Minimum Leg Day

Many of you have asked me about strength training for your legs. I do two days of legs a week:

  • Maintenance Day
  • Plyometrics Day

Maintenance Day is an absolute MUST for every runner. You hit all of the muscle groups in the legs and hips to ensure maximum strength for those long runs. Here are the absolute minimum leg exercises that you should be doing every single week.

  1. Leg Extensions
  2. Hamstring Curls
  3. Squats (or Stand-up/Sit downs) OR Lunges (or both, if you can)
  4. Standing Calf Raises
  5. 3 Hip Exercises

For a brush-up on squat form, see this post. For a visual, you should look like this:

Exercises #1-4 should be done at a challenging weight. What does that mean? It means that you do 3 sets at a weight that makes this happen: the first one is no problem, second one is more challenging, the third one you should struggle to get to the 10th rep and have to push hard to get to the 12th. If you’re not struggling on the last set, the weight isn’t heavy enough to be making a difference in your life. If you can’t get through the 2nd or 3rd set at all, it’s too heavy. Back off.

For Exercises #5, see this post on stronger hips (see the photos below for a preview).

If you commit to your strength routine the way you commit to your running schedule, you will be a very successful runner. If you ignore your gym workouts, you will be a very sorry runner. So, hit the gym and get ‘er done!

Now go out and run!

Beat The Runner’s Plateau

In every running career, there will be many plateaus. Sometimes they sneak up on us and we don’t realize they’re happening until we see stagnant race times. Sometimes it’s our running buddies who ask “are you alright?” when we’re lagging behind on every. single. run. Sometimes we find ourselves dreading the everyday run because it just doesn’t feel good anymore. Runner’s plateau sucks.

It happens. Now let’s talk about how to fix it.

First things first. You have to be honest with yourself and ask a few hard questions:

-Am I varying the speed and distance of my workouts? This is the most common reason I find for newbie/semi-seasoned runners. If you want results, you gotta mix it up.

-Am I cross-training enough (or at all)? Another mistake people make is to think simply running will make you faster. Not true. Aerobic + Anaerobic workouts make you faster.

-Am I putting forth 100% effort in my workouts? Only you can answer this question.

-Is my schedule the same every day/week? Yikes. Isn’t that boring? I’m plateauing just thinking about it.

-Am I getting enough rest? Sleep is where our muscles heal and grow. If you’re not sleeping, neither of these very necessary things are happening.

-Do I have a goal? Running for the sake of running is intolerably boring. Even if it’s a 3K/5K Turkey Trot, set a goal. Work for it. It takes the monotony out of the running.

These are the important questions to ask because they will provide you with the answers to get out of your running rut, over the plateau and into a new gear in your running. And we all have multiple gears, like cars, that we can train into and find as we get in better shape. It’s kind of a cool thing when you find yourself pushing and easing into a newer, faster pace.

But that doesn’t just happen. Here are some suggestions to get out of your running rut:

-Substitute one run for another form of cardio. Try swimming or indoor cycling. You never know, you might find you looooove triathlons. Get off your legs and into something new.

-Grab a faster running friend once a week for a short, hard run. Scary, I know. But it helps.

-Join a gym and try some strength training classes. A change of scenery and pace might make you appreciate the solitude and quiet many of us experience on a run.

-Mix it up. Don’t do the same workout for two weeks. Nothing the same, every workout is new and different. No run route is the same. No distance is the same. No class is the same. Try it.

-Kick it up a notch. Indoor cycling (aka “spinning”) is a great way to challenge your cardiovascular system while not beating the hell out of your legs. Push as hard as you can during one class a week and see if you notice a difference in your runs after a month.

-Take a break from running. I know, I know. Runners hate this suggestion. But, seriously, taking a one week/one month break from running to find new ways to move might be just what you need to get back into it with a fresh perspective.

-Set a goal. Sign up for a race. No better way to push yourself than to set a bar to reach and work as hard as you can.

Plateaus are bound to happen to everybody, even (and maybe, especially) the pros. How you handle them is up to you. You can wallow in it and complain about it or you can switch it up, work a little harder, try something new and discover something else about yourself: you have another gear. Who knew?

Now go out and run!

What do you do to get beyond the plateau???

Q & A: Speedy Recovery Tricks

Q. I’m pooped after my long run! Should I take the next day off from working out and lounge around all day?

A. I’d advise against that. It’s counterintuitive, but you’ll actually recover faster from a brutal workout if you do a short, easy workout the next day. Remember the Shake Out Recovery Run? This is the time to do it. You might be a little sore when you start, but by gently moving your body and increasing the blood flow to your muscles, you are providing your muscles with the nutrients they need to rebuild and recover. Take the day after that off to rest and recoup. Maybe you use that easy run to catch up with a friend who’s a little slower or enjoy the scenery. Whatever you do, take it easy but get up and move!

Q. All I want after a hard workout is get into a hot shower and stay there. For hours. That’s cool, right?

A. You know what’s better? Suffering for juuuuuust a few more minutes (10-15, to be exact) in an ice bath and then sit in your hot, steamy shower for as long as your little heart desires. The thing about the ice bath is that it gets your body to chill out and not swell up. When you’re out there running for a while or killing it during a really tough run, your blood is a-pumpin’ and your body’s fluids are moving at a faster rate than normal. When you stop, your body takes a while to slow back down and you can build up fluid (edema) in your extremities (legs!!) which is seriously uncomfortable and hinders your recovery. Ice bath first, hot shower second.

Q. I don’t really need to stretch after a long run, right?

A. Wrong. Right after a run is when your muscles are the most warm and your joints are the most lubricated. Prime stretch time. As you get older (ahem, I am not old, just old-er), these problems become more apparent. You youngsters probably don’t feel creaky just yet, but wait a few years. You will. In order to promote muscular recovery and prevent injury YOU MUST STRETCH AFTER YOU RUN. Seriously, I just watched Spirit of the Marathon, a documentary film that follows various athletes through their marathon training leading up to the 2005 Chicago Marathon. Deena Kastor won that marathon and in the film she talks about the importance of stretching after a run. So much so that, despite her confessed “laziness”, she has her husband stretch her because she knows how crucial that component of training really is. Treat it like your workout: make the time for stretching.

Now go out and run!

Too Much is TOO MUCH (and how to avoid doing too much)

You ever have that nagging pain that just won’t go away? Do you feel tired on every single run and never get anything resembling a “runner’s high”? Are you getting sick all the time? Do you have trouble completing what would normally be an easy run? Does it take you forever to recover from a workout?

You might be doing too much.

Things like tendonitis, stress fractures, torn labrums, illness, muscle strains and stupid injuries sustained from tripping over curbs and face-planting because you’re too tired to lift your own feet while running…wait, don’t tell me I’m the only person who’s done that. Well, there you go. I trip when I’m tired. It’s very embarrassing and always leaves a mark.

These things happen when you’re doing too much. And where your body is concerned, too much is too much.

As someone who has an auto-immune disease, I have to learn the very hard and painful way what is too much for me. For most of you out there, you can still power on through for days and maybe weeks before your body starts to talk to you. Maybe it comes in the form of tendonitis or a more serious injury. Whatever it is, you will know it because it will stop you dead in your tracks if you don’t take care of it. But there are always warning signs you’ve chosen to ignore. Here’s how to avoid doing too much:

#1. Schedule your days off. At least one day completely off from working out. This doesn’t mean, “Oh, I’ll hop into an easy spin class” or “It’s just a 60 minute yoga class. Stretching is good, right?” Wrong. Yoga is NOT just stretching and breathing. It is hard and it is a workout. Rest is rest. You’ll know it because you’ll feel RESTED after having done it.

#2. Add mileage gradually. Jumping into a marathon training schedule before you can run 8 miles straight without stopping or finishing in torturous pain is a recipe for failure and injury. Stress fractures and muscle strains are common in people who decide that this is the way to go and they are not easy to come back from. Plan ahead at least six months before undertaking such a long race. You’re much more likely to succeed if you take your time with adding miles.

#3. Cross-train year-round. Cross training isn’t just for the off-season. You should be cross-training throughout your race season, but just do it less. You don’t try to set your personal squat record during training season, but you do incorporate lower body strength training into your schedule at least once a week. See the difference? Cross-training will keep you healthy and balanced so that you can best stave off overuse injuries like tendonitis that happen when you do TOO MUCH of one thing.

#4. Listen to your body. It’s talking to you.

#5. If it hurts, don’t do it. If you have a sudden pain that just won’t go away, something is not right and you should stop what you are doing that causes that pain and get it checked out. Good rule of thumb for many things in the fitness world. You know the difference between “it hurts because it’s hard” and “it hurts because it hurts” so don’t go commenting on how all exercise hurts. It’s a different kind of pain and you know it when you feel it.

Really, though, you have to know your body and know your trigger points. When my hips start to ache, I know I’m overdue for new sneakers and I kick myself for not remembering to stop by JackRabbit last time I was down in Union Square. My hips never hurt unless it’s my damn shoes, so if they suddenly start hurting, it’s either the shoes or something serious. Know thy self.

Be kind to your body. It’s the only one you’re going to get.

Now go out and run!

Exercises To Do This Week: STRONGER HIPS

Question:

Why can’t I lift my knees higher when I run?

Why does it ache on the outside of my hip?

Why does my IT band flare up all the time?

Why can’t I stride longer?

Why is my foot turnover slow?

Why does it hurt across the top of my butt?

Why do I trip over my toes when I run/walk?

Answer: Your hips are weak.

A little anatomy lesson:

The hip joint is the largest joint of your body. The anatomy of the front of the hip joint looks like this:

Image from Wikipedia

The psoas major and illiacus form the iliopsoas tendon that crosses from the abdominal cavity into the lower extremity (your quadricep area). This tendon is responsible for lifting both a straight leg and bent knee forward.

The tensor fascia lata (TFL) is the muscle belly for the dreaded Illiotibial band/tract (IT band) that steadies the hip laterally as you put pressure on your legs in the form of walking and running. It’s a hip stabilizer. Without it, the hip would pop out of the socket.

The anatomy of the rear (and most internal) part of the hip looks like this:

Image from Wikipedia

These are the hip rotators, responsible for rotating (duh) and stabilizing the hip joint.

Image from Wikipedia

The gluteus maximus (largest muscle in your rear) is the powerhouse of pushing (think sitting down and standing up) and the gluteus medius is responsible for abduction (lifting your leg to the side), rotation and stabilization of the hip.

What does this mean to you? In short, these muscles are your problem. If you’re a female, they are usually a very big problem because female hip girdles are much wider than that of men and the angle from our hip to our knee is more severe. Big problem.

These muscles stabilize your hip joint as you run and walk. Because running and walking has forward motion and rarely has lateral movement, these are the secondary muscles that keep your hip in place as you push off and catch yourself. Because they are secondary, they are often ignored in a typical strength training routine. Running and walking is choreographed falling and these muscles keep your hip from falling right out of its socket. If you swim, bike, do yoga or dance, they are the muscles that help you kick and push and pull your legs. Pretty important, right?

They are so important that most people pay absolutely no attention to them at all until they hurt like hell. Why? It’s just lack of knowledge. But you’re a smart runner. You seek knowledge before there’s a problem. That’s why you’re here.

When these muscles are ignored, you can end up with tendonitis, ITB syndrome, TFL problems, meniscus tears, lower back pain, muscle strains everywhere from your hips to your calves and a whole host of other problems. All because you’re missing three simple exercises from your weekly workouts. No longer.

#1. Leg Lift: for the iliopsoas (the one that lifts your leg and your knee)

-Lie flat on your back with a light ankle weight around your straight leg.

-Keep your toes pointed toward the sky and lift your straight leg up and down for one minute with out stopping.

#2. Abductor Leg Lift: for the hip rotators and gluteus medius

-Lie directly on your side with one arm tucked under your head and the other in front of your belly button for balance. Legs straight, one on top of the other.

-Lift your top straight leg up to just past hip height. Keep all of your toes facing forward (don’t turn them up toward the ceiling) and lower the leg back down. 1 minute without stopping.

#3. Rear Leg Lift: for gluteus maximus (big butt muscle)

-Lie on your stomach with your hands under your forehead, forehead on the ground. Legs straight, toes slightly lower than your body (see how LB’s toes are off the mat?)

-Squeeze your butt (very important!) and lift your straight leg up a few inches (no higher) and then back down, but don’t lose the feeling of squeezing your butt. The more you squeeze, the more you work.

Every single athlete, heck, PERSON in the world should be doing these exercises. They help prevent and rehabilitate the most common injuries that sideline runners by strengthen those tiny, but vitally important, muscles of the hip. This is the largest joint of the body (I know I said that already, but IT IS), so show it some love. My Radio City Rockette has learned to love these exercises and so should you! Do each of these exercises for one minute twice a week and you will be amazed at how it helps make you a better, stronger runner. I promise.

Now go out and run!