For women that are in their initial weeks of being a runner, Austin-based running and triathlon coach Valerie Hunt says that often new clients report the types of nagging pain that are all too common in the running world: shin splints, knee pain and discomfort in the lower back.
“Most of this is because of weakness in the hip and core muscles,” Hunt says. Hunt is both a leading Pose instructor in the United States and a CrossFit Endurance coach. “When you increase your strength in the core muscle groups, you’ll improve your posture and be able to hold good form longer.”
“A lot of runners think that running itself is a form of strength training for the legs. It’s not. You have to work on your strength with specific exercises.” Adding in a few basic exercises on a weekly basis, says Hunt, will help remedy the situation. Form and posture improve as the core muscle groups shift the workload away from small muscles like the hip.
One pressing concern for some of her new clients is the worry that strength training equates with the gain of muscle bulk. Hunt says there’s really nothing to worry about.
“As an endurance athlete, the only way you’re going to build bulk is if you heavily overload the body with weights,” she says, adding that most of the strength work she prescribes for new runners is with bodyweight or light weights.
“When I first started I used my bodyweight or a five-pound body bar,” she says. “We just do basic core work. Lots of lunges, squats and planks.”
Hunt says that one of the values of adding this type of strength training component to the weekly regimen is that the new runner will enable more of a fat burning effect.
“Unless you’re running at an 8-minute per mile clip or faster, you’re not really burning that much in the way of calories,” Hunt says. “If you’re a Kenyan running sub-6-minute miles at a 100 miles per week, that’s a different story. But it’s just not the same if you’re running 10-minute pace.”
By adopting a strength program, Hunt says, you’ll increase the amount of lean tissue in the body which will enable more fat burning, and not just while you’re running. “You’ll be burning more fat all day long.”
Valerie Hunt’s Strength Program for Beginning Runners
“You need to do this two to three days per week,” Hunt says. “Either as part of your cool-down from a run or on a day that you’re not running.”
Start off with 2 or 3 sets (10 reps each set) of the following exercises. Use your bodyweight as resistance at first, but as you progress consider adding to the resistance with a body bar or light dumbbells.
- Squats. Plant your feet into the ground about shoulder-width apart with your feet pointing straight or slightly open. “Screw your feet into the ground,” says Hunt, by making sure your weight is running through the center of the foot and you’re creating tension in the body with a twisting force, like you’re trying to spin dinner plates that are placed beneath your feet. Before squatting, tighten the muscles of your hips and core to create what’s called “midline stability.” This will help you do the exercise correctly as well as protect the spine. As you descend into the squat, reach your butt back to load the glute muscles and hamstrings. Don’t allow the knees to slide out over in front of the feet. Rather, keep your shins vertical. This will keep the load on the hips, glutes and hamstrings and keep the stress away from your knees. With the core muscles engaged throughout the squat, lower to a point where the crease of the hips is lower than your knees. Now return. Don’t let your knees cave in at any point during the exercise. Rather, drive the knees outward.
- Lunges. Hunt starts you off from a standing position. Rather than stepping forward into a lunge, step backward. Engage your core muscles throughout and use your hip and stomach muscles to ascend upward from lunge as you return.
- Moving Planks. Start with a standard plank and incorporate moving patterns to help strengthen and mobilize the trunk.
- One-legged stands. Stand on one leg and work up to a minute for each leg. This simple exercise will help develop balance and ultimately improve your running form.
T.J. Murphy is the author of “Inside the Box,” a book about his journey into CrossFit.