Returning to running after a layoff
The shift to working from home and the closure of gyms has likely changed your activity level over the winter. With spring around the corner a lot of us are hoping to exercise more outdoors, including running outside instead of on a treadmill. Our team has put together information on a few key areas, which are often left unaddressed after a layoff, potentially increasing the risk of injury. If you're looking forward to boosting your activity level in the spring, read on to learn about some simple stretches and factors to consider both before and during your run.
Don't let your flexibility hold you back
Sitting for a longer periods of time than usual? Work routines have been disrupted with the shift to working from home. We've previously discussed proper ergonomics to reduce the risk of injury. However, even the best ergonomic setup won't maintain muscle flexibility.
When we sit our hips are positioned in flexion. It's not surprising that this will result in shortening of your hip flexor muscles, including your psoas and iliacus (at the front of your hip), adductors (inner thigh), and tensor fascia lata (or TFL, on your outer thigh). Insufficient range of this muscle group can lead to knee pain, outer hip "IT band" pain, or back pain during running or as you continue to run with muscle imbalances.
Stretching your hip flexors
Stretching your hip flexors involves passively lengthening them and feeling the stretch where the muscle group is located. If you are feeling the stretch in your back you've exceeded the range of motion of this group.
Stretching your hamstrings
Studies have shown when it comes to athletics reduced length of your hamstrings increases the risk of injury. Hamstrings that don't stretch may be a symptom of a weakness of your glutes or unresolved injuries from your back or hip.
Strengthening your glutes
As we said previously, sitting in hip flexion shortens your hip flexors. On the other side of you, it lengthens your hip extensors. Imbalances between your glutes (gluteus maximus, medius and minimus) can lead to lateral knee pain and hip pain, and imbalances in your core muscles.
Strengthening exercises for these can include bridging and hip abduction as a start. When these exercises becomes easy they should progress to more functional exercises, such as lunges with proper form.
When you walk you probably take a step forward landing on your heel. If you walk with an efficient pattern, your toes will be the last point of contact before you swing your leg forward again. This "heel toe" walking pattern is a normal efficient pattern when you're walking.
So why doesn't that work for running?
Running generates more force as your foot strikes the ground. Striking with your leg in front of you keeps your tibia (your shin bone) in a non-vertical position while having to absorb those larger forces. If you're trying to efficiently run forward, this is the equivalent of hitting the brakes with every forward stride. Over time this can lead to knee pain, shin or heel pain, and cause you to fatigue more rapidly than you should.
When you run, your tibia should be vertical on impact so that your foot is underneath you. Whether you strike with your heel, whole foot or toe, this should occur with your foot under your hip. This allows the majority of your stride to occur behind you. This is the difference between hitting the brakes vs. hitting the gas.
Does it seem awkward to do? Restriction in your hip mobility or functional weakness of your glutes will take some time to overcome.
One way to make it easier is to consider your cadence. This is the frequency that your feet hit the ground. An optimal efficient running pattern should result in a foot strike pattern of 160-180 steps per minute. What would it sound like to take about 3 steps per second? There are a lot of free metronome apps that you can download to hear what that beat will sound like. Another easier way to aim for these targets is to run to music that has its beats per minute within the range you're targeting.