I ran three miles today, which is a personal distance record for June / July. (Woo!) More importantly I ran it at *actual* marathon pace, mostly comfortably, and with no pain in my hip flexors at all. It was beautiful. Beautiful, but a lot of work (which is where the "mostly" in "mostly comfortably" comes in).
Let's back up a bit --
The first time I was in physical therapy & put on a treadmill for gait analysis, I learned I was "quad dominant." Basically this means that I was relying more on the (relatively) small muscles in my hip flexors & quads to generate power rather than the larger, more powerful hamstring & glute muscles. On video, this looked like driving my knees forward with each stride, leaning forward only 5-10° with my torso, failing to extend my hip joint fully & close the angle between my torso and hamstring, and shin/calves not quite making it to parallel with the ground on the back swing.
While I don't have any video footage to share with you, some very informative, extremely high-quality photographs were taken during the session:
As you can see, this is an *extremely* professional blog.
Quad dominance is apparently very very common in recreational runners (one of the biggest reasons for this is the amount of sitting we all do & the deleterious effect that has on the glute muscles), but it can be fixed. After several months of strength training for my hamstrings & glutes & lots of drills focused on learning to engage them more, I got the thumbs up from my PT to return to regular training. I was *amazed* at how much faster I was able to run with the same level of effort, just with that one change.
For a while, all was well.
Toward the end of 2010 I stopped running for a while because of a hip injury; when I was able to run again and my PT put me back on the treadmill, my hard-won posterior power seemed to have melted away, and I was back to starting from scratch again. After a few weeks of the same drills & strength work (including a lifting regimen of squats & deadlifts), though, all was well again.
Now that my leg is healed enough that I can run several miles without pain, my current PT decided it was time to throw me back on the 'mill. I will give you one guess as to what he saw.
He explained that he wasn't really surprised, with all the hip flexor drama I've had going on. Tight quads & hip flexors make it that much harder to engage your glutes & hamstrings, particularly without arching your back (never good for running). Afterward he put me back on the 'mill & had me just work on consciously trying to engage my glutes & hamstrings more. "Think about doing butt kicks, just not all the way up to your butt," he suggested.
The good news is that I was able to do it, and consciously correcting that one thing pretty much made everything else (knee drive, torso lean, etc.) fall into place. The bad news is that it was HARD -- I wasn't even trying to run fast, and I was still breathing as hard as I might be during a tempo run after only about ten minutes.
This didn't seem to surprise him, either.
"This is what you need to work on on your runs," he told me. "For the next few weeks, there won't be any easy runs for you. It's just going to be hard for a while."
I'm also supposed to continue rolling my quads, hip flexors, & glutes, stretching my hip flexors out three times a day, & keep doing all the strength work designed to rebuild my hamstring & glute strength & remind all those muscles how to fire together correctly.
Back to my three-mile run today. My goal was to keep the effort level easy, but my PT was absolutely right--as long as I focused on the butt-kick feeling & engaging my posterior chain muscles, there was just no way to keep the effort level at "easy." The cool thing was that that translated to a (just barely) sub-8 pace; if I tried to slow down at all, keeping up the butt-kick feeling got much harder. Hopefully that will change as my muscles get stronger & my endurance comes back, though. As neat as it felt to see sub-8 miles on my watch for the first time since M2B, I can't have every workout feeling like a tempo run!
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