By Scott Scanlon
What a winter.
Two blizzards. An average temperature more than 5 degrees below normal. Thirty-seven days in the single digits.
Western New York hardly seems a runner’s paradise these days, which is why the temptation will be great in the coming weeks as conditions improve – prayerfully – to rush into the great outdoors and work off the rust that tainted our bodies in recent months.
Not so fast, sports medicine doctors and avid runners advise, because roughly three of four runners will suffer some sort of injury this year that will force them to reduce their on-foot mileage or sideline them altogether.
“If you improperly prepare, or try to do too much, too soon, that’s when you run into the most trouble,” said Dr. Jason Matuszak, of Excelsior Sports Medicine in Amherst.
Matuszak and others in the practice’s running program, STRIDES – Striving To Reduce Injuries During Endurance Sports – believe everyone who has ever dealt with a nagging injury can get enough rehabilitation to bound back into running shape. They recommend novice, intermediate and well-heeled runners alike take the following steps to get into shape for the road races in the months ahead.
Start in the gym: Those preparing for the Buffalo half and full marathons May 25, as well as many shorter races this year, should already be focused indoors on lower body, core and cardio strength training. Jocelyn McGill, an athletic trainer with Excelsior, said squats and lunges are key exercises to prepare for the outdoor running season. “You want to move in all planes of motion,” she said. “When we talk about squats and lunges, we don’t just do the normal forward lunge. We go sideways, laterally. We also do core walks, which is a lunge walk while carrying a mid-ball (weighted ball), so you’re using your whole body.”
Matuszak said runners often lose their breath before the strength in their legs, particularly at the start of a season. “Anything you can do to maintain cardiac output, you’re going to be better off,” he said. Spinning, the elliptical and running on a treadmill all can help, but running indoors is different than hitting the road, he warned. To get the most from your treadmill workout, put the incline at 2.5, which will improve running form and better prepare you for the greater rigors outdoors.
Moving outdoors: “One of the early things we look for in runners is can they at least balance with one foot on the ground?” Matuszak said. He said sports docs ideally want runners to hit a pace of 180 “foot falls” per minute. “If you don’t have good stability while you’re doing that, that’s a recipe for injury.” Matuszak and partner Dr. Todd Lorenc want to see patients do mini-squats before they’re satisfied those runners can handle a 5K or longer race. That involves standing on one leg and holding the other leg one foot off the ground, then bending the leg planted on the ground 45 degrees at the knee. The goal is to do 100 squats, continuously, on each leg, without stumbling. Every day. The doctors also recommend anyone who spent the winter running indoors on a treadmill cut their mileage by 25 percent when they resume running outside. “The stresses are going to be different,” Matuszak said, “and your body needs time to accommodate those stresses.”
10 percent rule: If you look to prevent injury and boost efficiency, especially if your activity was light in recent months, use the “10 percent rule” for outdoor runs.
“We look at adding 10 percent more distance each week,” Matuszak said. “If you’re coming back from an injury, you might want to go a little bit slower. If you’re an experienced runner, you might be able to go a little bit faster.”
Using that standard, people who completed the Shamrock Run on March 1 would be able to complete the Buffalo Half Marathon safely in late May but not the full marathon unless they are experienced marathoners, Matuszak said.
Those training for a half-marathon also don’t have to run 11 miles three times a week, he advised. “You can accomplish the same amount of building by doing two shorter runs of 3 to 5 miles each week and then a longer run that gets progressively longer as time goes on.”
Mix up your training: Nicole Bennett, Kendra Kramer and Victoria Davis, all members of the Buffalo Triathlon Club, have spent the winter keeping their bodies well-tuned by indoors. They’ve done a mix of active stretches, strength exercises and cardio. Bennett and Kramer teach spinning; Davis takes yoga. “You want to use the same motions you will use while you’re running,” said Bennett, a personal trainer at Hive: Lifespan Center in East Amherst.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends resistance training that focuses on lower extremities and core strength three times a week, including once the outdoor running season starts. One to two sets of 10 of legs and core exercises, particularly those that strengthen your glutes, is fine. “Some of the muscles that are really, really important for maintaining good pelvic alignment and good pelvic stability when you’re running, those never strengthen from running alone,” Matuszak said. “Those always have to be focused on with additional exercises.”
Proper form: “A lot of times when you try to put people into ideal form, it’s almost like putting a round peg in a square hole because people are made differently,” said Lorenc (pronounced Lawrence). That said, 75 to 80 percent of people are built to run by coming down under their bodies starting with the balls or midpoint of their feet.
“You want to put your leg below your hip and pull the ground beneath you. It’s almost like you’re moving the ground, but you’re not. You want your body to be in a neutral line,” said Davis, a health promotions specialist with BlueCross BlueShield of WNY. “When your feet strike out in front of your body,” Matuszak said, “it’s acting like a braking force; it essentially pushes back against you.”
Shoes matter: If you’re favorite running shoes are a few years old, it’s time for an upgrade. “Footwear’s been all over the place,” Matuszak said, “For a little while, we in the medical and footwear communities were putting everybody into these big, heavy, stability-style shoes, because we felt if your foot had the slightest degree of being flat, you’ve got to prevent that.” In recent years, however, doctors have determined the foot should have “a little bit of roll to it” during runs, he said. “The foot has the ability to move in six different planes of motion, and you want it to be able to move through all those motions. You put people into stability shoes who don’t need them, and all of a sudden you lose some of the motion in your ankle, which translates up to the knees, which translates up to the hips and creates more problems.
“If you’re a healthy runner,” he said, “you should be running in something that’s a little bit lighter weight, neutral, a cushioned running shoe.”
Go bare?: Three-quarters of runners strike their heels first when wearing sneakers, Matuszak said, while the same percentage strike their midfoot or forefoot when barefoot, “which is more of what we think is supposed to be anatomically correct.” That’s why many top runners will run barefoot at least part of the time. That can create other problems for road runners, said Lorenc, explaining why Vibram FiveFingers running shoes – which contain five sleeves for the toes and provide a barefoot sensation – have become popular in recent years among some avid runners.
When to stretch: “The studies also have gone back and forth concerning whether runners should stretch before they run,” Matuszak said. “The current thinking is that it impairs performance to some degree. But what we do know is that if your range of motion is creating inflexibility for your joints … improving that will make a difference for you and help you reduce your injuries.”
Before and after they run, the three triathletes perform “active stretches” that include lunges, knee to chest raises and calf stretches – all while walking. They also lean onto foam rollers – available in most sporting goods stores – to loosen muscles.
You’ve been hurt: Those who have been hampered by injury in the past may want to consider visiting a physical therapist or certified strength and conditioning specialist to make sure they are properly trained and prepared for road races. “We don’t think every runner needs to come in and have a gait analysis performed, and look for problems if people aren’t having any,” Matuszak said. “For our experienced runners, if they’re not developing injury from their running, it’s probably not a problem for them. But we want to make sure that people who have something that may predispose them to injury are finely tuned.”
Bennett has endured three ankle surgeries, “so I have to be careful with my form,” the triathlete said. “I have to do specific warm-ups to loosen them up a bit. If I’m not conscious of my form, if I slouch a little bit, that will really affect my calves.”
Other keys: All runners looking to perform their best need to eat right, get good sleep and drink plenty of water.
“We recommend that eight to nine hours of sleep that nobody gets in this country anymore,” Matuszak said. “More importantly, we want people to be regular in their sleep-wake cycles. We also want people to train in the same environment and at the same time the race is going to be. That goes to the natural biorhythms we have.”
In terms of nutrition, even with a 5K, you’re expending 1,000 to 1,200 calories, depending on the terrain. “If you’re running a half marathon, or marathon, you really do need to increase your calorie intake,” Matuszak said. It’s particularly important when it comes to building bone and preventing fractures. “Calorie-dense” foods, particularly complex carbohydrates and proteins, will help you feel full faster and build strength, he said.
Have fun: Anything that helps make running a lifetime pursuit with lifetime health benefits is worth trying, Matuszak said, and race organizers continue to add wrinkles to enliven events. For instance, you can get blasted with color Aug. 16 in the Color Run at Canalside; run a challenging obstacle course July 12-13 at the Tough Mudder in Allegany County; or run a relay with four or 11 of your friends Sept. 26-27, during the Ragnar Relay in Southern Ontario.
Or you can try a triathlon – the shortest of which involve a 750-meter swim, 12-mile bike ride and 5K run. Of course an Iron Man is much more challenging, with a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.