Strength training - the neglected treasure

 

When I was 17 years old I was invited to run on the high school cross country team by a couple of girls. My initial intention was to get to know these girls better but I was quickly hooked on the thrill of running. Improvements came quickly and I made the varsity team (tail end). Unfortunately, my body didn't agree with the extra practice time, road running and my old shoes. Shin splints were my constant companions. I wore an electric hot pack so much that I developed a burn on my shin. Our team qualified to compete in the state meet but my leg pain was getting worse. Hobbling past my mother resulted in a trip to the doctor where I was diagnosed with a stress fracture and placed in a cast for two weeks. No state meet for me!

 

Many of you can probably tell a similar story. Our passion for running is accompanied by a fairly high risk of injury. Researchers estimate that between 37 and 56 percent of regularly training runners sustain an injury in a given year. So, what can be done? The typical responses are: stretch, replace worn shoes, run on softer surfaces, and avoid increasing training intensity or distance too quickly. While each of these is important, there is more. Strength training is often the neglected component of injury prevention or recovery programs. Recent research has shown promising results for Achilles tendonitis, knee pain, IT band pain, hamstring strain and lower back pain.

 

A variety of approaches to strength training can make the decision of how to proceed confusing. Is "Pilates" the panacea or will an exercise ball get you rolling again. As I have analyzed these studies two common threads emerge - specificity and core training. Specificity is a principle of training that proposes that the more closely an exercise replicates the arc of motion and type of contraction used in the sport - the more likely it will benefit your performance. Recent research has demonstrated that performing heel-lowering exercises for Achilles tendonitis actually remodels the tendon to its healthy state. Previously heel raises were used to rehabilitate the Achilles but this does not replicate the arc of motion nor the type of contraction (lengthening contraction) that is used while running.

 

Core training is a term used to describe strengthening / coordination training of the musculature around the hips, pelvis and lower back. There are actually 29 pairs of muscles that work together as the "control center" for your lower body as you run. A flurry of research has demonstrated positive results with core training for conditions such as knee pain, hamstring strains, groin strains, IT band pain as well as lower back pain. The "Plank" exercises have become popular as a quick, simple approach to core training; whereas, the "Pilates" approach presents a more disciplined theory.

 

At this time there is not sufficient research to state that a particular "brand" of exercise is superior to another. However, if you stick to the principles of specificity and core training you will be more likely to succeed. For a sample of exercises based on these principles check out the DVDs "A Balanced Solution" or "Kettlebell Training for Runners".

 

Bryan Whitesides MPT, OCS

Physical Therapist

www.betterrunner.com

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