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Quick but effective exercises to reduce your risk of injury, so you can spend more time on the trails
Spend five minutes after every run on injury-prevention exercises; your strong, healthy body will thank you! Photo by David Roche
If all you do is run, you’re going to get hurt. It might be something normal, like shin splints. Or it might be something exotic, like watermelon pelvis. (I don’t think that is a real injury, but I bet there is still some runner out there that has suffered from it). Sooner or later, the repeated straight-line running motion will cause an imbalance that will keep you off the trails.
While injuries are not completely preventable, there are some easy things you can do to decrease your chances of suffering from cantaloupe knee or honeydew hamstring, while simultaneously making you a stronger, faster runner.
“That’s great, David,” I can hear an imaginary reader saying. “But who has time for that?”
Thank you for that question, imaginary reader (though I could live without your sarcasm). The answer is that, with these exercises, you can work all the most important muscles—focusing on the glutes, hips and quads—in only five minutes a day. They’re best done right after a run, when your muscles are warmed up, but could also be done while sipping coffee after you wake up or later in the day while pretending to work in the conference room. (Just make sure the door is locked, as steps four and five make you look like you’re aggressively humping the air.)
These five minutes, plus running, are all you need to do to build a healthy, strong, fast runner.
Minute One: Lunges
20 front lunges, 10 side lunges, 20 rear lunges
Works: Hips, quads, glutes
From left: front lunge, side lunge, rear lunge. Photo by David Roche
Lunges open up your hip girdle, increase range of motion and build trail-ready strength. Focus on good posture and steady, balanced motion, letting your knee just touch the ground but not rest there. Lunges double as a great warm-up for the rest of the exercises.
Minute Two: Leg swings
20 side-to-side and 20 forward-and-back
Works: Hips, hamstrings
Side-to-side (top) and front-to-back leg swings can increase your range of motion. Photo by David Roche
As Socrates said, “hips don’t lie.” Crap, I meant Shakira. I always get those two mixed up. One thing Shakira would probably agree with is that flexible, loose hip flexors are incredibly important, whether running or dancing.
On leg swings, hold something stable for balance, and let your leg swing smoothly through its range of motion while keeping your spine straight. Over time, you’ll find each arc getting longer and that range of motion will transfer to faster running on trails, especially downhills, while helping prevent injuries that stem from limited flexibility.
Minute Three: Hurdles
Trail leg forward and back x 10
Works: Hips, back, glutes
Imagine you’re bringing your leg up over a hurdle to your side (left panel), then circle around back to where you started. Photo by David Roche
If you’re anything like me, you may not be 100 percent sure what a hip abductor is, but you know it’s important. These are the little stabilizer muscles around your midsection, and they are the key to healthy running. One slip-up by these babies, and any number of things could go wrong, from traumatic hip injuries to twisted ankles. As an added bonus, abductor strength will make you more efficient on technical trails.
During hurdle drills, start with your foot on the ground behind you and imagine a low hurdle at your side. Lift your foot up and over the imaginary hurdle, bringing it down on the other side and creating a circle back to where you started. After 10 repetitions, start your leg on the other side and do 10 more in reverse.
Minute Four: Hip Circuit
Back bridges x 10, clamshells x 10, groaners x 10
Works: Back, glutes, hips
Clockwise from top: hips raised during the back bridge exercise; during “groaners,” invert one knee at a time, touching it to the ground; when you raise and lower your knees doing clamshells, think of, well, a clamshell. Photos by David Roche
Technically, these are three exercises, but I group them together since they are best done as one continuous set. Start on your back with your knees pointed up, and thrust your hips toward the sky 10 times, engaging your glutes and hoping your co-worker does not choose a bad time to walk by the conference room.
Next, lay on your side with your knees together for 10 clamshells: lift the knee of your top leg, feeling your abductors and glutes activate, then lower it, like a thirsty clam opening and closing. Immediately roll onto your other side and repeat with the other leg.
Finish by coming to a sitting position with your hands behind you on the floor and your legs out, bent at the knee. Invert your left knee and touch it to the floor, then lift it back up and do the same with your right. Continue to alternate legs, getting into a rhythm that would make Shakira proud. (The wife of one of my athletes calls this set “doing the Jane Fonda.”) These “groaners” increase inward hip mobility, reducing injury risk while opening up an under-utilized part of your stride.
Minute Five: Planks with a twist!
Pikes (one minute)
Works: Abs, core, arms
When doing pikes, start in standard plank position (top), then raise and lower your hips successively (bottom). Photo by David Roche
Planks are the Brussels sprouts of exercises. Some people love them, and those people are probably playing a prank on the rest of us. So let’s make planks fun!
For pikes, start in the normal plank position, then move your butt up toward the sky and back toward the floor, keeping your abs engaged. Go up and down for one minute. These are surprisingly difficult, but these ab strengtheners are the perfect way to cap off the five minutes to a faster runner. Plus, we trail runners are always wearing skimpy clothing, so every season is beach season.
And that’s it! Do this five-minute set every day you run and you’ll be healthier, stronger and faster (and look even better in a running singlet).
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