Having come across yet another article and research study highlighting the meteoric rise of injury rates with young athletes specializing in one sport, it got me thinking about what many of us older (and not necessarily wiser) adults do on a regular basis, especially us runners. How many of us actually get out of our comfort zone of running regardless of speed or interval/distance? How many of us actually mix it up on a regular basis? Oftentimes, we fall into that specialization category at some point or another much like young athletes these days, and understandably so given our schedules. It is no surprise then that running related injuries are so common.
With winter fast approaching, it is a perfect time in the northeast to break the habit of specialization temporarily, and consistently get out of your comfort zone so that you can come back stronger and reduce the likelihood of injury during the busier months of training and racing. It is your chance to build whole body robustness and resiliency as you can explore other movement patterns besides running straight ahead. This idea is especially important because running isn't just a single plane activity. While the majority of movement is forward obviously, there is a lot going on side-to-side and with rotation, mainly in terms of stabilization. This is where getting out of your comfort zone really pays dividends as you can challenge all 3 planes of movement resulting in improved running efficiency and, more often than not, fewer injuries.
Some ideas for the winter:
1. Drill work. Think form and technique and reinforcing the skills required for an efficient running gait. Regardless of your individual style, there are certain foundational skills worth mastering to improve performance which doubles as a countermeasure to many common running related injuries like tendinitis and stress syndromes. A great resource for guidance and ideas is Chris Johnson as he is constantly posting excellent videos related to this very topic. To be perfectly honest, this is a great adjunct to training regimens year round anyway.
2. Strength Training. Like drill work, this is also highly encouraged to incorporate into your training routine on a regular basis as there is no downside to strength. However, during the off season of winter, different goals can be addressed and different training strategies can be used. It is a great time to train more as a total athlete working on some areas that might be missed during the busier seasons and stress total strength in all planes of movement. Variations of multi-joint exercises like dead lifts, squats, pulls and presses along with unilateral versions is a way to help balance and bulletproof your body for the demands of running. For inspiration, ideas and intelligent programming, check out Ben Bruno's YouTube channel. You will not be disappointed.
3. Cross Country Skiiing. I've not come across a more challenging total body activity, except for rowing possibly, than cross country skiing. You don't have a choice but to use every part of your body which makes for a highly efficient exercise. Both styles of cross country skiing, skate and classic, are demanding but skate can be particularly advantageous since you spend more time in multiple planes of movement working different muscle groups than the straight ahead style of classic. It's also faster and more enjoyable in my opinion. The Shawangunk Nordic Ski Association is a great resource to keep you up to date on all of the trails and conditions locally.
4. Snowshoeing/Winter Hiking. Whether or not there's snow, getting out on some of the trails and high peaks around here, especially in the Catskills, is an excellent workout. There is plenty of variation and level of difficulty making it accessible for all skill levels. Hop on some single track to add another element of difficulty and to improve your technical proficiency on some of the gnarly terrain. Add snow to the mix and then you can throw on a pair of snowshoes making for a completely different challenge and experience.
5. Swimming. For those that want to stay inside, swimming is always an excellent alternative (or so I'm told since I'm still in a perpetual learning phase). Like cross country skiing, this is another total body activity that will engage different muscle groups than running does allowing you to be more of a complete athlete who happens to run instead of only a runner.
Winter doesn't have to be a true off season and you can break the cycle of specialization. It can be the perfect time to make gains in a variety of ways that can work in your favor come springtime when you're logging your miles again. So get out of your comfort zone and reap the game changing rewards of improved performance and fewer injuries this year!
Knowledge = Power; Share The Power:
Some of you may not be lucky enough to experience the invasion of the "polar vortex". I, for one, think this is what winter should be like and is reminiscent of winters past. You may think winter is too cold to begin with, let alone this particular winter, to get out there and log some miles on the roads and trails. I admit it's not for everyone but I find cold weather running rather invigorating. (I also despise treadmills so that limits my options anyway.)
When you're talking about single digits, teens and into the 20's for air temperature, as it has been for my recent runs, speed work and interval training are not easy to do. Running faster especially if there is any kind of wind automatically makes it feel colder so it usually isn't the most enjoyable thing to begin with. Physiologically it is generally more difficult because your body uses more energy (read: oxygen) to maintain its core temperature and muscle efficiency decreases. (1) For most people this means more work for the same results in warmer temps.
So what is a runner to do?
Instead of hammering out intervals, winter can be a great time to focus on the fundamentals of your technique as it can have a dramatic effect on your performance. After that initial shock of the cold air, I like to start at the top and analyze all the way to the bottom:
For me that means using my ears and listening to my cadence first. If you missed my post about the importance of your auditory organs as a runner you can read that here. Your cadence should sound relatively symmetrical regardless of foot strike preference. (That's another topic for the future.)
How's your head position? Straight and stable? Good.
What about your shoulders? Are they back and relaxed allowing you to maintain an upright posture and promote good lung function or are they tense and shrugged up to your ears? No bueno if it is the latter.
How are your hands? Clenched like a death grip and creating tension throughout your whole upper body or gently flexed like you're holding an egg?
What are your arms doing? Are your elbows comfortably bent? Is your arm swing compact and moving forward and back for the most part rather than side to side? Is one arm doing something the other arm isn't?? This is often a place where energy is wasted as the arms can do interesting things and take away your forward momentum.
Onto the lower body. Are you getting hip drive with every step? Is one knee clipping your leg with each swing...maybe both? Are your feet clipping your legs...maybe one more than the other? Hint: this will waste energy and efficiency also.
What's going on when your foot hits the ground? Does it feel like (sound like) you're landing relatively symmetrical each step? Are you transitioning all the way through the big toe so that you have maximal forward propulsion every step? Do you find you push off more to the inside of your foot? This is another example where energy can be lost and decrease performance.
There you have it...a quick checklist of things to dial in on as you rack up your mileage so that you come out of winter as an efficient runner ready to dominate your goals and races. This is by no means an exhaustive list as each component could be broken down further if need be and usually requires another pair of eyes for observation and analysis. In most cases everything will probably check out and you can be on your merry way to enjoying some cold weather runs. If something is off or you're dealing with a nagging injury that won't go away no matter what you do, consider consulting with a physical therapist knowledgeable in running injury and performance.
Happy running, embrace the polar vortex and see you out on the trails!
1. Nimmo, M. Exercise in the cold. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2004 Oct; 22(10) pp:898-916.
Dr. Greg Cecere
Your personal physical therapist, movement educator and knowledge dispenser.
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The contents of this blog is meant for educational purposes only. Momentum Physical Therapy of New Paltz and Dr. Greg Cecere are not responsible for any harm or injury that may occur due to any information on this blog as it is by no means a substitute for a thorough evaluation by a medical professional.