Here are 13 exercises to build strength and improve your running form right in your living room or yard. Check out my latest article for Podium Runner: No gym? No Problem. Get Strong at Home. Here’s one exercise, the improvised squat:
Running occurs in three planes: sagittal (front/back), frontal (side-to-side), and transverse (left/right rotation.) Efficient, healthy running happens when your joints are able to move freely through these three planes. For runners, full-range movement at the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine (t-spine) is crucial. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle may be an impediment to good running. Sitting, hunched forward for work and travel promotes rigid, poorly moving joints.
Running requires you to generate force for propulsion and absorb impact forces. Optimally, those forces are distributed efficiently through all of your joints, muscles, connective tissue, and bones. If a joint is restricted, then forces are distributed inefficiently and certain tissues may receive more stress than they can withstand. The consequences of poor joint mobility may include tendinopathies, and pain in your knees, hips, low-back, shoulders, and/or neck. You can guard against these problems by addressing mobility in your ankles, hips, and trunk.
The following exercises are dynamic drills, not static stretches. You’ll drive in and out of the position of stretch. Hold the stretch no more than about a second.
Explosive lifts such as the barbell power clean and the kettlebell swing should happen fast. Why else would they be called “explosive?” Creeping slowly through the lift, muscling the weight, and being overly cautious won’t work. You must create great momentum to swing and clean correctly. Cleans and swings SHOULD NOT be rushed though. Both lifts require sound technique which means moving the right way at the right time. If you’re impatient and you rush these lifts then the results will be less than optimal. You must be patient.
the barbell clean
A successful barbell power clean requires moving upward explosively then moving quickly underneath the bar to catch it. Recently a client was impatient to get under the bar. Her technique wasn’t terrible but clearly something was off. We went through the lift in super-slow motion without a bar. I coached her to be patient at the apex of the lift and spend an exaggerated amount of time up there before dropping under the bar. It instantly improved her clean. I saw it and she felt it.
the kettlebell swing
With the kettlebell swing, I see people rushing at both at the top and the bottom of the lift. They cut off the arc of the swing and try to force the bell up or down. My coaching strategy is this:
- On the upswing: Be patient. Stand tall. Allow the bell to rise and float at the top.
- On the downswing: Be patient. Relax and go with the momentum of the bell, allowing it to swing where it wants to go.
In both examples, the client’s technique is wrong but it feels normal. Thus, the correct technique should actually strange. It should actually feel exaggerated. The client should feel like he or she is spending too much time at the top of the clean or at the top and bottom of the swing.
Getting fit, strong, and healthy takes time. It never happens as fast as you want. Patience and persistence aren’t exciting words. Those concepts don’t spark fads or sell books. Brad Stulberg offers this pertinent take:
Lasting change almost always happens incrementally and over time—the result of repeated bouts of consistent effort. Don’t get fooled by radical, overnight success stories. Most people who go for broke end up broke. It’s just that those stories don’t get told.— Brad Stulberg (@BStulberg) January 8, 2020
I’ve become a fan of the Stronger by Science podcast. The hosts, Eric Trexler and Greg Nuckols are a pro natural bodybuilder and an accomplished powerlifter, respectively. They both hold science-related degrees and they’re trained in research and statistics. They translate research into meaningful information. They do a good job of discussing the weaknesses and strengths of various studies and they debunk a lot of fitness-related nonsense, a lot of which is floating around.
I recently listened to episode 22 in which they interview Dr. Michael Ray, DC, a contributor to Barbell Medicine.com. The topic was pain, a subject I find fascinating. It’s a good interview, one that gave me a new view of a subject I’ve studied for years. Following the interview, I went to BarbellMedicine.com and found an excellent article titled Pain in Training: What do? (I think it was probably intended to be titled Pain in Training: What to do? but I’m not sure.) If you’re a fitness or rehab professional or if you’re an athlete or fitness enthusiast who’s in pain then you should read it. Learning about pain will help you overcome it. Here are the key points I took from the article:
- Hurt does not equal harm. You can have pain without damage and damage without pain. The intensity of pain is often a poor reflection of the magnitude of damage—if there’s any damage at all.
- Trainers, coaches, and therapists should not create fear of movement. The article states, “So it is reasonable to coach a particular movement style for the purposes of performance and efficiency, but we deliberately avoid pairing our movement cues with unnecessary messages (either overt or subliminal) of danger or threat. In the same way, we criticize irresponsible healthcare professionals who warn those with back pain that ‘One wrong move and you’re paralyzed,’ we similarly criticize coaches who perpetuate the belief that ‘If you let your technique slip, you’ll get injured,’ since these ideas induce unnecessary hyper-vigilance and threat around exercise.”
- Rest rarely works. The article says, “One approach we typically do NOT recommend for most routine aches and pains in the gym is absolute rest.” And, “Additionally, we have evidence in several contexts that absolute rest often results in either no improvement (e.g. in tendinopathy) or worse outcomes (e.g., in low back pain).”
- Find an entry point to exercise. This stuck in my mind. It got me thinking. Here, we want to “find a type and dose of exercise stimulus that results in either improved symptoms or stable symptoms over the subsequent 24-48 hours after training. A marked increase in symptoms during or after training reflects a dose of stimulus that is likely too high in terms of intensity, volume, or both.”
Variables that may be manipulated include load, range of motion, tempo (pace the lifter uses while lifting), or exercise variation. I haven’t experimented with tempo, or speed of movement. I’ll will have my clients moving with different tempos in the near future.
I’ve studied pain for years and I feel like I have a solid grasp of how it works and what it means, but it’s always useful to revisit this information. I always learn something new. Read the entire article to learn a lot more.
Modern living, competition, achievement, and seeking external validation all contribute to burnout. Burnout is more than just feeling tired at the end of the day. It’s a condition that comes with real, negative health effects. Two recent articles discuss the idea and how to counter it.
Burnout is not a recognized medical condition in the US but it is recognized as such in France, Denmark, and Sweden. These countries recognize it as a legitimate reason to take time off from work. A Washington Post article discusses burnout with psychologist Sheryl Ziegler:
“Ziegler defines burnout as ‘chronic stress gone awry.’ The big three symptoms are emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feeling ineffective, according to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a survey designed to measure employee burnout in the workforce. Other symptoms can include frequent colds or sicknesses, insomnia and a tendency to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways, such as with too much alcohol or online shopping.”
The article discusses the difference between stress and stressors:
“Burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors… It’s important to differentiate the two. Stressors are external: to-do lists, financial problems or anxiety about the future. Stress, on the other hand, ‘is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter [stressors],’ Emily and Amelia Nagoski write in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.”
Fixing burnout isn’t necessarily easy. It involves recognizing the condition and making some changes, not just checking more things off of your to-do list.
“To fix burnout, people need to address the stress itself. They must allow their body to complete its stress response cycle. Instead, people tend to focus on stressors. ‘They assume their stress will go away if they’re on top of things, if they’re accomplishing things, and constantly checking things off their to-do list,’ Emily Nagoski says.”
Read the full article for more information.
I’m an enthusiastic fan of running coach Steve Magness and researcher/journalist Brad Stulberg. They are the authors of Peak Performance, an excellent book. Their second book is the Passion Paradox. I’m looking forward to reading it soon.
Burnout and what Stulberg and Magness call harmonious passion are the subjects of a recent blog post titled Burnout Runs Deeper Than Too-Much Work:
“Harmonious passion is when an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity because they love how the activity itself makes them feel. Obsessive passion is when an individual gets hooked on something because of external rewards: fame, fortune, a promotion, or in this day and age, social media followers. Obsessive passion is firmly linked with burnout.”
“Harmonious passion requires three main things. This has been studied for over 45 years and the evidence is highly replicable across diverse fields of practice:
1) Autonomy: the ability to have significant control over one’s work.
2) Mastery: the ability to see improvement and progression in one’s craft.
3) Belonging or relatedness: a feeling of connection and community.
If you think about the fields where burnout is especially prevalent (e.g., medicine, teaching, corporate work, and sport) you see that at least one, if not more, of these critical attributes is missing.
Read the article to learn more.
“The study shows exercise that promotes muscular strength may be just as important for health as aerobic activities like jogging or cycling,” said Associate Professor Stamatakis.
“And assuming our findings reflect cause and effect relationships, it may be even more vital when it comes to reducing risk of death from cancer.”
That statement comes from Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis of the School of Public Health and the Charles Perkins Center at the University of Sydney. He’s the lead researcher in a study titled Does strength promoting exercise confer unique health benefits? A pooled analysis of eleven population cohorts with all-cause, cancer, and cardiovascular mortality endpoints. The study appears in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
I’m surprised and delighted by this finding. Most of us have known for a quite a while that exercise of some variety or another helps reduce cancer risk. Most of the research has looked at exercise with a cardiovascular emphasis such as walking, cycling, and swimming. This study is novel in that it looks at strength training.
This is great news to those of us who like to lift heavy stuff! However…
Strength training has a negative connotation for some people. Some people say, “I don’t wan to get too big,” “I don’t want to get hurt.” Other people associate strength training with the bizarre bodybuilding steroid stereotype. None of this needs to be true! Lifting heavy stuff can be very safe, it can be done by normal people in an enjoyable way — and now we know it’s the smart, healthy thing to do. If you’re not lifting, then you should be and I’ll be glad to help you do it right.
Our popular culture is filled with admonitions to “Just Do It” and “Push your limits.” We hear aggressively pompous questions like “What’s your excuse?” aimed at people who don’t adhere to some sort of arbitrary exercise pattern. A lot of this is good marketing but it’s not reflective of the reality behind truly great sports performance, career longevity, creativity, and good health. We don’t hear much about the massive importance of rest.
I’m very happy to see a discussion of rest in Sports Illustrated. How extended breaks in training help elite athletes—and why you should take them too is an excerpt from a book titled Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. They offer the example of 42-year-old Bernard Legat the multiple Olympic medalist and world champion runner:
But here’s the thing: If we never take “easy” periods, we are never able to go full throttle and the “hard” periods end up being not that hard at all. We get stuck in a gray zone, never really stressing ourselves but never really resting either. This vicious cycle is often referred to by a much less vicious name—“going through the motions”—but it’s a huge problem nonetheless. That’s because few people grow when they are going through the motions. In order to give it our all, and do so over a long time horizon without burning out, we’ve got to be more like Bernard Lagat: Every now and then, we’ve got to take it really easy. In addition to his year-end break, Lagat also takes an off-day at the end of every hard training week. On his off-days, Lagat doesn’t even think about running. Instead, he engages only in activities that relax and restore both his body and mind such as massage, light stretching, watching his favorite TV shows, drinking wine, and playing with his kids.
Every hard-exercising, hard-working person should read this and take this advice to heart. This doesn’t just pertain to high-end elite athletes. In fact, the article does a very good job discussing how the need for regular and at times extended rest periods applies to everyone in any field of work. Learn it. Know it. Live it.
Injury and performance exist on a sliding scale. At one end we are completely broken down, hurt, and unable run/bike/swim/lift/fight/hike/etc. At the other end we’re performing at our peak. Probably every active person has been injured and I’m willing to bet that every active person would like to perform their very best. This post is for runners in either or both camps.
Runners are often injured. According to a review of literature in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, rates of lower-leg injury ranged from 19.4% to 79.3% among study subjects. The magic questions are 1)Why do we get injured? and 2) How do we overcome injuries?
I think it stands to reason that if we hurt while running then very likely it’s the way we run that’s the problem. Running requires complex coordination among many parts and systems. It is mind boggling to try and dissect running form, find the problems and then either teach or learn new, helpful techniques.
Meanwhile, if we’re not injured and we’re able to run, then we probably want to know how to run faster and more efficiently. How do we we achieve these goals? These questions aren’t easily answered. With all that in mind, I found two resources that may offer some very valuable information on these issues.
The first is the Physio Edge Podcast 049, Running From Injury with Dr. Rich Willy. At about the 20:30 mark Dr. Willy gives some good external cues to help promote running form that may help with IT band pain. The cues involve the knees and the hips:
- If the knees cave in too much while running: He puts brightly colored tape on the outside He has the patient run on a treadmill facing a mirror. He tells the patient to push the tape out toward the walls.
- If the hips are adducting too much: The runner runs on a treadmill facing a mirror with the waistband of their shorts clearly visible. He instructs the runner to keep the pelvis level by keeping their waistband level.
Listen to the podcast to get all the details.
Next is an article from the always informative Alex Hutchinson at the Sweat Science column at Runner’s World. What Makes a Running Stride Efficient? Hutchinson discusses a study from Loughborough University in England that looked at biomechanical factors
“For running economy, three variables stood out: vertical oscillation (measured by the up-and-down motion of the pelvis; less is better); how bent your knee is when your foot hits the ground (more bent is better); and braking (also measured by looking at the motion of your pelvis; less slowdown as your foot hits the ground is better).
“Overall, these three variables explained 39.4 percent of the individual differences in running economy—and the vast majority of that (27.7 percent) came from vertical oscillation.
“For running performance, four variables stood out: braking (as above); the angle of the shin when your foot hits the ground (closer to vertical is better); duty factor (basically a measure of how long your foot stays on the ground relative to your overall stride; quicker is better); and the forward lean of your trunk (more upright is better).
Overall, these four variables explained 30.5 percent of individual variation in race times, with shin angle (10 percent) and braking (9.9 percent) as the biggest contributors.”
Something I always appreciate about Hutchinson’s writing is that he lays out some of the errors in thinking that we might encounter when we assume that employing new running techniques will automatically equal better, faster, pain-free running. Are these characteristics of efficient runners chickens or eggs?
“For example, you could imagine a study that compared elite runners to ‘regular’ runners and found that the elite tend to have more highly defined calf muscles. It doesn’t necessarily follow that doing a whole bunch of hardcore calf exercises will make you faster. It’s more likely that a whole lot of training, combined with some genetics, has given elites more defined calves. Fixating on getting better calf muscles would be distraction that’s unlikely to help you, and takes away from things that really would make you faster, like running more.”
That said, (and he mentions this) it may well investigating new strategies based on these findings. From my experience in helping people with their running, aiming to achieve these biomechanical outcomes can help. (This post offers a few cues that I’ve found useful to use with runners.)
Ideally, you should be videoed while running.Trying to adjust your gait without knowing how you’re currently running might be near impossible. Video is a very powerful tool when it comes to making adjustments to sporting techniques and I highly recommend it.
Definitely read the article and listen to the podcast if you think you need help with your running or if you’re a coach who works with runners. And if doing it yourself isn’t getting you the results you want then I strongly suggest you employ some sort of running coach to help.
Call it whatever you want: “Exercise,” working-out,” “lifting weights,” “pumping iron” (Does anyone actually use that term without laughing?), “training” — use whatever term you want. It’s difficult and uncomfortable. It takes time and money. You get sweaty, maybe dirty, maybe even injured. Your hands grow callouses and you’re sore the next day. You must do it over and over and over to get anything out of it. Sounds like an irrational pursuit to me. Why in the hell do you do it?!
Why do you exercise? I mean beyond looks or a health number like weight, blood pressure or glucose count, why do you sweat and pick up heavy things? (My guess is most of you aren’t being paid to win races, tennis matches, softball games, bodybuilding contests and/or powerlifting meets.)
What are you truly looking for by way of sweat and toil? How do you want to feel as a result of exercise? Do you want to feel accomplished, confident, sexy, or that you can do anything in life you want to do? If you want to look a certain way then why? Are you motivated from something inside yourself or are you responding to messages (real or perceived) from outside and from other people?