Isn't Running Enough?! Why Runners Need Strength & Mobility Training.

Isn't Running Enough?
Why Runners Need Strength & Mobility Training. 

There is something about running - the simplicity of putting on your running shoes and just heading out the door.  No equipment needed. Just you, the road and fresh air.  Is it really necessary to complicate things by adding strength training and mobility into the mix? Isn’t running enough to improve our fitness, performance and times?


Striving for a personal best, running longer, running faster seems to be an ongoing elusive goal for many runners with no real end point. The ongoing pursuit of the next goal can put runners at greater risk for injury if they’re not mindful about some crucial aspects of programming.

Runners will often blame their injuries on things such as not stretching enough, running shoes, running form or overpronation.  In reality, the research shows that running injuries are multi-factorial and most often due to training errors of doing too much, too fast, too soon. (Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2017: VonRosen et al)  More stretching or new shoes on their own won’t prevent an injury from developing if our training efforts are too much for what our bodies are ready for.

So if it’s not the stretching, or the shoes, what can you do as a runner to make sure your body can handle your training load so you can keep on progressing towards your goals?

That’s where strength training and mobility come in! 

Let's start by talking about mobility, which most people equate with stretching. 


To Stretch or Not to Stretch…..That is the Question!

If stretching is not going to prevent injuries, why take the time for it? Research does not support static stretching immediately before running or sports that require some explosiveness like soccer or basketball. 


Static stretching involves holding a muscle in a lengthening position without movement for a specific amount of time.  What we have learned is that static stretching will decrease the strength of the muscle for up to 2 hours after stretching.  This doesn’t sound like an effective warm up for running or sport. 

A dynamic warm up involving muscle activation and global movements taking the joints through relevant ranges of motion (which could also be called dynamic stretching) and warming up the body is recommended.  For runners, a dynamic warm up could include brisk walking, skipping, walking knee hugs, walking lunges, side lunges, high knees to name a few ideas. 






Even though stretching is not recommended immediately prior to a run, that doesn’t mean there is no value in stretching for a runner.  It's important to include it at the appropriate time and choose stretches that will help you move towards your goal. 

Joint mobility or lack of mobility, can influence sport movement and efficiency of movement whether that is impacting running form or the ability to perform various strengthening exercises effectively that support our running (we will get to the why for strengthening later).  If your goal is to run at a faster pace, mobility and power are needed from your hips and trunk .  Many of us spend a lot of time sitting which can lead to stiffness in the hips and trunk.  So, to move better and more efficiently, stretching and mobility work will be beneficial.

Areas of focus for runners include:

  • Ankle mobility
  • Hip mobility
  • Trunk mobility (thoracic and lumbar spine)

Let’s consider why each of these areas are important to maintain or improve mobility.

Ankle Mobility

The main movements of the ankle are plantar flexion (pointing the toes) and dorsiflexion (pulling the toes/foot back towards you).  When we walk we need a certain amount of dorsiflexion to walk or run with a normal gait pattern.  When performing strength exercises such as a squat, we also need a certain amount of ankle dorsiflexion to perform the exercise well.  With limited mobility of the ankle we may see increased strain on the knee.

Hip Mobility

Your hips move in multiple directions including flexion, extension, internal rotation and external rotation.  Key muscles that influence your hip mobility are hamstrings, quadriceps, iliopsoas, and the deep hip rotators.  While all movements are important, extension is particularly important for runners.  Each stride we take requires a certain amount of hip extension and certainly as we run faster more extension is needed.  If we don’t have the mobility needed our bodies will compensate and find that movement elsewhere - the lower back.  Good hip mobility is also important for key strengthening exercises such as the squat.  Decreased mobility of the hip may limit our range in a squat and possibly increase strain on other areas such as the knees or the lower back.

Trunk Mobility

Many runners focus on the lower body - particularly the hips and knees - with exercises they do but mobility of our lumbar and thoracic spine is also important.  If lower back mobility is limited, we may feel it in our backs when we start to pick up speed and our stride lengthens out.  The strain on the lower back may be even more if our hip extension is limited as well.  Limited mobility of the lower back and/or thoracic spine may also impact our form in completing a squat.  Improving mobility of our lumbar spine can make those activities feel more comfortable.  


Thoracic spine rotation is important for an efficient running form.

Let's talk about our breath.  Our ribs attach to our thoracic spine.  Mobility of the thoracic spine will influence the mobility of your rib cage and your capacity to take a big breath.  You may start to feel this later in your run when breathing demands increase and you notice more tension in the shoulder area.  

Thoracic rotation occurs as we run and is important to ensure that there is not excessive rotation through the lumbar spine. When picking up your pace either with interval training or just trying to run faster in a race, there will be an increase in your arm and trunk movements. If your mobility is limited you may feel the strain elsewhere such as the shoulder area or the lower back.  

Though the areas we’ve talked about are common areas of restriction, not everyone will have the same areas of limitation.  To find out where you need to focus your energy and time with a mobility program, consult with a Registered Physiotherapist who can complete an assessment of functional movements to see where you are not moving well.  You don’t need to stretch for the sake of stretching, choose stretches with purpose and intention to allow you to move well.

Strength Training - What’s the big deal?

One of the objections runners have about strength training is the time!  We all lead busy lives.  And when time is limited and you need to get in a certain number of miles, it’s not surprising that running gets prioritized over other training. 

Many runners also ask “Isn’t running enough to stay strong?”  And while we all wish the answer was yes, the truth is that if you have lofty running goals, or you are wanting to continue to run as you get older, it’s not! 

The reality is that most runners are always pushing their limits.  Once they achieve one milestone or goal, they are striving for another.  The demands on our bodies are ever increasing.  It becomes an issue of load and capacity.  If the load to our bodies is greater than the capacity of our muscles, tendons and joints to manage that load we run into trouble. 

There are so many things that may influence our ability to manage a certain load or intensity of exercise such as: fitness level and strength, previous injury, sleep, stress, and recovery time.  Resistance training will improve the strength of our muscles and tendons that support our joints and improve our capacity to manage the loads we apply to our bodies.

If you've had a previous injury, there is a good chance that the injured area has at some point been compromised.  If full strength has not been restored (and that doesn’t mean just being pain free), then your capacity for load could be compromised.

Poor sleep habits and increased stress also influences how our bodies recover.  We actually get stronger in our recovery time and if we are not giving ourselves enough recovery time between hard runs, or workouts,  our capacity to handle the next hard run will likely be less.  Research also shows that strength training can positively affect our performance. Sports Med, 2018: Balgrove et al)

How do I keep strengthening simple?

A strength training program for runners doesn’t have to be long and complicated.  There are some key areas that a runner should focus on.  And an effective program completed just twice per week can make a difference.

How do I know what to do?

Everyone's specific strength needs may vary depending on current strength levels and previous injury.  That being said, there are a few areas that all runners can benefit from strengthening including calf strength, hamstring strength, hip strength (gluteal muscles) and trunk strength.  An assessment with a Registered Physiotherapist to evaluate functional strength as observed through movement and running form will identify any area of weaknesses and will help the physiotherapist establish a program specific to you. Your physiotherapist will look at how well you can perform and control single leg activities such as a single leg squat and a single leg heel lift.  This is important as running is, after all, a single leg activity repeated over and over.  Control of the hip during these movements and in running is important to evaluate.  Research does show that those with a hip drop while running are at an increased risk for injury.

With an understanding that our hip strength is so crucial lets focus on which exercises target the gluteal muscle group most effectively.  There are a lot of great choices and you don’t have to do them all and it can be beneficial to change them up occasionally for variety and challenge.  A recent study in American College of Sports Medicine, 2023 looked at peak forces of different exercises for the gluteal muscle group which can help us decide what to include in our exercise programs.  


The study found the following exercises best for developing gluteal strength:

Glueteus Maximus: 
- Loaded split squat 
- Loaded single leg Romanian Dead Lift (RDL) 
- Loaded single leg hip thrust 





Gluteus Medius: 
- Body weight Side Plank 
- Loaded single leg squat
- Loaded single leg RDL 






Glueteus Minimus:
- Body weight side plank
- Single leg RDL 






While these are great exercises, they are not all beginner friendly and they are not the only exercises that target these important muscles!  You may need to start with other exercises that target the glutes and work towards the more complex and single leg versions. Too much, too fast, too soon applies to not just running but to our strengthening program as well!  





Strengthening the hamstring muscle group is also critical for runners, particularly when working on building up speed.  As we run faster, more power is needed from hamstring and gluteal muscles.  To generate more power for speed we need to be strong.  There are many ways to strengthen the hamstrings such as with bridge variations and dead lifts (double and single leg).  

Calf strength is important for runners and the most simple way to strengthen this area is a calf raise.  In order to strengthen the two main calf muscle groups, gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, you will want to do a calf raise with your knees straight and with your knees bent.  Ideally you are progressing this exercise to be done on one leg at a time.  If that can be done easily for more than 10 repetitions at time then be sure to add some weight to the exercise.

Let’s not forget about our trunk muscles which are important to maintain our posture and control the rotation while running. Trunk strengthening doesn’t just mean strengthening our abdominal muscles, although they are part of that team of muscles.  Plank and side plank variations are great exercises for runners, as are dead bug variations that allow you to find a level that is just right for your current level of strength.  To add an anti-rotation component to your plank try tapping your opposite shoulder with your hand.

 

Whether you are new to running, an experienced runner or recovering from injury, focusing on mobility and strength will make you a more resilient and stronger runner and help you to achieve your running goals.  It can be overwhelming to know where to start and what to include in your program that also doesn’t take too much of your time away from running.  Working with a physiotherapist who understands running can take some of the stress out of figuring out what to do. They will help you develop a program tailored to your needs, and that works WITH your running schedule and goals. 


Miriam Mulkewich is a registered Physiotherapist and co-owner of Fit For Life Physioterapy. In addition to her training as a Physiotherapist, Miriam is a Pilates and Yoga instructor and avid runner! 

Looking for help developing a strength and mobility program to support your running? 

Book with Miriam here.