Anthropologically speaking, our ancestors were phenomenal runners. Many believe it is an innate ability we were born with. Unfortunately decades of sitting, driving, video gaming, and computering have immobilized and deactivated many of the structures we utilize to run properly. This includes (but definitely not limited to) limiting the range in our thoracic spine, hips, and ankles, and deactivating our glutes, obliques, and quadratus lumborum.
Most people run before or after work, meaning they are going right from lying in bed or sitting at a desk or in a car, to pounding the pavement. At this point the body is immobile and deactivated, and instead of running efficiently the body is more or less throwing its weight onto it's passive tissues (bones and ligaments), repeatedly. Ouch.
Mobility and Muscle Activation
This is a series of 8 warm-up exercises to be completed prior to EVERY run, taking around 8 minutes total. Lets begin with two mobility exercises, focusing primarily on hips, ankles, and the upper back. These are areas of the body commonly afflicted by our lifestyle of chronic sitting. Instead of 10 quick reps on for each exercise, aim for 5 QUALITY reps with about 3 breaths per rep. The body's initial response, when moving towards the end range of a structure's mobility, is protection. To relax the body and gain greater mobility within these exercises, time your breathing with the movement and relax further into the movement with each exhale.
Mobility - Quadruped Thoracic Rotation
Improving thoracic spine mobility enhances running two-fold. Firstly, it allows the upper body to rotate naturally while you run. This also will help the arms move more naturally forward and backward. Runners who are restricted with their thoracic rotation often compensate with irregular arm movements to maintain balance while they run. This may look like an arm flicking out to the side with each stride. Secondly, improving thoracic mobility allows the ribcage to expand and the diaphragm to function properly, ultimately improving your breathing while running.
Mobility - Deep Squat + Thoracic Rotation
Sitting at desks, in cars, and on couches locks the hips and ankles within a certain range. The hips and ankles then have difficulty moving into ranges beyond what is required to sit, which we require to run properly! The deep squat improves ankle and hip mobility, by moving the ankles and hips into a range beyond what is usually achieved with sitting. By improving ankle and hip mobility, the knee is able to move through a greater range (improving knee drive) and the foot is able to contact the ground in a more natural position.
Now that tissues are mobile and the range through which we can move has been improved, it is time to activate certain muscle groups. The following two exercises can be done for 5 reps, again aiming to get 3 controlled breaths within each rep.
Muscle Activation - TVA Deadbug
This will help activate muscles of the core in conjunction with breathing (two systems which are inextricably linked) to function properly. Sitting allows the core to deactivate, letting the pelvis sit back when running (anterior pelvic tilt). This looks like someone sticking their butt out behind them when they run. In turn this position limits knee drive, and places the centre of gravity behind the runner. With an active core, the pelvis can maintain neutrality under the body while running, allowing improved knee drive and a forward centre of gravity.
Muscle Activation - Adductor + Oblique + QL Side Plank
Many people have imbalances between the right and left sides of their body's. When one side of the body is inactive, a runner tends to"dump" or load one leg more than the other repeatedly when running. Because of the cyclical nature of running, a small imbalance is amplified by the many repetitions. For example, if you load your right leg more than your left by something as small as 1kg per stride, and you complete 1000 strides per kilometre, then over a 5km run you have loaded your right leg with an additional 5,000kg more than your left leg. That is 5 tonnes of additional force! It is then easy to see how injuries can result on one side of the body, commonly manifesting as plantar fasciitis or shin splints. By activating adductor, oblique, and quadratus lumborum muscles (these three work together) on both sides, the pelvis will be aligned evenly (left to right) under the body, and forces will be distributed more evenly between each leg when running, minimizing the incidence of an asymmetric injury.
Muscle Activation - Glutes
Activating the glutes is arguably one of the most important muscles to turn on before running. They are one of the first muscles to deactivate with prolonged sitting. This muscle group helps externally rotate and abduct the leg, which essentially helps keep the knee and ankles aligned in a healthy position when running. Without the glutes working when running, the knees collapse inward (valgus) and the arches of the feet flatten (overpronation). If you have pain on the inside of your knees and/or feet, glute activation is for you! Active glutes while running will keep knees aligned and help feet maintain their arches.
Before each and every run, take the 8 minutes to move through each of these exercises, and you will hit the road feeling stronger and faster than ever!