It is a hotly debated topic in global coaching circles: Are runners athletes?
Clearly, engaging in a long-distance running race, be it a 5K or marathon, requires athletic ability, even if that ability is largely singular in its nature. True athleticism, however, includes overall balance and proprioception, as well as lateral stability and power. Fortunately, it has become increasingly obvious to distance running coaches and their athletes that augmenting balance and power can and will improve our sport of singular motion and reduce the frequency of injury-based interruptions.
Try adding these three simple drills into your weekly routine to make yourself a more complete athlete.
Distance runners tend to move primarily in one direction: forward. As such, our prime movers (calves and hamstrings) are constantly engaged and can easily become overloaded, particularly if imbalances exist.
Lateral stabilizers (the gluteus medius, TFL and IT bands, as well as peroneal tendons) can provide support for the calves, hamstrings and gluteus. A simple lateral hop drill will effectively allow this "support crew" to strengthen and stabilize your prime movers and help reduce energy-sapping ground contact time.
Following two of your easy runs each week (when you are relaxed and warm) find an even, non-paved surface (preferably grass or dirt to emphasize proprioception).
- With legs separated on the ground at shoulder width, begin by pushing off with the right foot to jump to the right.
- In the jump and bending the knees, get four to six inches off the ground before you land on your left foot as your legs come together. Upon landing with legs together, immediately separate the legs and repeat the elevation push off with your right foot.
- All of this occurs in one fluid motion. Essentially, these are lateral skips in one direction, and at no time are your legs crossing each other.
- Engage eight to 10 lateral hops to the right before replicating the same motion moving left (during which, the left foot is deriving your power and elevation and you will be landing on your right foot).
Move in each direction three times, or a total of 24-30 lateral hops in each direction.
For an increased level of coordination as well as upper body strength, try tossing a small medicine ball to a partner back and forth at a range of six to eight feet while laterally hopping (one partner will be moving left while the other right, then roles are reversed).
Here's a video of the move.
Lunges are an outstanding way to strengthen and stabilize everything down the kinetic chain from hamstrings, gluteus and quads to lower leg power tools, such as the soleus and even the plantar fascia. With the Lunge-into-Run drill, you can add a measure of stability to increase coordination and power.
- Start on the ground with one knee propped up in front of you at a 90-degree angle and your other leg (the rear leg) on the ground straight behind you with the top of your rear foot/instep on the ground. Your rear leg is relaxed behind your body.
- Once set in this position, engage the quadricep and gluteus on the lead leg to bring all of your body weight up into a run for 10 to 15 meters before stopping and jogging easily back to the kneeling position.
Remember that your lead/bent leg should be doing virtually all of the work bringing you from a kneeling position to up and running. In other words, your rear leg does little to no work in bringing you from the kneeling spot. Engage six to eight Lunge-into-Run drills using your right leg as the lead leg, followed by an additional six to eight engaging the left.
Hip flexors are an area of weakness for runners of all ages and abilities. Ironically, it is these pistons of power from the upper quadricep, used incessantly, which are often the weakest for distance athletes. Strengthening the hip flexors while improving overall body awareness and balance can be achieved in a few minutes with a medicine ball (or any easy to hold object 5-15 pounds) after one or two of your runs each week.
- Get started with one leg (the stabilizer) straight on the ground and the other propped at a 90-degree angle in front of you, perpendicular to your body (thus, the Captain Morgan distinction).
- Continuing to hold the front leg at 90 degrees, take your medicine ball and hold it directly in front of you above the propped leg.
- After slowly counting to five, move the ball and both hands to the left side of your body and hold for an additional five seconds.
- Then move the ball all the way over to the right side of your body and hold for five seconds.
- Bring the ball back to center before lowering your leg.
If holding your propped leg at a 90-degree angle for 15-20 seconds overloads your hip flexor, make your holds as short as two to three seconds. You can also begin the first few weeks with no weight at all with your hands in front of you. Engage six to eight exercises on each leg.
Long-distance runners are undoubtedly athletes; however, many runners lack the athleticism that—if augmented properly—will make them more efficient and powerful. As you begin your next training sequence, add these simple drills. You will find yourself more powerful and with a greater degree of balance.