By Jordan Robertson,
Many individuals today enjoy running as a source of recreational fitness, while others use running as a form of competition. Both sets of individuals may find that they have more than just their love of running in common. Many distance runners frequently experience low back pain as a result of consistent compressive loads being place on the vertebrae, sacroiliac joint, and knees. Unfortunately this pain can worsen over time as repetitive motions like that of running can lead to gradual degeneration of the body’s tissues (1). More specifically, the forces from repetitive motions like running will cause the body to fatigue and gradually alter an individual’s postural alignment. Thankfully there is a viable means of preserving the body while still enjoying long distance running as a primary source of exercise. Two methods that will be highlighted are examples supplemental exercises to reduce the strain of running on the back and joints. These methods include the use of circuit training to strengthen the muscles surrounding the joints, and stretching to improve the dynamic flexibility of those muscles after they have been worked.
Circuit training involves completing multiple exercises sequentially followed by taking rest at the end of one full cycle. This, and other methods of weight bearing activities are an effective method for improving joint stability and mobility (1). Circuit training is also an effective method for burning calories while keeping exercises exciting and engaging. Resistance-based exercise also contributes to a reduction in the amount of joint pain being experienced from aerobic activity. This occurs gradually as the muscles surrounding joints become stronger at locations like those of the hip, knee, and ankle. Generally, as muscles become more efficient through regular exercise, the posture of the participant begins to improve. Postural improvements give the body more beneficial angles at the joints, and allow for potentially fewer movement errors during activity (1). These will each contribute to better joint motion and a decreased likelihood of injury from poor joint positioning. One location is at the base of the pelvis where the sciatic nerve is located. The sciatic nerve is commonly aggravated by the pulling of muscles like that of the pyriformis, a muscle of the hip active in external rotation, from a high volume of repetitive activities like running. Therefore, by incorporating a circuit with exercises that strengthen the core and the muscles surround the hip, knee, and ankle, the pull on the sciatic nerve can be lessened.
In conjunction with this, a method often referred to static stretching will serve to effectively release the tension of the muscles, which are pulling at that area. This is the importance of flexibility training which is often over looked; in effect, the alleviation of pain and prevention of joint dysfunction. Static stretching is achieved by holding a stretch on a muscle until the sensation of burning within that area begins to subside. The gradual release in tension is a result of the muscles beginning to lengthen. This will aid in injury prevention and in reducing the amount of pain being felt during activity (2). Of course, by reducing pain within the working muscles there is the increased likelihood for a more enjoyable running event.
As an example, the following is a circuit that focuses on stabilizing joints and improving their overall mechanics. This particular circuit can be performed for 2-3 sets and 12-15 repetitions per exercise, with a focus on controlling the speed of each exercise. The participant should be under control throughout the motion and emphasize tightening the core while keeping an upright, straightened spinal posture throughout the five selected exercises within the circuit.
- Walking diagonal lunge: This exercise involves an angular lunge to alternating legs and pressing off to the left and right with each repetition.
- Overhead squat: The arms are straightened overhead and the feet are shoulder width apart, and squat into approximately a ninety-degree angle at the knees. Not everyone will be able to squat this low, so go to a comfortable depth and emphasize keeping the shoulders pulled back and the chest upright throughout the set.
- Yoga-style push-up: The participant is on all-four’s on the ground with both hands and feet at approximately shoulder-width distance. Begin with the hips pushed high into the air followed by a low nose-dive into a low-hip-high-chest positioning. This will create a curvature with the torso, low back, and legs. Now with a tight core simply bring the hips back to the starting position and repeat this style of repetition.
- Side plank (with an option for a progression): Begin in a regular side plank position such that the ground-bound elbow is bent, and the feet are heel-to-toe with the top-most foot being in front of the bottom-most foot. This exercise can either be held in place with the hips held high and the body in a straight line, or repetitions can be generated as the hips are brought low and then brought upwards in contraction. The progression here as was mentioned, is that the top leg can be raised off of the bottom leg creating separation. This increases the amount of effort within the muscles surrounding the hip, knee, and ankle of both the bottom and top leg.
- V-sit: In a seated position, lean back with a straight torso until the core feels engaged. Then lift the legs and feet off of the ground and simply hold that V-shaped position. The V-shape is formed from the torso to the knees as the angle between these landmarks forms a V.
These five exercises are then followed by at least three stretches, each one held for between 30 and 45 seconds with an emphasis on matching both sides together in the length of duration. The following three stretches can be performed for 1-2 sets.
- Standing runner’s stance: This involves being in a split-stance position with the front knee bent and the back leg straight, with the heel planted fully on the ground. This generates a stretch throughout the gastrocnemius, commonly known as the calf muscle.
- Hamstring stretch: Have one leg fully straightened with the other leg bent. The foot of the bent leg can either be planted on the floor, or if there is enough flexibility within the adductor complex then the knee of the bent leg can flare outward and the soul of the foot can rest against the knee of the straightened leg. As this all occurs, lean forward with a straight back until a stretch is felt through the hamstrings and glutes.
- Laying, leg-over stretch: This is for the hamstrings and low back. In a laying position with the back on the floor, slowly bring one straight-leg over the body forming a t-shape as the straight leg gradually is lowered to the floor and the foot touches for the stretch. The stretch can be intensified by bringing the foot and stretched leg closer toward the upper body while the leg is extended and planted over the body. This stretch requires that the shoulders be planted on the ground, which will allow for a rotation through the torso and hip as the naval points in the direction of the straightened leg.
Running is a strong source of exercise but it often carries with it joint-based discomfort. Thankfully there are many methods for reducing this, one of which being the utilization of regular weight training and stretching to supplement routine running. Weight training is meant to strengthen the muscles surrounding joints, while stretching lengthens the worked muscles. Both of these together serve to functionally increase one’s enjoyment of running by improving joint motion and muscle performance during exercise.
- Arokoski J, Kiviranta I, Jurvelin J, Tammi M & Helminen H (1993). Long-distance running causes site-dependent decrease of cartilage glycosaminoglycan content in the knee joints of beagle dogs. Arthritis & Rheumatism 36, 1451-1459.
- Childs D, Ryan M & Reneau P (2011). The Effects of Core Strength Training on Maximal Running Performance in Middle Distance Running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise43, 775.