How to run injury-free

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Prevent getting injured on your runs. (istockphoto.com)

If you’re a runner like me, let’s face it -- you would give up a lot of fun things in exchange for a guarantee of no more injuries. No more tendonitis, stress fractures, or pulled hamstrings. All of it -- completely gone. But while no one has found an elixir to prevent all running-related injuries, we do know of and understand some very basic principles and exercise series that can significantly reduce your risk of sustaining a running-related injury.

One of the most basic principles is to make smart training decisions. For instance, you shouldn’t run back-to-back intense workouts unless you’ve systematically built up to this load and can handle the high level of stress this decision can induce. Another example is to make sure you don’t suddenly increase your long run from 8 to 16 miles on a whim if you’ve never run over 10 miles in the past. Poor training decisions are one of the biggest contributing factors to development of a running-related injury. So be the smart runner in your neighborhood, group or club, or on your team.

Now, in terms of an exercise series that can help keep you out running on the roads, track, and trails rather than in my clinic, I’ve got a secret for you. All those clam shells, squats, bridges, and band exercises -- even all together -- will not do nearly as much for you as the series to which I will introduce you momentarily. As a runner, the best exercises and activities to help you reduce your risk of becoming injured are ones which progressively increase your ability to handle greater loads while running. Hence, we need running-specific exercises.

The series we have designed at FLASH Sports Physical Therapy & Performance Center for runners is called FLASH Hill Drills. We utilize FLASH Hill Drills in the later stages of rehabilitation as a form of running-specific strengthening and power development for our patients who are runners; the series also is a weekly injury prevention and performance feature for every runner Olympian Brian Sell and I coach.

To perform FLASH Hill Drills, find a moderately steep, asphalt hill (about 10% grade) that is at least 50 meters in length. Now, you’ll be performing what we call technical exercises or drills that have historically been completed by track athletes on flat ground. We add a tremendous amount of resistance to each technical exercise when we perform it on a hill. Thus, FLASH Hill Drills are basically “squats for the runner” as the series leaves your legs feeling very fatigued upon completion so long as the hill is steep enough.

Here’s the series:

High knees: 4x20m

Run forward with short, quick steps, driving your knees into the air. Make sure you focus on a balanced, propulsive arm swing as well. High knees especially work your hip flexor and quadriceps muscles.

Butt kicks: 4x30-40m

Run forward, bringing your heel to your butt with each step. Make sure you move your arms as you typically would while running. Butt kicks help strengthen your hamstring muscles and encourage more symmetry in your running stride.

Skipping: 4x50m

Skip just like you used to when you were a kid…..but make sure you are NOT twisting excessively from side to side. Also, make sure you are driving forward with your arms as you work on skipping for distance up the hill. Skipping really works your glutes!

Hill sprints: 4x10 seconds at 90-100% maximal effort

Regular running…..but you should be sprinting!  Start at 90% maximal effort and build to 100% maximal effort after performing the series for a few weeks. Hill sprints will help integrate everything together after performing the high knees, butt kicks, and skipping; you’ll be working all the muscles in your lower body!

Because you’ll be focusing on building running-specific strength and power when performing these drills, the recovery in between each repetition is simply WALKING back down the hill. Do not run back down the hill as the quality of the technical exercises or drills will be compromised over the course of performing the series. We do have progressions for FLASH Hill Drills, but that is the subject for another post.

Measuring your distance 

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “How do I measure 20-, 30- to 40-, and 50-meter distances?”  That’s a great question. Forget trying to use your GPS watch to measure these extremely short distances though as we’ve found estimation to be a much easier method. After you’ve warmed up with 1 to 4 miles of easy running, simply run up your hill for 10 to 15 seconds at a decent pace: the distance you cover is approximately 50 meters in length. Then, simply estimate the remaining distances -- the 20 meters for the high knees is about half that distance, and the 30- to 40-meter mark for the butt kicks is about halfway between the end-point of the high knees and skipping. After completing FLASH Hill Drills, make sure you cool-down with 1 to 4 miles of easy running.

Basically, you’re sandwiching the drills between warm-up and cool-down runs. You can be creative in terms of when you perform these drills during your running workout; we’ve had runners who prefer to run 4 miles beforehand and 1 mile afterwards as well as others who do the complete opposite or sandwich the drills right in the middle of their run total for the day (i.e., 1 mile beforehand and 4 miles afterwards or 3 miles beforehand and 3 miles afterwards, respectively).

Your legs and butt will definitely be sore the day or two after performing FLASH Hill Drills for the first time. This soreness is perfect as you’re beginning the process of strengthening all the muscles you use while running. During this period, treat FLASH Hill Drills as one of your more intense weekly workouts, making sure you do not perform a more intense running workout like a tempo run or intervals the day before or day after them.

Over time, you’ll notice you’re no longer sore in the days after performing FLASH Hill Drills. At that point, you’ve adapted to the new stress and can continue to perform them weekly for maintenance effects. You then can try completing them the day before a more intense running workout as the drills will help wake up your body (neuromuscular effect) and smooth out your stride. Many of our runners enjoy this sequencing of workouts and can attest to its positive effects.

We have runners all over Chester County and beyond performing FLASH Hill Drills, thereby reducing their risk of sustaining a running-related injury. These runners are also developing a more powerful stride, helping them get one step closer to a PR (personal record, aka best time)!  Now, you have the same opportunity, so find a hill, and get started!


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