By Kathleen Trotter
Spring is coming (small jump for joy), which for most of us means a greater number of clients hitting the pavement. As a fitness professional, and an avid runner, I am all for people getting outside to be active. But when it comes to running, I stanchly believe an intelligent, appropriate, and progressive training plan is absolutely critical. Through helping people, including myself, rehab numerous, often avoidable, running injuries, I have learned that being “a runner” does not automatically make one strong and fit. One has to be strong and progress appropriately, and get adequate recovery to run injury-free.
As trainers it is our job to educate our clients — to instill in them that they can’t just use running to get in shape. They have to “get in shape to run.” Take your job seriously.
When a client comes to you and says they want to start running or ramp up their routine, first celebrate the positives inherent to the sport before walking them through ways to mitigate any negatives.
First, the positives
Running is a fantastic full-body, do anywhere, efficient, effective, and accessible — not to mention exhilarating and highly addictive — workout. Another positive is the potential for gradual progression and never-ending fitness goals. Initially, the goal of being able to jog is motivating enough. Most people start by progressing up to 5 km. Once one can run for 30 minutes or so, training for a race is a great way to stay motivated. A race goal builds in a “have to–ness”; training with a purpose makes one feel like an athlete.
Negatives in a nutshell
The largest potential problem is injury. Running is hard on the body. You can’t just run. The repetitive nature stresses your joints, tendons, and ligaments, so it’s essential to cross-train, lift weights, build a mobility and stretching practice, progress gradually, and prioritize recovery.
5 ways to mitigate the negatives and get in shape to run!
Strength train, making sure to include single-leg activities: Running is hard on the body. Every time you land your support leg has to absorb the weight of your body, plus additional impact forces. Your entire lower kinetic chain has to be strong enough to support continuous single-leg impact forces far greater than just the weight of your body.
Prioritize multi-joint lower body exercises (squats, lunges, deadlifts, etc.), functional core exercises (planks and bird dogs, etc.), and single-leg exercises (single-leg hip hinge, single-leg bridge, step-ups, etc.).
Note: Pay specific attention to biomechanics as clients do their single-leg exercises; make sure their ankle, knee, and hip stay in alignment, their pelvis does not rotate, etc. Running is a single-leg activity; thus your client needs to be able to maintain proper biomechanics when standing on one leg.
Care about where your clients run, not just their duration and speed: Don’t buy into the common, and often dangerous, assumption that running on a treadmill directly mimics running outside. If your client is used to running on the treadmill, you have to teach them that running outside puts a slightly different strain on the body. You set your client up for injury if you assume their winter treadmill workouts have directly prepared them for comparable outdoor workouts. A 30-minute treadmill run is not identical to hitting the pavement for half an hour.
You recruit different muscles when you run on a treadmill. Plus, it doesn’t require runners to have the same level of balance, agility, strength, and co-ordination. Don’t underestimate the extra effort concrete, wind, and rain can require — a 5km run on a supposedly easy route can feel like murder on a windy day.
I am not arguing that using a treadmill is “bad”. The treadmill offers a well-lit, slightly cushioned running surface that is predictable; it’s ideal for those wary of tripping on uneven ground or slipping on ice, those nervous of running in the dark, or those likely to skip their run in bad weather. All I am saying is, transition intelligently. The treadmill alters muscle recruitment. When outside, without the aid of the belt, the glutes should theoretically pull the leg backward into hip extension, which propels the body and facilitates forward motion. On a treadmill, the belt pulls the leg backward and the hip flexors work to resist the pull of the belt and pull your leg forward. Treadmill running can contribute to “lazy,” inactive butt muscles and hyperactive hip flexors. Unfortunately, most of us also sit too much, which causes similar muscular imbalances.
To prepare your client’s body to run outside, stretch their hip flexors and strengthen their lower body with running-specific hip-extension exercises. Examples include lying prone hip extension and standing hip extension.
Lying prone hip extension: Lie face down, legs straight and core engaged. Use your right butt muscle, not your lower back, to lift your right leg off of the floor. Repeat 15 times. Switch sides.
Standing hip extension: Stand with your left leg on a step and your right leg dangling off the side with your hips level. Engage your right butt muscle, not your back, and bring the leg slightly back in space. Make sure your left butt muscle is activated to stabilize you. Repeat 15 times. Switch sides.
Progress appropriately: Whether your client decides to “just run” or to train for a race, make sure they progress gradually. The body is unbelievably adaptive, but it can’t adapt overnight. At the beginning, encourage your clients to make walking intervals their friend, and make sure runs are always spaced out. Newbie runners should run no more than two to three times a week on non-consecutive days. More seasoned runners might alternate two days of running with one day of recovery.
Note: “Progression” applies to both running and strength training. Injuries typically occur when “capacity needed exceeds current capacity”. Don’t assume that if your client is strong enough to run shorter distances that they can automatically run longer distances. If your client wants to increase their mileage, make sure you also increase their overall strength. It is your job to make sure your client’s strength capacity increases as their mileage and speed increase, so they can withstand the stress of faster speeds and/or increased distance. One’s strength always needs to be equal to or greater than what is demanded from the run.
Cross-train — include mobility, alternate forms of cardio, and multidirectional motion: Running, like all repetitive athletic endeavours, has the potential to cause muscular imbalances; the repetitive nature stresses certain muscles and movement patterns more than others. To avoid imbalances, ensure your clients cross-train (think biking, swimming, tennis, etc.), maintain a stretching and mobility practice (think yoga and/or Pilates), and strengthen both the muscles required for running as well as the muscles running neglects.
Prioritize recovery: Exercise (especially high-impact activities like running) stress the body. Make sure your clients give their body the ingredients it needs to recover. Encourage clients to get seven or more hours of sleep a night, be mindful of nutrition, and schedule time to stretch, use a foam roller, and/or get regular body work like massage.
Kathleen Trotter holds a masters in Exercise Science, is the author of two books including the new book Your Fittest Future Self, and is a Personal trainer, Nutritionist, Pilates Specialist and Life Coach.