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Most runners know that strong core muscles are as important as strong quads, calves, and hamstrings.
But how do you build a stronger core? To truly strengthen your core muscles, add an element of rotation. There's no reason to give up your favorite form of crunches, but add a twist.
For example, when doing crunches on a fitness ball, rotate as you come up, raising your left elbow and shoulder and turning slightly to the right. Repeat 10 times, or alternate right and left for a total of 20 reps.
As if tight leg muscles weren't enough, runners often suffer from tight shoulders. Shoulders might not seem like the most important part of a runner's anatomy, but it is worth tuning in to your shoulders and giving them some extra attention now and then.
Here's why: If your shoulders are opend and loose, you'll be able to run more naturally and engage your arms and shoulders more effectively, so they can help you keep going in the later miles of the marathon.
Try this easy shoulder opener:
-Roll up a towel or yoga mat as tightly as possible so it forms a roll.
-Place the roll horizontally below your shoulder blades and lie on your back, feet straight in front of you and your arms relaxed.
-Stay in this position for at least a minute, and you should feel an openness in the front of your chest. That loosening might not seem like much, but you'll notic the difference, especially if you can stay in place for closer to 3 minutes.
Most runners have seen stretching aids, such as foam rollers, foot rollers, or "the Stick" advertised online or at running expos. Don't reject these items out of hand. For runners who suffer from chronic tight spots, sometimes these stretching aids give you the extra help you need.
I have found that a large foam roller or the Stick is especially helpful for stretching the iliotibial band, which is the group of fibrous tissues that run down the outside of your thigh from hip to knee. The IT band helps stabilize the entire leg, and if it becomes stiff and tight, it can cause chronic knee pain.
If you have pain along the outside of your knee or thigh, try using the Stick or rolling on a foam roller before running to help loosen the IT band. If your pain persists, consider a visit to a sports massage therapist to break up the stubborn adhesions, and then maintain your looser IT band with regular stretching.
To gently stretch your quadriceps (the large muscles of the thighs) and protect your knees, try a standing quad stretch.
The muscles in the upper back often become tense while running, especially when running long distances. You can reduce this tension by adding arm circles to your stretching routine.
If you only do one running-related exercise, make it a calf stretch. Several common running injuries, including plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis, are exacerbated (if not caused) by tight calf muscles. My favorite calf stretch is the “wall push.”
Elevation of an injured area is an important principle of first aid, but elevating your legs regularly is a restorative exercise for anyone and for marathoners in particular because we ask so much of our legs and feet. One of my high school running coaches told us to elevate our feet after practices now and then, and one of my yoga teachers periodically suggests that we place our legs against the wall for a few minutes at the end of the class. Here's how you do it:
The iliotibial band, also known as the IT band, is a thick band of tissue that runs along the outside of each leg. The IT band helps keep the legs and knees stable as they move, and if it becomes inflamed or irritated, it can cause pain in the knees, hips, or outer thighs. A tight IT band is more vulnerable to irritation, and running long distances tends to make it tight. Keep your IT band happy with this stretch:
Rolling your foot across the top of a tennis ball is almost as good as a foot massage and it serves the same purpose of increasing the circulation and working out tight muscles in your feet. When you roll you're your foot over a tennis ball, you stretch the muscles on the bottoms of your feet, which can help prevent plantar fasciitis. And it feels good! For best results, stand up. You can do this exercise while seated, but you will be able to exert more direct pressure if you stand.
Hip stretches are difficult for many runners because distance running promotes tight hips. You may not notice when your hips are tight, but you will notice when they are loose; you'll feel that your running stride is easier and more relaxed if you do some hip stretches. Hip stretches are especially helpful after a run, but do them before you run if that is more convenient, or do them in any spare moment.
Although findings from several sports medicine studies in recent years suggest that people who stretch are not significantly less likely to suffer sports injuries compared with people who don't stretch, my experience suggests that stretching doesn't hurt, it won't increase your risk of injury, and it feels good. You don't have to spend a lot of time stretching. A 5-10 minute stretching routine that includes stretching your calves, hips, quads, and hamstrings before you run can make for a more comfortable run.
Most runners recognize the benefits of some stretching as a way to release muscle tension prior to a workout. If you are stressed or tired or nervous before a run or a race, your muscles will be tense, and tense muscles are more easily injured than relaxed muscles. Your primary goal in stretching should be to release tension, and increasing your flexibility will be a positive side effect.
Some principles of stretching:
Nobody wants to suffer a groin pull, especially not a runner who is training for a marathon, because these injuries can take a long time to heal. Consistent but gentle stretching may reduce your chances of injury, and a simple butterfly stretch is part of my pre-run routine.
Runners naturally focus on their legs and feet, but running tightens the muscles of the arms, back, and shoulders, too. Don't neglect these muscles. You want to have a full range of motion in your arms when running a marathon because even if you don't realize it, your upper body strength will help keep you going when you're tired.
Try this simple triceps stretch.
Runners tend to develop tight hamstrings (the large muscles on the backs of the legs) because these muscles do much of the work in distance running. There are many ways to stretch the hamstrings, but you only need to do one or two exercises during any single stretching routine. Try this hamstring exercise for a good hamstring stretch.
When you're considering running exercises, don't forget about the muscles in your feet. Strengthening foot muscles can help you run more effeciently and can help reduce your risk of foot problems such as plantar fasciitis.
Try this exercise to strengthen the foot muscles:
Sit on the edge of a chair and place a dish towel on the floor.
Keeping your heel flat on the floor, scrunch the dish towel with your toes. Re-straighten the towel as it gets bunched, and keep scrunching for 30 seconds. Repeat for the other foot.
Runners travel for business and pleasure, just like anyone else. If your travels confine you to the car for long periods, such as summer vacation trips with the family, try to fit some of these stretches into your rest stops:
-Calf stretch. Especially if you have been doing the driving, grab a wall or tree and stretch both calves while the car is filling with gas.
-Hamstring stretch. Waiting for your drink or snack order? Put your foot up on an empty chair and stretch your hamstring. Only have time for one leg? Make it your driving leg.
-Quad stretch. Waiting for the restroom? Use a wall for support and sneak in a quad stretch on each leg.
-Shoulder rolls. While walking back to the car, roll your shoulders to open up the chest before you get back behind the wheel again.
I'm a big fan of the fitness ball--those large rubber balls that can be used for stretches, situps, and various strengthening exercises.
If you want to mix up your ab exercises with a fitness ball, try this move, especially if you don't like doing traditional crunches. You'll feel it!
-Start by lying on the floor with your legs in a V-shape and hold a large fitness ball between your feet. Your feet should be at approximately 9:00 and 3:00 positions.
-Concentrate on using your abs to turn the ball so your feet are at the 12:00 and 6:00 position. Count to 2 as you twist and return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
-Alternate for a total of 10 times to start, and then work your way up to more sets as desired.