What are you doing to reduce injuries? What are you doing to get stronger? If you're like most runners, you're probably doing very little to actively reduce the chance of injury, and you're probably doing only a small amount of work to become a stronger runner.
I firmly believe that if you reduce injuries and get stronger, you will run faster. I've seen this in countless athletes that I've worked with, from college athletes to professional athletes to recreational runners. The key concept here is consistency: When you reduce injuries, you miss fewer training opportunities. When you get stronger, you miss fewer training opportunities because your body can handle the stress that running puts on your joints, tendons, ligaments and bones.
Consistency may not be a concept you've focused on, but the best runners in the world continually mention constancy when asked about the most important aspect of training. But even if you decide to value consistency in your training, you're probably at a loss for what exactly to do. Should you do CrossFit or should you do yoga? Should you stretch or should you hit the weight room? Should you cross-train (to alleviate some of the pounding associated with running) or should you run more short sprints (which could transform you into a more efficient runner, both in terms of your mechanics and your running economy)?
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I propose that you do two things. First, add a sound flexibility practice to your running training. Second, add a strengthening program that focuses on the minor muscles used in running. If you combine these two elements into your daily training, I am confident you'll be injured less often and you'll make strength gains that you'll be able to feel when running.
The Best Flexibility Workout for Runners
Let's start with flexibility. Dynamic flexibility is the best way to prepare your muscles for the rigors of running, and to start the healing process after a long run or workout. Specifically, I want to introduce you to Active Isolated Flexibility (AIF), which I was introduced to by my friend Phil Wharton. Phil and Jim Wharton have been working with Olympic medalists and world champions in distance running for two decades. While few of us will ever have the opportunity to be on their massage tables, we all can incorporate the AIF and strengthening exercises they prescribe to all of their athletes.
Active Isolated Flexibility is based on a key principle that all muscles have an opposing muscle so, when one muscle contracts, there is an opposite muscle that lengthens. To see this in action, do a bicep curl. Notice how that muscle shortens when you contract it. When the bicep contracts (i.e. shortens), you are automatically lengthening the muscle on the other end of the upper arm, the triceps.
Active Isolated Flexibility takes advantage of this relationship; you actively flex one muscle group to stretch and lengthen another muscle group. An example for a runner would be to contract the quadriceps to lengthen the hamstrings. Most runners have tight hamstrings, and getting that area back to functioning properly is important. In this example, the Whartons employ a rope, wrapped around the foot, to assist at the end of the range of motion of the hamstring. This assistance allows the runner to get a safe, gentle, full stretch. For this reason Active Isolated Flexibility is often referred to as "rope stretching."