When Ryan Hall announced he would not race in this year's New York City Marathon because of a hip injury, many runners with similar overuse injuries no doubt shook their heads in empathy.
This was the fourth consecutive marathon from which Hall withdrew or dropped out due to injury, as he's struggled with hip, hamstring and plantar fasciitis issues—ailments that are all too common for runners.
Another thing runners can empathize with is the seemingly random nature of when and where Hall's injuries have struck. A current Runner's World article tells the story of how Ryan's back went out on him last December, inexplicably, during a 30-minute recovery jog. It wasn't a flareup of old injuries, like foot pain or hamstring trouble, but a brand new problem—"the old injury fandango," as novelist John L. Parker Jr. described it in Once a Runner.
For endurance athletes, injuries are an exasperating game of Whack-A-Mole—one that has sent many scrambling to the running shoe store in the hopes that footwear will offer a solution.
But as a 2009 Sports Health review of 238 research studies revealed, running injuries are less a matter of foot mechanics and more a result of weak hips—and the lack of stabilizing forces resulting from that weakness. In other words: If your hips aren't strong enough to handle running, shoes can't help you.
According to Brian Hickey, Ph.D., an exercise scientist at Florida A&M and a top masters track runner and duathlete, one of the problems that can ensnare longtime runners is that distance running alone does not recruit all of the muscles in your core and hips.
"Ultimately you want the hip to act like a second foot," Hickey says. "You want to engage and recruit those larger muscles. If I run with my hips I will be engaging and using the hips, the hamstrings, the quads. When I engage those larger muscles, the lower legs are then just along for the ride."
To do this most effectively, Hickey recommends lifting heavy weights to wake up dormant muscle fibers.
"We typically only use about 50 percent of human muscle in our day-to-day lives. But let's say a car flips over and traps your dad. The way you're going to lift the car off him is with a surge of adrenaline, recruiting all of your muscles and lifting core-to-extremity. You're going to light up a ton of motor units. The light switches are going to go on."
By lifting heavy weights as a part of your training program, Hickey says, you turn on those light switches in the deeper muscles of the core, enabling a flow of power from your core to your extremities, which improves stabilizing forces down the kinetic chain.
Brian MacKenzie, creator of CrossFit Endurance and author of Power, Speed, Endurance: A Skill-Based Approach to Endurance Training, believes that an exercise like a Heavy Squat, coupled with proper running form, can not only achieve the type of training Hickey speaks of, but also act as a potent diagnostic tool.
"Squatting will expose any deficiency in the hip," MacKenzie says. "It has to be a real squat. A partial squat won't do. You have to go below 90 degrees. If you're wicked tight, you'll have to cantilever your torso over as you descend, which will give up spine integrity. Or if your knees cave inward or your arches collapse, you'll know you have insufficient hip stability."
The deficiencies exposed in the squat test, MacKenzie explains, become key points of attack when it comes to coaching a runner toward becoming more indestructible.
One of the best ways to fix things? Add Squats to your training program.
To activate and develop stronger hip muscles, MacKenzie advises runners to slowly improve their Squat, mastering proper form and range of motion first, then increasing the load to activate additional motor units and build more strength. His seven keys to a safe and effective Squat:
- First things first: engage the abdominals and glutes. Do this before getting underneath the bar, MacKenzie says. Keep the midline tight throughout the Squat. This is key to making a loaded Squat safe for your back.
- Don't just drop down into the Squat; reach back by using your hamstrings. One of the primary purposes of the Squat for runners, MacKenzie says, is to wake up glute and hamstring muscles that have long been asleep. If you're correctly performing the Squat and using your hamstrings, you'll definitely feel it in the backs of your legs.
- Drive your knees out while descending. A common fault coaches see with runners taking on the Squat is what's called valgus knee, where the knees cave inward. Runners who demonstrate this have weak stabilizing muscles, a "hole" in their kinetic chain that ultimately leads to sloppy foot mechanics and injuries. While squatting, MacKenzie says, drive the knees outward. This serves as a safety precaution and also engages and strengthens the weak muscles causing the problem.
- Track your knees over the feet but not beyond. While squatting, drive your hips and hamstrings back so your knees don't reach out over your knees.
- Fight to keep a vertical torso. MacKenzie says stiff muscles are at the root of a runner who can't help but bend forward during the deeper parts of the Squat. A remedy for this is to work hard during the Squat to keep your chest up and your torso vertical. To practice staying upright, stand facing a wall with your toes against the wall and attempt to squat.
- Go deep. With your core engaged and knees tracking properly, it's safe and desirable to go beneath 90-degree level with your Squat. Doing so will activate additional motor units and develop healthier range of motion in your back and hamstrings.
- Start off light. For many runners with range of motion limitations and weak core muscles, performing a good Squat may be all but impossible even without a barbell on their shoulders. MacKenzie says you should start with bodyweight squats to learn the motion and mechanics. Introduce a barbell and weights as your mobility improves.
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