If you’re like many runners, stretching is your first course of action when you feel pain. Sore Achilles tendon? Stretch the calf. Sore knee? Stretch the quads or the IT band.
The problem is, tight muscles are rarely the root cause of pain, so stretching rarely solves the problem. A better solution for chronic, training-related pains and injuries—one with more evidence behind it—is strength training.
I’ve had a lightbulb moment thanks to an Instagram post by Brett “the Glute Guy” Contreras, PhD. (I wish I’d saved the post. Now I can’t find it… Oh well.) He described training the glutes in both a linear and rotational fashion. This makes sense when considering the alignment of the muscle fibers of the glute muscles with the glute max being the best example. The fibers are diagonal which means they can exert force both both in a straight line and in rotation.
The gluteus maximus fibers facilitate both sagittal plane and transverse plane movement.
I’ve long used exercises that train the glutes linearly: squats, lunges, and deadlifts for example. And now I recognize that I’ve only scratched the surface or paid lip service to the rotational ability of the glutes. I’ve gained a new appreciation for some exercises that long avoided, such as the clamshell.
In almost 20 years of training, I’ve thrown many babies out with some bathwater. I’ve fallen for dogma and rejected certain exercises because I thought they weren’t “functional” or had no carryover to life outside the gym. The clamshell exercise is one example. Who needs to have strong hips while lying down sideways? What use is that, especially to athletes?
It’s a relief to discover that very smart exercise professionals have had a similar experience. Physiotherpist, chiropractor, and pain expert Greg Lehman said this about the clamshell as it pertained to runners:
“I used to abhor the clamshell. Then I started testing more runners with the clamshell. A number who tested strong in many positions would tremble during the clamshell. Crazy, they had a lovely one leg squat, strong hip abduction but had trouble with 10 or 15 clamshells. What does that tell me? Such a massive deficit in function. Would you suggest clamshells here or something to address that specific movement? This seems like a case where I would suggest clamshells. If a runner can’t do them I would want to address that deficit.
“But, do I want to see every runner doing them as part of a ‘functional’ program. Of course not. They suck for that. This is a case where the exercise prescription is ‘functional’ because it addresses a specific limitation in a specific runner.”
The clamshell is also recommended by physical therapist, and running/cycling coach Jay Dicharry.
I’ve returned to various exercises with a new appreciation. I hope that as I age and gain experience that I also gain wisdom. I must remember to maintain some skepticism about just about everything. At the same time, I should be willing to revisit what I think I know and reevaluate my thoughts.
The position of the trunk and hips is critical for efficient, healthy running.
I’m pleased to share 8 Ways to Improve Your Running Posture, my latest article in Podium Runner. Running posture is vital for effective, healthy running. This article teaches you to mobilize joints that may inhibit good posture, and how to strengthen key muscles that reinforce good posture and make for stronger running. Here’s an excerpt:
Running is clearly a lower-body dominant activity. That said, you should understand that your body is an interconnected system more than it is a collection of parts. Running involves your entire body, from head to toes. That means your running posture—the position in which you hold your hips and spine while running—matters.
Optimal running posture is:
Comfortable: Able to run hard without pain.
Efficient: Use the least energy required for a given pace.
Minimally stressful: Forces generated by impact and propulsion are distributed evenly throughout your bones, muscles, and connective tissues.
I’m running the Behind the Rocks 30k in Moab, Utah on March 23rd. It’s my first race of the season and my first race since my calf injury last year. I’m happy to report that all my parts feel strong. I’m pleased and proud to have overcome the problems from last year. Strength training aimed directly at the calf has been the key.
I use several different weight and rep schemes for the exercises:
Heavy loads for <6 reps. This builds strong muscles and strong, stiff tendons. Stiff tendons are like stiff springs. Stiff tendons absorb and transmit forces efficiently which makes for efficient running.
Moderate loads for 8-15 reps. This builds muscle bulk. More muscle mass helps make muscles strong and durable.
I may go as high as 20-30 reps for the mini-squat. That’s due to the soleus muscle (the main muscle in that’s worked in the exercise) being comprised mostly of endurance muscle fibers. I typically put a barbell on my back.
For the jump rope, I’ll mix two- and one-leg jumping and I’ll jump for about 1 minute x 5 sets.
Other key exercises
The hip hike and offset lunge are great exercises for lower legs, quads, glutes, hip adductors and hip abductors.
Finally, Coach Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance has been indispensable. He listens to me, pays attention to detail, and inspires confidence. I’m grateful to have his guidance. If you’re looking for a running coach, I recommend him highly.
The Benefits of the Single-leg Tubing Squat is for runners who want to build leg and hip strength that will transfer to running. This exercise may help you overcome knee and hip pain as well whether you’re a runner or not. There are three variations on this exercise and all are discussed in the article. This is my second article for Competitor Running. (Those pretty pictures were taken by my wife with her fancy new camera.)
The posterior tibialis (PT), and the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris, (all muscles that attach to the Achilles tendon) overlap to some degree in how they function in gait. What do those muscles do you ask?
Concentric function (when the muscle contracts and shortens): plantar flexion (points the foot), inversion (sole of the foot turns in)
Eccentric function (when the muscle lengthens): decelerates dorsiflexion (bending of the ankle), decelerates eversion (sole of the foot turns out)
In the case of my Achilles pain, I found relief from strengthening those calf muscles through doing a lot of slow, controlled heel lifts. I thought the same approach would resolve my PTT. I was wrong. I believe that my efforts at strengthening the PT and the PT tendon aggravated the problem and caused more foot pain. I believe my PTT was rooted in a rigid left arch and rigid plantar fascia.
Plantar fascia flexibility, pronation, and force distribution
For years I’ve noticed that my left arch doesn’t pronate (collapse) as much as the right. I believe this lack of movement is part of my problem. In my prior post, I asked the question, “Do you have the mobility to get into the position required by your activity?” As it regards my left arch and running, my answer was, “No.”
Among many runners, the word “pronation” equates to “bad.” That’s wrong. (Uncontrolled or excessive pronation is bad.) Pronation is a necessary movement that contributes to deceleration of the foot, lower leg, and the rest of the body during foot strike. As the arch collapses, the plantar fascia acts as a leaf spring, storing then returning valuable energy that helps propel the runner forward. This energy return occurs as the foot supinates with the arch lifting as the runner pushes away from the ground.
The plantar fascia isn’t the only participant in this process of energy absorption and return. All the muscles and connective tissue throughout the body contributes to the process. The tendons of the lower leg, such as the Achilles tendon and the posterior tibialis tendons, are highly active during this process. If everything is moving correctly, in control, and in a coordinated fashion then the impact forces of running are distributed efficiently among all of the muscles and tendons.
Now imagine if some link in this kinetic chain isn’t moving the correct way. If that happens then other regions and other structures of the body will be forced to handle more than their fair share of the load. Some sort of overload, injury, and pain is likely in this scenario. Specific to my case, I believe the lack of mobility of my left plantar fascia has contributed directly to my past Achilles tendon problems, plantar fasciitis, and to my recent bout with PTT. Plantar Fasciitis and the Windlass Mechanism: A Biomechanical Link to Clinical Practice is a literature review from the Journal of Athletic Training. This reviewprovides the following pertinent comments:
“Researchers have also reported faulty biomechanics and plantar fasciitis in subjects with a higher-arched foot.16–18 A higher-arched foot lacks the mobility needed to assist in absorbing ground reaction forces. Consequently, its inability to dissipate the forces from heel strike to midstance increases the load applied to the plantar fascia, much like a stretch on a bowstring.4
“A review of the literature reveals that a person displaying either a lower- or higher-arched foot can experience plantar fasciitis. Patients with lower arches have conditions resulting from too much motion, whereas patients with higher arches have conditions resulting from too little motion.4,16,19 Therefore, people with different foot types experience plantar fascia pain resulting from different biomechanical stresses.”
(The article is thorough and informative about foot mechanics. If you’re a runner suffering from foot problems, a running coach, or a clinician who treats these issues then I think it could be valuable to you.)
Exercises that helped
I foam rolled the calf. You probably know how to do that. If not, look on Youtube.
Band eversion/dorsiflexion: It’s one of the exercises discussed here. I did and continue to do the exercise with very high reps. It looks like this:
Dorsiflexion/Eversion. Think of pulling the pinky toe up and to the outside of the knee.
Bent-knee heel raises: I used high reps but there is probably benefit to using heavier weight with fewer reps. There are machines for this exercise at many gyms. I don’t have access to such a machine so I did it by stacking up some sandbags under the front of my foot and putting a dumbbell on my knee. I worked to high exertion for several sets:
Arch mobilizer: It takes time to make changes to tissues so I do this frequently throughout the day.
Gait check: This is HUGE! In my first meeting with running coach Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance, he noticed several problems with my gait. These were problems seen in the past with my gait.
(This illustrates the immense power of working with a coach. I don’t know what I don’t know and I can’t see what I can’t see—and neither can you! My technique had slipped and I didn’t know it.)
My ground contact time (or how long my foot was on the ground) was too long. Thus, my feet and lower legs spent a lot of time transmitting stress through my lower leg. That may have been a part of overloading the PT tendon. This long contact time was probably a result of…
A low-energy gait. My legs weren’t rebounding off of the ground sufficiently and the whole gait cycle was sluggish. Now, as I run, I think of a strong, quick, powerful push into the ground. I drive the leg behind me, and I push the ground behind me.When I run correctly, my foot spends less time on the ground and the tissues spend less time under stress and I’m more efficient. Read How to Run: Running With Proper Biomechanics by Steve Magness for details on running technique including the need for hip extension.
Solving the riddle of the sore left foot has been a prolonged, tricky struggle. Every time I find relief I think I’ve solved the problem only to have some other problem pop up later. That said, I now think I’ve figured it out. I could be wrong. Maybe some of this information will help other runners overcome their foot and ankle troubles too.
The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body. That’s a good thing! When combined with good spine mobility, our shoulders allow our arms to reach, throw, pull, and push from all sorts of angles.
A consequence of being mobile is the possibility of being highly unstable. Instability, or the inability to control a limb, may lead to the common aches and pains that many of us experience in our shoulders, elbows, and possibly even the wrists. Why might instability and pain happen? (My answer will be limited to chronic pain, not acute injuries such as fractures and dislocations due to falls and other accidents.)
My belief is that shoulder problems (and most other movement problems) are rooted in a use-it-or-lose-it dynamic. Our modern lifestyle is characterized by limited movement. As adults, we rarely crawl on the ground. As modern humans, most of us don’t have to climb trees or pick up heavy things and put them overhead. We typically sit with our arms in front of us as we type on keyboards, drive cars, and operate TV remote controls. Thus our movement skills stagnate. Our brain and nervous system loses the ability to coordinate the many movements available to us. But then we might decide to swing a golf club, swim, lift weights, attempt pull-ups, pushups, throw a ball, or reach into the back seat from the front seat. Unfamiliar movements—especially if done with high force, high speed and/or done at end-range—may be too much to ask of our deconditioned shoulder complex. Then we get pain.
The following videos are designed to help restore mobility and stability to the shoulders. Pay attention to how you move as you do them. Don’t speed through them. Always be in control of the exercise, don’t let the exercise control you. If it hurts then back off or stop. None of these drills are guaranteed to fix any specific problem you may have. You may need to see a physical therapist or some other injury rehab specialist.
For the corner stretch, keep you eyes up a little bit. Don’t let your head and neck flop forward.
For the rotator cuff complex, use high reps, maybe 15-20 reps.
The halo can be varied in some ways not shown in the video. Try the halo while in a hip-hinge or deadlift-like position. Use a light weight.
When was the last time you walked into the gym and said, “Okay, it’s foot day! Let’s get to work?”
Most of us aren’t too excited about building strong, healthy feet, probably not until we encounter pain. But why not? After all, it’s only every single step that we need those lower appendages to work well. Unless you don’t have feet, unless you walk on your hands, or maybe unless you live on a planet without gravity, then there’s no question you need a pair of mobile, stable, well-functioning feet.
And if we encounter foot trouble then we want to put in an orthotic, buy shoes with arch support, or do something other than make the feet stronger. Why is it that we don’t think to treat the feet like the rest of the body? Why don’t we see the need to work the feet like all the other muscles and body parts we have? I suggest that rather than resort to external aids we should work the feet in a wide variety of ways. Here are a few ways to do just that.
I don’t promise that any of these exercises will fix a specific injury. If anything hurts then back off. See a physical therapist, chiropractor, or podiatrist for a full diagnosis and treatment strategy.
Big toe adduction/abduction
There’s no fancy name for this exercise. You can experiment with all sorts of bands. Please notice that I do this exercise under control. I’m controlling the exercise, the band isn’t controlling me. Allow the big toe to come in far enough that you feel a stretch.
Toe differentiation (aka yoga toe)
Can you do this? You should be able to. It may seem 100% impossible when you first try it. Keep working on it. Most people can figure it out in a day. Takes work and concentration. Take notice of my arch and inner ankle. Notice that the arch doesn’t drop, and my ankle doesn’t dive in as I move my big toe.
Toe grabs on a box
Sounds like one of Vincent van Gogh’s very obscure works. It’s not. I just don’t have a better name for it. It works well though. I learned it from Denver chiropractor extraordinaire Dr. Nick Studholme. You can do this on the top of a flight of steps or over a book.
This is a quick, easy way to engage, stimulate, and strengthen all of the muscles of the lower legs and feet. Try it and see how you feel.
Wolf is among other things, a Fellow of Applied Functional Science (FAFS) by way of the Gray Institute. I also study and apply Gary Gray’s material. I always like to see how other practitioners apply the principles of 3D movement. I love gaining new perspectives on how to create functional exercises, or exercises that most translate to real life. You can see a lot of examples of this at the Adam Wolf, PT, Biomechanical Youtube Channel.
If you ain’t got that sling then you ain’t got that swing.
Something I just learned is that Adam’s dad is Chuck Wolf, another functional exercise and movement professional. Many years ago I was introduced to the concept of Flexibility Highways at one of Chuck’s seminars. These highways aka muscle slings, aka myofascial lines, are networks of muscle and fascia that often work together during real-world, whole-body movements. (“Real-life” movements are in contrast to many of the artificially isolated movements that we see in gyms, especially those performed on machines.) One example is the posterior oblique sling as used in a golf swing. Another example is the anterior oblique sling used when throwing.
The anterior X sling is a big part of throwing, batting, golfing, running, punching and all sorts of things.
The fascial sling system was an interesting concept to me at the time but it has sort of faded from my thinking in recent years. Now, reading Adam’s book and watching his videos has brought those flexibility highways or slings to the front of my mind. These sling concepts are informing both the mobility work I’m doing with clients as well as my exercise selection. In working along and within these sling systems I feel like I’m capturing just about all of the movement we humans are capable of. Check out the following videos from Adam Wolf where he discusses how you can move better by following these fascial lines.
In Part I of this series, I discussed what hip adduction is and why it’s crucial for good movement, balance and sports performance. In this post I’ll give some ways to self-assess your hip adduction and increase your hip adduction mobility, stability and power.
There are many ways to investigate and train hip adduction. I do not propose to cure what ails you with any of these exercises. If you’re in real pain then you need to see a physician.
(I realize now in watching the videos that I use the term “frontal plane” more than I say “hip adduction.” Please consider the terms interchangeable for the purpose of this post.)
Check your ability to move into hip adduction. Check both right and left sides. How do they compare?
Now check your stability. Can you control your hip adduction?
Try this mobility matrix to gain more hip adduction. You may need more on both sides. The great thing about this matrix is that you’re not only address the hip but you’ll also be mobilizing other joints in concert with the hip.
This movement series is a more aggressive way to challenge hip adduction while at the same time getting an upper body workout.
The next three exercises are a few ways to challenge and develop hip adduction mobility, stability and power. These can be used for athletic training purposes or simply as fun ways to tweak familiar exercises. All sorts of implements can be used: