RUN STRONGER RUN LONGER!
Running is an excellent form of aerobic exercise when done correctly offering cardiovascular benefits as well as many peak moments of endorphin intoxication. However, if performed with poor mechanics, years of pounding the pavement can take its toll on the body. Over time running with poor posture or less than perfect form can have a negative impact on our anatomical structure adversely making it harder and harder to sustain the activity we enjoy so much as we continue to age. While disciplined running may offer heightened enjoyment and be great for our psychological health excessive hours of addictive running can lead to extreme tightness and discomfort in the lower back as well as compromised hip and knee joints. Fortunately, there are ways of learning to run smarter in order to enjoy the art of running longer.
Practice pilates to run smarter.
Many runners as well as professional athletes are turning to pilates workouts to improve flexibility and agility in order to run stronger, play harder, and perform better, staying on top of their game in the game longer. Pilates is an excellent way to improve posture, increase core strength and enhance kinesthetic awareness. It will facilitate better alignment and stride mechanics for more efficient execution. Running with better form will serve to diminish impact forces that will alleviate joint stress. Running with greater efficiency will improve recovery time. Running with greater ease will invigorate the body, energize the mind and enable the spirit to soar time and time again.
In the act of running there are two primary actions performed, hip flexion and hip extension. Hip flexion, resulting in a crease at the hip joint, occurs as the leg strides forward tightening the front and stretching the back of the leg. Then as the leg moves backward the hip extends tightening the back of the leg while lengthening the front. Runners tend to have tight hamstrings and overdeveloped superficial hip flexors which are largely responsible for accomplishing this movement. The rectus femoris, a superficial muscle found right at the crease of the hip is largely used to pull the leg forward along with the sartorius and tensor fascia late. They cross the hip joint attaching the femur or thigh bone to the front of the pelvis or hip bone. The rectus femoris is often overused and over developed in runners.
The psoas and the iliacus are also hip flexors. Combined they form the iliopsoas. The iliopsoas muscle group is not only a deep initiator of hip flexion and extension it is also a primary stabilizer of the body during ambulatory locomotion. It attaches to both the top of the femur and inside the pelvis as well as to the spine fanning out along several lower or lumbar vertebrae.
Although the iliopsoas is the primary hip flexor it is often underused and weak especially if most of the effort running and or walking is done by using the rectus femoris. Long hours of sedentary habits like sitting in front of computers and television screens can also exacerbate the ramifications of weak, inactive or tight iliopsoas hip flexors. Runners can have tight iliopsoas hip flexors and or they may also be weak or underdeveloped especially if they have learned to rely prominently on the superficial hip flexors. Weak iliopsoas muscles offer little support and tight ones can pull on the lumbar spine tilting the pelvis forward creating a sway back posture especially if there is not enough core strength to support correct positioning of the pelvis and neutral alignment of the spine in extension.
Postural Pitfalls While Running
As a result runners have the tendency while running to allow an anterior tilt of the pelvis that will disengage the large gluteus muscles of the hip and will thus also overwork the calves and hamstrings. The forward tilt of the pelvis results in an increase in the curvature of the lumbar spine that compresses the vertebrae which can ultimately result in lower back discomfort or pain. Elongating the spine vertically while maintaining the pelvis in an upright alignment especially as the leg stretches to the back will promote more use of the internal pelvic floor and gluteus muscles. As the leg pushes off moving forward all the muscles of the leg should fire from the calf muscles (soleus and gastrocnemius) to the hamstrings behind the leg and then the large gluteus muscles of the hip as well. If the chain of activation is not thoroughly engaged the ultimate power of the gluteus muscles will be lost. If there is failure to efficiently execute the movement all the way up the chain to the hip there will be a decrease in trajectory that will register in lower performance and actualized speed as well as overworked hamstrings, tight calves and Achilles tendons.
Run More Efficiently with Better Posture
Practicing pilates will not only cultivate greater awareness of the pelvic center integrating movement of the body through a strong core but will stretch and strengthen the legs and whole body with an emphasis on correct alignment, neuromuscular integration and balance. Time practicing pilates is spent cultivating and sensing proper posture and bio mechanics, with an emphasis on breath initiation and core integration. Exercises are performed with focus and concentration facilitating movement through mindful breathing. Particular exercise patterns are performed leveraging the physics of the body for optimal proprioceptive stimulation and neuromuscular engagement. It is not enough to just move. It is essential to move with intention and purpose honing prescribed sequences and progressive variations in order to tone and condition a uniformly healthy body, balanced musculature and active awareness that will spill over into everyday activities.
Exercises to Improve Running Form
Pilates practice on a regular basis will cultivate an intrinsic sense of proper posture and running mechanics. A pilates oriented exercise program will increase overall flexibility and condition a strong core musculature to support the impact of running. Specific exercises can be done to facilitate torso strength and stability as well as optimal efficiency of hip flexion and extension. While there are literally hundreds of exercises that will benefit runners a few in particular will specifically target tight superficial hip flexors promoting their release and ease while encouraging activation of the deeper iliopsoas and primary core muscles. These are basic supine knee folds and leg slides.
Supine Knee Folds to Release Tight Hip Flexors
The principle objective of the knee fold is to release the superficial hip flexors (tensor fascia late, rectus femoris, and sartorius) while activating the deeper illiospsoas maintaining stability of the pelvis and neutrality of the spine. The goal is to sense the integrated relationship of pelvic musculature and core support during hip flexion and extension. Practicing knee folds will develop dynamic core awareness and stability in actions of hip flexion and extension such as those performed when running. Knee folds are done lying supine on the back with knees bent, feet flat on the mat, arms easily lengthened along side the torso.
To begin, take a deep breath in. As you exhale sense the weight of the body masses (shoulder girdle, ribs and pelvis) gently pressing them downward into the mat. Deepening into the exhalation, imprint the ribs and tale bone into the floor. Then at the depth of the exhalation, hinge (folding) at the hip joint flexing 90º to a right angle at the knee and hip (tabletop position) while maintaining stability of the pelvis and neutrality or the spine. Neutral spine in pilates refers to maintaining the natural “s” curvature of the spine when it is elongated. When performing the knee fold pay attention to initiate the action from the iliopsoas, deep inside the hip socket keeping the superficial hip flexors relaxed and as easy as possible. To stabilize the pelvis and core the oblique muscles on the same side as the occurring leg action are also activated as well as the back extensors. Feel the head of the femur (thighbone) sink down into the hip socket maintaining the length of the lumbar (lower) spine.
Leg Slides to Improve Stride Ease
As with knee folds the goal of leg slides is to isolate the deep hip flexors (iliospsoas) separating the action of the leg from the core musculature (transverse, abdominal muscles, quadratus lumborum, and back extensors) which are used to stabilize the spine and pelvis. The primary movement objective is to perform hip flexion and extension without ancillary repercussion in the pelvis or spine. Efficiency and ease of action occur when the torso remains still unaffected by the leg movement.
Leg slides like knee folds are done supine on the back, with knees bent, feet flat on mat, and arms easily lengthened along side the torso. To begin take a full breath. On the inhalation, fill the chest cavity with air, expanding outward to the sides with the breath. Scoop and hollow out between the front of the hip bones and lift up and under the front of the ribcage activating the abdominal muscles. On the exhalation, imprint the torso into the mat and slide one foot out along the floor to extend the leg. Activate the transverse, rectus abdominus, obliques and back extensors to stabilize the pelvis and torso. After extending, slide the foot back pulling it back toward the sit bones. Remember that the goal of the exercise is to articulate movement at the hip joint without having to move the pelvis or spine in order to do so. This applies directly to the mechanics of running where movement at the hip should occur freely without pulling on the pelvis while maintaining the vertical neutrality of the spine.
Prone Hip Extension for More Propulsive Power
One more beneficial exercise for runners involves the articulation of the deep iliopsoas and gluteus muscles. As with hip flexion activation of the core musculature (transverse, abdominals, quadratus lumborum and back extensors) is necessary to stabilize the spine and pelvis during hip extension as well. Prone hip extension is performed to engage the hip and leg extensors efficiently while supporting the stability of the spine with core strength and control. This exercise is practiced lying supine prone on the belly, legs extended in line with hip sockets and hands resting comfortably underneath the chin or reaching overhead in line with the shoulders.
Begin taking a deep breath in letting the belly press into the mat as you expand through the waist and around the ribcage. Then exhale pressing the pubic bone into the mat, pulling up and in through the navel, pressing the abdominal muscles up and in against spine, scooping out the thoracic space under the rib cage as much as possible, lifting the belly off the floor, without disturbing the pelvis or the neutrality of your spine. At the depth of the exhale, engage the pelvic floor and elongate all the way down the leg from the gluteus muscles and hamstrings all the way to your toes. Reach the leg out of the hip socket until it rises an inch off the floor taking care again to stabilize the pelvis with the core muscles. It is important activate the pelvic floor and core muscles simultaneously in order to provide proper support for the many articulations of the spine.
Perfecting these three simple movements, supine knee folds, leg slides, and prone hip extensions, will translate into postural improvements, increased efficiency, greater core control, and decreased joint stress while running. There are many more pilates inspired mat and equipment exercises that can help to enhance awareness, develop flexibility and improve posture, as well as teach ease and efficiency of movement that will improve running dynamics and enable runners to go on doing what they love most.