Runners Need to Get Up to Speed

image001By Debbi Goodman, MSPT

It is part of human nature to strive for balance in life. At a young age we are taught the importance of eating a balanced diet. Many of us struggle with balancing our work and social time. We have all felt it when our sleep/wake balance has gotten off track, and many of us have become aware when any of the intricate systems of our body have gotten out of balance. Our bodies work most optimally when all of the inner workings are in balanced state. Physical therapists are particularly interested in the balance of the musculoskeletal system, and our job is to help people restore balance to this system.

The skeleton is made up of a bunch of bones that connect at junctions called joints. The position of the bones are at the mercy of the muscles and connective tissue that connect each bone to one another. Ideally, we want a muscle system where the muscles on the front and back of a bony area are in balance. When the muscle system is in balance, the bony structure is supported properly. However, when the muscle system is unbalanced, the bony structure support becomes altered. For example, if the muscles on the front of the shoulder joint become too tight and shortened, the shoulder bone (the humeral head) will get pulled forward. Over time, if this imbalance is not corrected, the shoulder may become irritated, and pain may begin.

The process of physical therapy is to identify the structural imbalances of the body and then correct them with targeted exercises. Once balance is restored to a system, pain symptoms generally resolve. The main goal of PT is to help clients restore proper alignment to the body.

Many athletes have started to realize that the key to staying healthy is to keep their bodies strong and balanced. We can observe how many types of athlete’s training programs have evolved to include a more balanced and comprehensive training strategy. For example, basketball players (and most other competitive sports teams) don’t just play basketball to train. These players are in the gym. They are lifting weights and stretching. They are working on techniques to build endurance and agility, and they are doing exercises to strengthen the muscles they need for throwing and jumping. These athletes are doing a lot more than just shooting baskets.

Professional ballet dancers are another group that have found that strengthening outside the dance studio is the key to staying healthy. In the 90’s, the dance world discovered Pilates exercise. This system of exercise works on strengthening and lengthening the entire body. Dancers found that when they added Pilates to their dance training, they became stronger, increased their endurance, and stayed healthier.

Many runners still haven’t adopted this training concept yet. As a PT, I have worked with numerous runners. Runners have consulted with me on all sorts of different training programs for running. There are hundreds of different programs a runner can follow regardless of whether you are doing a “Couch to 5K” or training for “Boston.” So far, every program I have seen recommends slow runs, fast runs, days off, timing, pacing, food intake… But very few programs (if any?) include information on stretching, strengthening, or cross-training. I have also had runners who come in claiming to be cross-training by alternating running with biking. Biking is not considered cross-training as it utilizes the same lower extremity flexion/extention pattern as running.

So, in my opinion, it is time that runners get up to speed with proper training concepts. In order to enable the body to run and stay healthy, it is important to stay balanced. Running is an extremely repetitive exercise. The action of running uses certain muscle patterns over and over again, and other muscles are used less. If a runner only runs, over time, the muscles can become out of balance. If this imbalance becomes excessive, the body will start to break down.

In order to keep the body healthy, the runner should incorporate a well-rounded strength and flexibility program that addresses the needs of the runner. The more time a runner spends running, the more time the runner should be spending on exercises to balance the system to help prevent injury. This will definitely require a change in the mind-set of the runner as to their training needs, but when implemented, the runner will see that he/she will accomplish even more than ever thought possible and stay healthy while doing it!

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