Every spring brings with it clear roads, nice lush trails and always an explosion of new or reborn runners outside. The year seems bright and shiny and new goals get set, sometimes held over from the year previous. That ½ marathon that didn’t get done last year – this is the one! I’m going to finish my first 10k race in under an hour! I’m going to set a new personal best in May! After coaching endurance athletes for over a decade I’ve pretty much heard all of them before. This applies to those of you who ran regularly last year and haven’t consistently since November (when you finished your last race) too. So I thought I might list off some of the biggest mistakes that I see new or renewed runners make early in season and hopefully it will make sure that a lot of those injuries I end up fixing in the fall don’t happen – at least to you.
1) Start as easy as you need to.
Many beginners start out with a walk/run protocol until they can run continuously for 20 minutes – and you should too. One mistake many beginners make is thinking that they can instantly hop out of their door and run forever without walking. They get 1 kilometer down the road, are gasping for air and their muscles are screaming, limp home and never go out again. I wonder why? This applies to reborn runners as well – sometimes those first few runs are hard on the body and it needs time to adjust and get used to the movement again. Try walk 1 minute, then JOG (not run) 1 minute and repeat for about 10 cycles – this is 20 minutes total, 10 minutes of jogging. This is a good starting point. Start with 3 times a week on non-consecutive days. You will know you are improving when things get easier and then you can progress to 2/1, up to 10/1 and then try for a long continuous run.
Also, it has been proven that aerobic conditioning is incredibly important. The majority of running at the starting stages should be at aerobic pace (meaning at least conversational). This can be very difficult for beginners, so watch your perceived exertion levels!
2) Warm up and Cool Down properly
Just putting your shoes on and going full speed right away is something even experienced runners shouldn’t do. My athletes all start out with mobility movements and drills before starting, then slowly ramp up to their workouts. High level athletes sometimes warm up for over an hour before their main workout starts! This is important for blood flow, getting your brain into movement and making sure all is okay before you start pounding on your joints. At the end of a workout, take some time to walk, evaluate how you feel and don’t just plop yourself down and stop moving right away. Don’t necessarily just stretch, either – often your muscles are too taxed and you are potentially doing yourself more harm than good by stretching immediately afterwards anyway. Treat every workout seriously, because if you want to perform well over time this is an essential habit to have right away.
Historically my athletes all tell me that if they had a crappy run it was because they didn’t warm up or do any movement before they went into their workout. It also significantly increases injury risk.
3) Progress yourself slower than you think you need to.
I can’t stress enough that the majority of overuse injuries I see are caused by their name – overuse. Some days are going to be a lot better than others for running, so ramping up mileage needs to be done weekly with a deload week once in a while (meaning just drop your total mileage by about 20%). There are lots of good plans out there and if the plan calls for 3 miles, don’t suddenly do 5 just because you are feeling great that day. My marathon runners spend months increasing weekly mileage from 50km per week to 70 and many more to 100 – you have to give the body time to adapt to stress under load. I often explain it to people that if you walked into the gym after hardly bench pressing 100 pounds and suddenly tried for 150, likely it wouldn’t go very well and you could easily hurt yourself, right? Running (and any other form of muscular stress) is the same thing. Start with alternating days, then add in a day once you feel capable. 4 days a week is generally plenty for most runners unless you are trying for a very fast time, especially when you add in other components, like…
4) Strength train. Both with resistance and while running.
Huh? How can you strength train while running, you ask? Well, the funny thing is that the body adapts to stress under load. Especially for beginners, getting into the weight room and lifting weights (properly) has been proven to be better for your running efficiency, allow you to recover from workouts faster and severely reduce your risk of injury. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean bench presses – the strength movements should be tailored to the muscles that you need to be better at running. A good strength coach (and I happen to know an excellent one!) can be your guide here. Strength training while running can be done with things like hill workouts, hard track workouts and even simple drills you can do at the end of a good run. Again, like anything else care has to be taken to do things properly at the start. There are lots of good beginner strength programs out there for endurance athletes.
It also doesn’t require a gym membership. I can outfit a decent home gym for less than $100, so if you need any guidance there or even if you don’t have a lot of space it can definitely be done. In fact, you can get a lot of strength from bodyweight movements alone.
5) Be realistic.
If a person comes to me having never run consistently and tells me they want to run a marathon, I tell them it will take 2 years to do properly and injury free. They usually walk out at that point. So many of us want that big goal without giving our body the time to adapt and get stronger while doing it. If you want to do a ½ marathon (without walking) be prepared to be running up to 50-60km per week. For a 10k it should be at least 30-40 – which requires time, commitment and preparation. Don’t be afraid to downgrade your goal if you find you haven’t put in the training time, you are better off to do that then do the race you set and possibly set yourself back for the future as a result. There are races pretty much every weekend during the summer – they will always be there. Would you rather have a bad experience or a good one? The road is long and if you take your time and do things right the first time, you can enjoy running for years without any issues.
All of this being said, a good coach is invaluable and will give you some perspective. Just please make sure you don’t come to them with a list of goals – pick a top one and have a secondary one, but don’t expect that you will lose 30 pounds while also running a ½ marathon. They are separate things and should be treated as such. If you are interested in exploring either your first race or your twenty-first and are going for a personal best feel free to contact me. I have helped dozens of runners get to that target goal they have been waiting for, whether you are just getting off of the couch or heading towards the Boston Marathon. Feel free to comment, subscribe and follow me on Facebook!
Often when I’m dealing with clients (or even other trainers) and start talking about things like moment arms and force angles or resistance profiles I get a blank stare. I understand that because I’m a geek and like to learn about things like this, just like I would give someone a blank stare if they started telling me about their ’68 Ford and how they replaced the carburetor. Different strokes for different folks.
So when I’m working with clients and start adjusting things often I get asked why I’m doing it. Something as simple as changing an angle during a movement can provide a totally different exercise experience not only for the person involved, but more importantly for the muscles and what you are trying to do to them. A change as insignificant as 10 degrees in the knee during a knee extension depending on the position of the person’s hips can change the amount that a muscle is getting stimulated in ways that you might not think. I’m not going to get into details, but if you want to take a look at THIS study go ahead as an example of what I’m talking about. If you’re really keen I can direct you to about a few dozen more covering similar topics. Another example when dealing with shoulders is that at a certain angle of shoulder abduction (like a lateral raise) the deltoid isn’t working as the primary mover, and then all of a sudden it is.
For our purposes we can call an angle as the measure of a rotation (or an amount of rotation) around a fixed surface – that being your knee, elbow, or finger joint. In the strength work we take this to mean what angle one joint is achieving most often. For example, “going to parallel” generally means that the angle of the thigh relative to the floor is parallel, but some people also take this as achieving 90 degrees in the knee joint.
So here’s the major question that most people are asking right now – why the heck does this matter in my exercise program?
I have clients ask me all of the time how they can change up their workouts, and this is one of the simplest ways to change a fundamental movement pattern and make it do something just a little bit different to the joints in question. In RTS we call this “rotating the tires”. For example, doing a flat bench press, or a 45 degree incline press stimulate the shoulder joint (and a few others) in different ways. A pull down from straight above is different than a pull from in front of you. All of the muscles that cross the joints are still moving and being stressed – just in different ways.
Angle also can contribute a lot into how much force is required to move an object. Example – bicep curl. When a curl is at 90 degrees the force in question on the bicep muscle is potentially twice as much as it is when the elbow is at 30 degrees (towards the end of the movement). This also has to do with how far the weight is away from the joint in question like I discussed in my previous article about distance. Suddenly a ten pound weight is now a twenty pound weight and can start to cause a problem for the person moving it or put more force into their joint than it can handle, causing tendon and ligament damage.
With something as complex as a back loaded squat, there are many angles in question. The ankle, knee and hip joint all have to move together along with achieving a certain angle in the back, the feet and legs in order to provide not only safety but the ability to provide force along a chain that makes sure the muscles are being used to their maximum capacity. The ability to maintain an even hip and knee angle is essential for deep squatting, and then if the whole chain is limited by the ankle joint it will throw everything off and you won’t be able to go as deep, therefore not providing as much stimulation or even tracking into injury. There is a reason that people who have heavy loads on their back often do quarter range squats – because they simply can’t create the force to move the weight if they are at a certain angle. Here’s an illustration:
Simple things like achieving a larger range of motion during a movement can actually alter your exercise in a very significant way. One of the reasons that I’m all over my clients during workouts is because there is simple intention behind every exercise, and if it is performed differently, or with sloppy form then we can’t accomplish the goal for that particular exercise in the way it has been designed. This simple squat illustration can also show us where a person might be restricted due to something else and allow us to alter the current workout to help, not hinder progress. Imagine in each diagram what the different forces might be on the ankle, knee, hip and spinal joints.
A person’s physical structure can also have a lot to do with this. A person with longer levers like a basketball player would have a totally different movement path than someone a foot shorter and much wider like a powerlifter. If my femur is longer then the whole movement changes again and I may not be able to achieve the perfect angle. There is nothing wrong with that, but it does need to be considered when designing an exercise program. Would an exercise like a squat be as “good” for someone who can’t achieve the depth they need to get to in order to stimulate what you are trying to stimulate? Or would something else maybe be safer and more effective?
So here’s an idea – during your next workout, change a couple of angles of movement (while reducing load in order to be safe) and see if it doesn’t stimulate your body in an entirely different way. I can almost guarantee that your body will thank you for the rotation of the tires you are giving it, and your experience will be much more fulfilling. Feel free to report back to me and let me know how it went.
So today during a workout I had just started squatting. I’m not going to get into the details of my current program, but an easy way to sum it up is to say that I’m trying to subject all of my major joints to lots of range of motion in various directions with loads I can easily handle in order to increase mobility so that when I switch to a different form of training they are more able to handle higher levels of force across them.
A trainer at the gym I work out at came up and watched a set, then commented that I had a lot of pelvic tilt and pressure on my lower back and that he wanted to show me something. My first comment was “yes, I know – that’s on purpose.” From the expression on his face I could tell he was curious. He asked what I was doing the squats for. I said “my knees” (and ankles and hips and back etcetera but I’m not going to explain all of that). Okay, he said – but if you go narrower you will engage more of your quads. I told him that I didn’t say my quads – I said my knees.
There are 12 muscles that cross over that joint alone, never mind the many dozens that assist in the movement through the hips, back and foot and ankle. I also said that I was intentionally letting my pelvis roll, which I think was a little bit outside of the proverbial box. Take it as a piece of advice – never assume that you know exactly what the person is trying to do and that what they are doing is “wrong”. You might think it is, but wrong is defined on many different levels. It is based on the individual. If I was doing a shoulder press to help my knee, that’s probably wrong. But moving my legs into ranges they aren’t used to under load in order to help them learn to generate tension through ranges they aren’t used to – that’s not wrong. For what I want, it is very, very right.
Now, this guy definitely had the best of intentions (I know that) and thought that from what he has learned over his years of bodybuilding and weekend courses that he was right. And he was – if we were talking about what he thought we were talking about. The first instinct is to immediately make him feel like an idiot, but he’s not. He just hasn’t seen the side of movements that I have or knows what I know. And at his stage of development as a trainer admittedly I didn’t know those things either. But what I ask people to do on a daily basis when it comes to their body is to really think beyond simply things like quad contraction and go a little bit deeper. So maybe people can learn more about what is really going on within the body when we subject it to force by doing things like squatting so my butt touches the ground and my hamstrings touch my calves with a load on my back.
If I wanted this article to be ten pages long I could break down exactly what happens when you squat with load, through what joints and how fast and with what ranges depending on what goals but that’s not the point. Part of my RTS training is really thinking outside of the movement and being able to either go in like a microscope, or come way out into a much broader view so that no matter who you are dealing with you can not only show them something that is appropriate for them and gives them a good experience, but also maybe teach them a bit (as much as they want to know) about words like “good” and “bad” and what they actually mean. Even words like “better” and “worse” have so many variables they are really hard to define. Better for what? For who? Better how? Where is the magic dividing line that makes better into worse? That makes good into bad? These are all questions that I constantly am searching for the answers to, but the fundamental truth is that there isn’t any one answer. The answer, like I tell people so many times on a regular basis is IT DEPENDS.
When you see someone squatting, you think that it is to get stronger legs. When you realize how many other things are involved in that chain of movement you might realize that by squatting, I can actually make my back stronger. Or my ankles. By changing the tempo or by pushing differently I can affect changes in strange ways as well. By putting the bar on my back instead of my front – the movement changes. Let’s all try hard to think outside of the exercise and consider everything that might be going on with a movement before we judge it.
So to all of the trainers and regular people out there in the gym, let us try really hard the next time that you see someone doing an exercise and you think that it’s “wrong” – maybe ask them why they are doing it. Then ask more questions. And more. You might just learn something.
Over the many years I have been practicing the application of exercise, I have run across many physiotherapists and practitioners of other modalities like chiropractic and massage. Since I don’t want this article to become several dozen pages, today I’m going to discuss the world of physiotherapy and specifically the limitations that I have seen within that system and how it can be helped by a competent trainer. Like any type of practitioner, even medical ones there are both good and not so good people in the respective industry (including my own). However, one of the biggest trends that I see with my clients is that more often than not, their experience with physiotherapy results in limited results and often doesn’t cover the whole need for the person involved. This is what I’m exploring here.
The format is fairly consistent whenever one of my clients or someone I know sees a physio. They are evaluated, which can take the form of simply glancing at a person and doing a cursory examination and then diagnosing (and yes, I have seen this) or a full musculoskeletal workup including x-rays. A diagnosis is given of what the person seems to have affecting their body in the form of painful movement. Treatment is given, which normally takes the form of a couple of different types of therapeutic modalities (most commonly massage, ultrasound, hot/cold packs and TENS). Sometimes simple exercises and stretches are prescribed as well depending on the patient.
When I went into some research about some of these modalities, some interesting things came about. For example, did you know that ultrasound has rarely if ever been proven to actually do anything beneficial for pain reduction? And, on top of that a recent study published in May of this year in the Ultrasound Journal found that therapists displayed “a lack of knowledge” of the basic physiological effects of ultrasound. After several hours of searching, most studies I found basically stated that there was little to no difference with most patients in terms of reduction of pain whether they actually received the treatment or had a turned off machine hooked up. The research on TENS is remarkably the same – there has been little to no evidence that it actually does anything useful in terms of healing or pain reduction. One statement I found (from an actual physio site) suggested that TENS and acupuncture are essentially the same thing. But many therapists use these all of the time of all of their patients without even considering if they will be useful. Don’t even get me started on the various versions of stretching – that’s a whole other kettle of fish I’ll open up another time. Of all the things that are performed, massage and hot/cold packing is most likely to create some relief, but it does absolutely nothing to address the joint and muscles in question strength wise, which is normally the source of the injury.
Then we head into the exercise area. Granted, many people who come into clinics like this have quite limited function and simply want to get back to their normal daily sitting on the couch and in their office chair. However, therapists often don’t even give exercises at all beyond simple joint mobility movements and suggestions like “take a yoga class” or “stop lifting heavy”. I realize that therapists deal with some very broken people, but to me they should have some solutions in place in order to help the people make sure that these things do not happen on a recurring basis. Doing rotator cuff rotations with a 2-pound weight isn’t likely to improve the ability of a muscle to maintain tension or generate force, especially if it isn’t even affecting what you think it is (standing dumbbell external rotations anyone?). Many therapists who prescribe exercise in my experience have little knowledge of how to do it properly in order to maintain joint strength and increase the ability to generate force. Machines are the devil and “functional movement” is the best thing. I actually had a therapist months ago – who had been seeing her patient for a YEAR (and the injury happened several years prior) – tell me she should “definitely never do” anything like squatting, lunging or lifting. Within about three weeks I had her client squatting and lifting without pain and able to at least hold herself on one leg without any problem or loss of control whatsoever. From what I know of the therapy profession, if something isn’t improving after that amount of time, don’t you think it is time to try something else or stop taking that person’s money and admit you aren’t helping?
The other side of that coin is that patients are not educated and often try after a couple of treatments (thinking they are now reduced pain wise) to go right back to what they were doing before the injury. They don’t realize that the body takes a while to improve back and they might have to modify their movements for a little while or simply approach their joints in a different way – and it will make little to no difference to the muscles in question. In fact, by “rotating their tires” most of my clients find that they improve faster and can do more after they have laid off of a specific pattern for a while. But they need to know what to do and how, and most therapists either don’t have the time for this, or don’t have enough knowledge in that area. I acknowledge that there are also a lot of PT’s who think they are therapists and massage their clients with sticks and diagnose things they shouldn’t, but they don’t have a big official title and public trust behind their names.
I think that every PT should have to take a therapy based course, if not to get some more knowledge in anatomy and proper movement of joints, then for a very simple reason – to learn how to de-progress somebody to the point of ridiculously low loads that they might need at first. Through my RTS/MAT knowledge I can do things like remove bodyweight, change the intensity of a load halfway through a movement, change directions of force entirely or even apply forces differently so that the joint can learn to maintain tension. I realize that not a lot of trainers have this type of knowledge. I wish that some of my colleagues cared enough to study these things. I realize the fear that most physios have is the typical “boot camp” trainer who is going to take their client just getting over an injury and hurt them again (if it wasn’t the trainer who did it in the first place). There are biases on both sides and instead of competing for clients, I often find the best solution is to work together so the client gets the best benefit. Physio can take you to the point where you can move properly again, but more often than not much, much more needs to happen after that to ensure that nothing happens again, and that’s where someone like me comes in. Many therapists simply don’t have the tools for what happens after and aren’t trained in them through no fault of their own.
Very recently (Monday last week) I had a client come in after not seeing her for a couple of weeks with pain down her leg which she said had been there for a few days after a weekend of doing things at the cottage. She was upset because she didn’t know what she did and was worried that it was going to set her back with her running program. After doing an assessment I found that her problem likely wasn’t anywhere near her leg and seemed like it might be the result of some strain from painting – with her opposite side on her upper body. Her midsection was also not responding well to muscle testing. After I applied some simple MAT and movements to those areas, she came in two days later claiming that I was a “wizard” because the next day she was 90% better and pain free. One of the things I tell my clients constantly is that the body has no rules, and more often than not the source of the pain is not where the pain is. These are things that a lot of practitioners fail to explore. I often use the analogy of a person coming in with a headache. You can give them an aspirin to mask the pain – or try to find the source of the headache and not only stop it completely but also prevent it from coming back. Using MAT and RTS principles I am able to do this consistently with success. And, the great thing is that usually they end up stronger as a result over time.
My advice is always the same with any practitioner, including my own industry. Get referred to one (and please not through someone you don’t trust) and evaluate them while they evaluate you. Get a sense for what they are trying to do to help you. Don’t believe anything just because they say it, research and evaluate on your own as well. Some people will research televisions they are planning to buy more than the person who is going to affect their body in a very fundamental way. Never assume anything. And good luck with whatever you are doing to your body today.