. In a very general sense, wearing a shoe with a higher heel to toe drop (8-12 mm) tends to call upon the hip complex a bit more and puts your toes into a bit more extension versus a lower heel to toe drop (0-4mm) which tends to call upon more foot, ankle, and calf.  

It’s important to note that the most important thing within all of these variables is patience! Changing one variable too quickly without slowly progressing can result in overloading which could lead to an injury.  Use this information as a guideline to start to find ways that you can add variability to your running  and you’ll be amazed at how you can load the body in different ways!

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