In 20 years of marathon running, I have experienced my fair share of classic runner injuries – pain in my hips, hamstring pulls, iliotibial band syndrome, runner’s knee and even the dreaded plantar fasciitis. In my runner’s mind, these weren’t REAL “injuries”, as long as I could still get through my running workouts. I just accepted them as part of being a marathon runner and figured I should probably stretch a little more after my runs.
But over time, the constant pain and tightness I felt in my body began to steal my joy of doing the thing I loved to do most. I hated the fact that bending down to touch my toes or tie my shoes was so challenging and my joints felt like they got “stuck” when I worked out at the gym. Running began to feel like a painful chore rather than a euphoric release. When I turned 40, I decided I had had enough and it was time to reclaim my body.
Upon closer examination of my injury history, I realized most of them could be traced back to a common issue that affects many runners - WEAK HIPS. This surprised me because I thought my hips were strong from all the running – and because they felt so tight! Why are weak hips such a common problem for runners? Well, it’s typically the result of a combination of factors – lack of strength training and mobility exercises, overuse, poor running mechanics, and sitting for long periods of time.
As runners, we don’t need a lot of FLEXIBILITY; but we do need a lot of MOBILITY. What’s the difference? A great deal! Flexibility is the capacity of a joint to move PASSIVELY through a wide range of motion. If you can bend down with straight legs and touch your nose to your knees, you have excellent flexibility. Mobility is the capacity of a joint to move ACTIVELY through a normal range of motion with efficiency and strength. Being able to bend down to pick up a heavy box and place it up on a counter with perfect form while engaging the correct muscles (similar to a Romanian Deadlift) requires great mobility. Flexibility is improved through consistent static stretching, which is holding a stretch for 60 seconds or more in the same position. In order to improve mobility, you must use dynamic muscle movements with controlled range of motion.
Most runners feel like they don’t have time in their schedules for anything other than running. I know firsthand how challenging it is to fit in long tempo runs or speedwork into a busy work day that includes doing my day job, taking care of my family and typically driving all over the county for kids’ activities! But I have learned that a small investment of 10 minutes of mobility work 2 or 3 times a week is enough to keep me strong, mobile and happily running. The key to increasing my mobility was not a couple of magic exercises done in huge volumes. The improvements I have made are the result of my consistent practice of a just few different moves for a few minutes a day over many weeks and months. But after so many recurring injuries over the years, I decided that the idea being injured and NOT running more is far worse than an additional 5-10 minutes of mobility exercises a few days a week. And I can tell my body is grateful for this investment!