Strength and Flexibility

There is a podcast version of this post on Anchor FM

I will start this post by saying that I have no formal training in Strength and Conditioning, Flexibility or anything similar; so if you want to stop reading at this point then that probably wouldn’t be the worst decision you’ve ever made – however, if you then trained for a marathon without doing some strength and conditioning work, that could be a very poor decision indeed.

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My knowledge and expertise on Strength, Conditioning and Flexibility comes entirely from my own injury strewn track record of running and my desire to keep running as fast and painlessly as possible.

All the evidence out there is that one of the best ways to prevent injuries, apart from not building up volume to quickly, is strength training.

However, I’ll note now that when I started to write this post, I started to look up some facts and figures and it became increasingly obvious as I researched that the evidence out there is actually a little thin in places and in some places directly contradictory to a lot of received wisdom. So I’m going to be coming back to this topic on a future post and hopefully providing a ‘systemic review’ of running myths and ‘golden rules’.

Back to the topic in hand… Strength training has two primary benefits; injury prevention, and there is also some evidence that it improves your speed and economy.

So what exercises are useful?

Personally, and I’m not alone here, I’m a great believer in free weights – the theory being that when you don’t restrict the plane of motion of your joints (as you would with a machine) that you strengthen the connective tissues and smaller ‘balancing’ muscles at the same time as the large muscle groups. Additionally there is evidence that using heavy weights has a significant role in maintaining bone density and muscle mass as you age.

If you don’t have access to free weights or a kettle bell, then you can substitute with bottles of water, bricks, small children or all sorts of household items that you might have around.

Or if you really can’t locate suitable weights, then you can use body weight exercises, but maybe make them a little more challenging by doing single leg exercises.

Lets get in to some specifics…

Running, and I hesitate in writing this because it seems a little obvious, uses the feet quite a lot – so having strong feet is very important.

For this reason I do all my strength training barefooted because it actually really helps to build up the strength of your feet.

Next up, ankles, grumbling achilles are incredibly common and can often cause a physio or other medical professional to tell you to stop running. Having had my own experiences of grumbling achilles and looked at the various diagnostic and treatment protocols; I would advise taking great care.

A ruptured achilles is an incredibly serious injury that can end a running career and even lead to permanent walking difficulties; which means many professionals are extremely risk averse when treating achilles injuries. However, early stage achilles injuries can be very successfully treated with fairly straightforward exercise regimes of heel drops.

They’re quite simple, don’t really require any equipment apart from a step. So unless you live in a bungalow, then it should be really easy to do. If you live in a bungalow you’ll have to improvise some kind of step you stand on the edge of the step. And these there, you can these grade in terms of how you do them.

I very often recommend the exercises in the last section of this document from Oxford University Hospitals.

The raise is part of the heel drop will also work on your calf strength.

Moving up to the knee; the knee is an interesting one, most knee pain is triggered by weakness further up the chain – the hips, the glutes and the core.

On to the quads and hamstings; the best exercises are squats and deadlifts, ideally with (relatively) heavy weights – which will also work the core. If you don’t have access to the to weight heavy enough to do squats and dead lifts with them, then there are plenty of other core routines out there – just search YouTube.

We next come to glutes; this is actually this is an important muscle in terms of returning the leg after each stride and the best exercise for glutes is lunges.

To avoid IT band issues and knee issues then I like to work on hip strength – single leg raises, clamshells and side stepping with a resistance band.

So those are my top tips for running strength-training work. The other little benefit is and I hesitate to say this because I know most of my running companions are obviously all 21, but as you get to birthdays, which start with numbers higher than 2, then unfortunately you start to lose both muscle mass and bone density. It is well documented is that strength training slows down that muscle mass and bone density loss really very significantly.

Stretching… stretching is a controversial topic. When I started out running and did my early leadership leadership in running training; stretching before runs was the thing to do, everyone started every run with stretching.

Well, it turns out that’s actually quite a bad idea. If you start with cold muscles and then stretch them, you are in real danger of putting tiny little injuries in there. You then set out on a run doing an exercise which has quite high loading forces and quite high impacts and risk, turning what would have been a very minor muscle tear that you would recovered from in a few hours into a more serious injury.

So whatever you do do not stretch cold muscles and then go for a run. Stretching after a run, should be fine; you should be nicely warmed up and you’re not about to go out and run, so you shouldn’t do any further damage by running on your stretched muscles.

So that’s the basics of what not to do in terms of stretching, but is it actually worth doing at all? In fact, I’m not aware of any evidence that it prevents injuries in runners. So if you’re stretching to try and prevent injury then you’re probably wasting your time.

There is more suggestion that being flexible allows you to improve your stride and your economy. And for that reason, it probably is worth doing some stretching. You can do your simple stretches after you run, or you can incorporate something like yoga, which has the added benefit of also doing quite a lot for core strength.

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