Saturday, February 2, 2013

Back on the Strength Work Wagon...

A friend posted this pic on Facebook recently, with a link to this post from Runner in Denial. Can I get an amen, here? We're all with you, RiD. Seriously. Ain't nobody got time for that. If you're me, you've barely got time to run.

But is it all the mid-winter aches & pains? The optimism & fresh-start-ness of a new year? The beginning of spring marathon season? Who can say? Still, whether it's blog posts, Facebook, or emails from various running sites, strength training (& cross training in general) is very much in the air.

I've been getting back to it myself recently, & trying to do so in a more structured & consistent way than I have this past year (during which I pretty much sucked at it outside of karate). So I figured I might as well throw in my two cents on the subject & how I've been dealing with it, for whatever it's worth.

Some background:

For most of my running life, I've been involved in sports or physical activities besides running that worked other muscles in addition to the big running ones and / or used the running ones in different ways (gymnastics / dance, swimming, horseback riding, karate, & weight training mostly), particularly my core muscles. It wasn't really intentional (with the exception of the weight training we did as part of cross country & track); those were just the activities I happened to like doing. And with the exception of shin splints, I never had any kind of running-related injury or problem during that time.

A couple of years into my first job out of school, though, I had to cut way, way back on that stuff, & by 2008 I'd pretty much quit everything except running & karate. Less than a year later, I ended up with my first running-related overuse injury ("general hip dysfunction, not otherwise specified"). After about eight months of hoping that if I just iced & foam rolled the hell out of it it would go away, I wound up at UCSF Sports Medicine & then in physical therapy for four months.

My PTs made a few things abundantly clear:

    1) A strong, balanced core is not optional for safe distance running. Roughly 75% of the non-traumatic running injuries (ie, not things like sprained ankles) they see are ultimately traced back to weak or imbalanced core muscles in one way or another.

    2) Cavemen did not have to do core strength work to run miles and miles safely because they spent most of their non-running hours standing, squatting, climbing, wrestling, or otherwise doing manual labor. (Basically, their core work was called "normal life.")

    3) Most of us don't live like cavemen, so the options are 1) take care of your stability muscles, 2) don't run very much, or 3) be hurt all the time.

    4) Tightness / lack of flexibility is the other side of the muscle weakness coin. Ie, anything that is chronically tight is probably also weak, & thus doubly prone to injury.

You know that tone people have when they are just. so. SICK of having the same conversation over and over and over? When they just don't have the energy to put it delicately anymore? It was like that.

Want more detail on these points? Running Times is happy to oblige.

On day one, they asked me to do a one-legged quarter squat on each leg & I couldn't do it, at least not without my leg wobbling all over the place & my knee collapsing inward. Their response: "Park it, cuz you're here til you can do 50 on each leg with no pain." After four months of ART, ultrasound, and flexibility / strength work 2-3 times a week plus extra at home, I finally passed all the strength criteria & graduated from what they laughingly referred to as "basic training" -- meaning I wasn't really strong enough yet, but I was out of the red zone & knew enough about what to do that I could probably finish the job on my own.

The parting message? "Keep it up or you'll be right back here in six months."

Since then, I have gone through phases of being better & worse about keeping up the routine that originally got me out of there. The "worse" phases were usually identified by a little twinge in my right hip, and most of the time that's been enough to spur me back into action. This last marathon cycle was a crazy busy one in my non-running life, though, and for all that I really, really, REALLY intended to stay on top of the strength stuff, most of the time I barely had time for the actual running, & my core exercises were something I did on karate days when I got to class on time (which covers some of what I need to do but not everything) or squeezed into 10-15 minute sessions at 12:30 in the morning when I'd suddenly remembered on my way to bed that I hadn't done a lick of it in two weeks.

I first knew something was wrong at the Healdsburg Half in October when all the rolling hills were shredding my hamstrings & glutes by the end of the race. Then in November I started having the little hip twinges & getting giant, painful knots in the piriformis area. During CIM when my left foot crapped out & I had to compensate with my right leg, I only made it a few miles before I started having shooting pains all through the hip / thigh area on that side. And then there's my feet in general, which have been pretty much a hot mess for at least half the year.

A month of rest did not solve any of this. As of early January I was still dealing with most of it, and on several occasions I'd pondered seriously whether some of it was potentially getting worse and just on the cusp of keeping me from running. And that brings me to the day a few weeks back when I finally said enough.

Enough putting out fires.

Enough writing woe-is-me blog posts about this or that leg gremlin.

Enough games of "Running Injury Bingo," of waiting for the next ache or pain & wondering what it will be this time.

Enough crossing my fingers & hoping things will resolve themselves with a little rolling & rest.

Enough doing "you know, something" "when I have some time" or "when I think about it."

Because it wasn't working. Drastic action was clearly called for, and I knew the first thing I had to do was recommit to some hard truths:

  • Core strength / mobility work is not "extra." If I want to be the fastest, strongest runner I can be, it's an essential part of training that can't be ignored or shunted to the side any more than long runs or speed work can. If I'm feeling like I have time to run 40 miles in a week but no time for taking care of my soft tissue, then what that really means is that I have time to run 30-35 miles & do 2-3 core work sessions.
  • What gets scheduled gets done. Different people do better with different amounts of structure, but I am the type of person who is MUCH more likely to do something if it is specifically scheduled. My runs gets scheduled, so if CS/M stuff is truly going to be on equal footing and a real priority, then it needs to be scheduled as well.
  • Priorities require sacrifice. Again, if I can get behind that for running, I need to do the same for CS/M & just accept it. There will be a cost, and if I'm not willing to pay it, I'm back to either not running much or feeling lousy all the time.
  • If you really want something, you'll find a way. If not, you'll find excuses. In general I abhor pithy motivational slogans, but this one is so incredibly true that it hurts. So effing FIND A WAY.

So I've found one, in the form of the gym near my office. Yes, there is a monetary cost, but it's a pretty basic gym, & the fees are substantially more reasonable than I was expecting--really just enough to motivate me to make sure I get my money's worth each month. In addition to the lunch-time yoga & Pilates classes I've mentioned before, I also have access to the weight room & treadmills, which is nice.

There is also a time cost (obviously). The mid-day classes meant I would be giving up a lunch break two days a week, but to be honest I almost never take an actual "break" anyway & just end up scarfing my lunch in ten minutes or so mid-project, so actually leaving the building to move around a little is probably a good thing. Given that, it seemed easiest to just make a routine of it & go every day during the same time. On Mondays & Wednesdays I do yoga or Pilates, and on the other days I do general core stuff.

Making a routine of it & going to the same place at the same time every day has completely resolved the "I'll do it when I think about it / have some extra time / get around to it" issue. Yes, obviously, there will occasionally be days when I'll be busy at work or have meetings scheduled & will have to skip it (or swing by on my way home), but even so, I'll still be doing about a thousand times better than my previous haphazard approach.

At the heart of it, I think the difficulty with attending to core strength is often based on how we're motivated. Positive reinforcement is an incredibly strong motivator -- we run more, we get faster. We study more, we get a better grade. We practice our badminton, & we win more badminton matches. Our brains are wired to make the connection between the two, which motivates us to keep doing the behavior.

But the thing about doing solid core work is that the effect you actually see is...nothing. As in no aches, no pains, no nagging injuries. Kind of like keeping up on your car maintenance tends to result in no catastrophic car problems, and eating well tends to result in having no heart attacks. Yes, these are desirable results, but our brains are much less likely to link the absence of something--even something catastrophic--to a behavior than they are the presence of something even modestly positive. Which makes it that much easier to say, "Eh, I haven't had any injuries lately. I can skip it this one time." Then we're doing it once a week, then once a month, then skipping some muscle groups, then doing half as many reps....You know where that leads.

Clearly there are magical people out there who do nothing but run, miles & miles & miles, never do any kind of stretching or strength stuff, and are in perfect health all the time. As I understand it, though, they are the exception and not the rule. And I am very, very clearly not that exception.

So far it's been just two weeks, and although it seems unlikely, I feel like I'm seeing some noticeable improvement. I don't feel like a train wreck after my runs. The pain in my right hip is about half as bad as it's been for the last month. Even my feet, which have existed in a state of near-debilitating pain for the past few weeks, are feeling semi-normal. I can't imagine it's been long enough for this stuff to have had that much of an impact, but I will sure as hell take it.

Have you fallen off the strength / mobility wagon?

Are you getting back on it in 2013?

Were you never on it to begin with because you're one of those magical people that I hate really really admire & wish I was one of?


  1. I am right where you are now. Dealing with all my injuries has opened my eyes to strength and core (50 single leg squats -- getting there!). I've been doing PT exercises religiously though sadly the core ones are the one I tend to skimp on the most. I recently made it a goal to keep on top of that better and agree that scheduling them in like runs helps to keep one accountable.

  2. I agree with you 100%. I've been faithfully doing my stretching and PT exercises, and I *think* things have gotten better. At the very least, they have not gotten worse. I've recently decided to quit my YMCA membership (the location is less convenient for me since moving last October) and find another gym or yoga studio which will better suit my needs.

  3. I fell off the bandwagon last year...hence the injury. Why, oh why does that always have to happen?! So annoying. I think that it is great that you are committing yourself to pilates/yoga and some strength workouts. I think that you will be really surprised how much improvement you will see. My coach gave me some stretching/flexibility things to do pre workout that I still do everyday. They are boring and I hate them, but they have helped keep me moving in a positive direction.

    Here is a link to some videos on my stretches that my husband helped me make. This is the last video of the 3, but there is a link to the first two videos in it. :-)

  4. You might want the link...

  5. I've never been on the strength training wagon but as I get older I'm starting to think I need to get on board! Which is a little depressing.

  6. I agree that routine is KEY to making core and cross-training part of regular training. After my monster train wreck of a marathon in October, I told myself that if the TV was on in the evenings and I wasn't eating dinner (yep, that's where I eat...), then I would either do core/foam rolling or I would turn off the TV. I truly believe that's why I ran two marathons in December without any inuries.