Running is not considered a high-risk sport, certainly not compared with rugby or horse riding. And yet, the world of running specialist physiotherapy is a growth industry. Many first-time runners train for an event without the correct preparation and consideration for things such as footwear, strength, endurance and tailored training programmes.
The result: injury. But if you follow the following tips to strengthen and protect in the lead up to a race, you will significantly reduce your chance of picking up an injury. And if you are unlucky to develop a niggle, you’ll be strong enough to quickly bounce back.
The following tips are aimed at becoming part of your everyday routine in the month before your race to strengthen the kinetic chain used when running but are an effective warm up in the days or day immediately before your race.
Stand on one leg while brushing your teeth and balance for 20-30 seconds before changing sides. This improves your proprioception (balance and special awareness) as well as developing functional strength in the ankle, knee, hip and core.
Walk sideways along your hallway, ideally with a loop of exercise band around your thighs, strengthening your inner and outer thigh (abductor and adductors) This can be made more difficult if you try to carry the morning cup of tea back to the bedroom at the same time.
Find a stairwell at work and use the bottom step to work your calf muscles. First of all, stand on tiptoes on the bottom step and then slowly lower yourself down until your heel is at the lowest point; remain there for a few seconds’ stretch, then return back up at a normal pace, before slowly lowering again. Do three sets of 15 on each leg.
Stretch the muscles that operate the ITB (Iliotibial band) by placing one foot around the back of the other until your little toes are touching, then lean to the side (if the right foot goes around the back then lean to the left and vice versa). Adapt this stretch by now leaning forwards and twisting to the side
Strengthen your knee control with the single-leg squat. Standing on one leg, bend the knee just enough so it’s visible through a pair of trousers and then straighten. Repeat this as many times a day as you can for two weeks, then progress to a knee bend that lowers your hip about two inches for a further two weeks. Continue to develop every fortnight until you have a totally controlled 65-80 degree knee bend. This will ensure the slow progress and development of key muscles in the foot, knee and hip, which becomes transferable to your running technique and reduces your risk of injury.
Lie on the floor, knees bent and feet flat (traditional sit-up position). Place your index finger just a little lower and further in than the bony parts of your pelvis. If you couch, you will feel a bounce in a muscle called the transverse abdominus, one of your abdominal muscles. You can tighten this by imagining yourself stopping the flow when going to the toilet, as in a pelvic floor exercise. With this muscle tight, draw your belly button in towards your spine and flatten your lower back onto the floor. Keeping everything tight, slowly lift each foot off the ground in turn, just enough to slide a small book under your heel. Do three sets of 25 reps with each foot.
This is core strengthening in one of its more basic forms and is the precursor to more challenging exercises such as the plank. Core strength is vital to a runner, so make sure you strengthen yours as often as you can You also need to stretch your glutes, hip flexors and hamstrings – but, hopefully, you’re doing this after each run.
By now you have strengthened and lengthened everything at breakfast to help the knee, the most common are of injury for runners. You have exercised and stretched the calf at lunchtime to reduce Achilles and heel pain, and worked the sides of the thighs for greater control. Your feet are more adaptable and your core is ‘switched on’ too.
Keeping these exercises simple means you’re more likely to fit them into your daily routine. Make a little effort and you’ll notice a lot of improvement.