Most runners are familiar with the image of Gabriele Anderson-Schiess “entering” the Olympic Stadium in the 1984 Olympics some 20 minutes after the gold medalist had finished. I say “entering” because she did not do it triumphantly; she was in pain. Immense pain. Twisted and limping she batted away the helping hands of medical personnel as to not be disqualified if they intervened.
This image of the runner finishing the race with face and body contorted in pain but still having the testicular/ovarian fortitude to cross the finish line despite all odds while becoming the athletic hero of the day is well known.
Finish. The. Damned. Race. At. ALL. Costs.
This task-completion mentality of the running world is astounding. Impressive? Yes. Foolish? Sometimes. A cause for discussion? Most definitely.
If you’ve ever participated in any form of organized race I hope you’ve taken the time and nerded out on watching other runners’ mechanics. A veritable sea of KT tape and braces at the onset followed up with an amalgamation of limping and busted (compensatory) mechanics. The task-completion, sticktoitiveness of the runner could also be their undoing.
As a runner or someone who occasionally runs for exercise, I want you to think about a few things as it relates to your form:
Limited range of motion
Habitual poor movement patterns
Our body is designed to last 110 years if working optimally but when you take the above list and pile it onto a highly motivated athlete (runner), you can wreck the system in a much shorter span of time.
You don’t have to move perfectly; you just have to move optimally. I equate optimal movement to enabling the ‘infinite life” code in the video game Contra from wayyyy back.
When you move optimally, you essentially have an infinite number of reps/steps (lives) that you can perform involving specific tissue(s).
When you don’t move optimally, you have a finite number of reps/steps before tissue starts to get irritated and once irritated you have an ever dwindling number of reps before that tissue fails. Plantar fasciitis, achilles pain and heel pain are all examples of irritation whereas achilles ruptures, calf strains and stress fractures are all examples of tissue failure.
Another example of tissue irritation can be the common complaint I get from my runners, "the *insert body part* feels achey/sore until I start running and then after 0.5 to 2 miles, the pain goes away."
The pain didn't magically resolve during your run. Your body found ways to work around the irritated area (offloading it) while abnormally loading other tissues which may or may not be designed to take said abnormal loads.
The problem often comes in the form of people ignoring the symptoms of irritation or simply treating the symptoms of irritation rather than going after the sources. Then fast forward through 10,000,000 suboptimal reps and a short run up the driveway (something benign done time and time again) results in an Achilles tear. The run up the drive way was not the source, it was simply the final load through chronically irritated tissue that finished it off (straw meet camel).
So if you plan on restoring your body back to optimal efficiency you have to support the endeavor. Redlining yourself daily may have worked in your teens and 20s but as you get older, redlining becomes less and less effective and ultimately drives more dysfunction.
Ways you can support your body and athletic improvement can include:
Build habits that include seeking optimal positions from which to perform task (running) specific movements
Work towards having the specific, full ranges of motion the body was intended to have
Practice these good patterns regularly
Develop the strength and conditioning necessary to maintain these good movements and positions through the entire run. Mile 1 should look like Mile 5 should look like Mile 10 and so on.
Some simple "low-hanging fruit" ways of beginning the process of optimization quite simply involve warming up and cooling down.
Time and time again, I have this conversation with MOST of my clients (not just you runners). Take the time to warm up the tissue you're going to be using INCLUDING the heart and lungs. Allow your body/brain the time to tune the system, get fluids moving and make the necessary exercise-related adjustments.
Once you're done with your feats of strength and/or endurance, COOL DOWN. So many of us are great at taking our bodies from 0 mph to 100 mph with all types of workouts but so few are good at slowly ramping down the system after the exercise (stress) has ceased.
After a run, I recommend 10-20 minutes of some of the following:
Light resistance rowing
Leisurely bike ride (road, AAB, bike erg, etc.)
Walking - barefoot if possible
Easy body weight movements (lunges, air squats, jumping jacks, arm circles, leg circles/swings)
If you're so busy that you can't afford 10-20 minutes to the cooldown but are willing to give me 5 minutes...then 5 minutes it is. It's better than nothing BUT over time work at increasing the time dedicated to cooling down.
Show your body some daily TLC in the form of 10-15 minutes of self maintenance every day. This can be in the form of foam rolling, LAX ball smashing specific muscles, massage gun and even isolated/targeted strengthening of specific muscle groups.
But what if a joint hurts and not specific muscles? Work upstream AND downstream from that joint. If the front of the knee hurts, work on the thighs and muscles on the front of the shin, AS WELL AS the hamstrings and calves.
When a specific area gets chronically spicy, it's often blamed as the culprit and it typically goes something like this:
Client: "My knee hurts"
Doctor: "You have knee arthritis; you should stop running."
Client: *retires from running*
But what you should be hunting for is an explanation like this:
Client: "My knee hurts and my doctor said I have arthritis and should stop running."
Will: "Well your hips are weak and your ankles and big toes are stiff and your running mechanics are a bit wonky."
Client: "None of those are my knee."
Will: "If none of those areas work as intended the knee becomes the outlet or pressure release valve to permit compensations. You may very well have arthritis because of age and other factors but your symptoms are most likely being driven by soft tissue restrictions and/or limitations (strength). If you work on those things your symptoms will most likely reduce significantly and may even resolve."
Client: "So I'd be able to continue running?"
Will: "Absolutely. Small concessions may need to be made at some point in the future but overall addressing these things should extend your running career indefinitely."
Taking a more active role in your overall self-care will pay dividends in the long run. The earlier you appreciate and invest in this portion of your overall health the more your older self will thank you in the future. It's never too late to start the self-care process and there's always low hanging fruit in terms of strength, flexibility, mobility, etc. that can be worked on.