Something that trainers will consistently talk about is the idea of sport specificity. If you want to get better at running, you should run more! If you're injured, you should choose a rehabilitation method as similar as possible to your chosen sport. (think aqua jogging!) This all makes logical sense in our happy little runner brains. More miles. More volume. More endorphins.
However, one thing that runners chronically overlook is how overall core strength plays a critical role in those later race miles. When our backs are weak, we start to compensate the weakness by activating supporting muscles.
This compensation creates a variety of back problems--most evidently seen in the posterior postural muscles. Weak muscles, such as the trapezius and posterior deltoids, cause the runner to slump forward as he/she becomes fatigued. Arm swing efficiency is compromised as the runner begins to arch their back and hold their arms close to their chest (I call this the dreaded T-Rex pose!). Heavy rotational twist of the trunk becomes more prominent.
All of this equals to extra energy expenditure, easier fatigue, and unfortunately, slower race times. Worst of all, it could lead to injury as the volume increases -- forces are no longer applied to each leg evenly, causing overuse injuries of the lower leg and hip.
All is not lost, however.
Adding a few simple and easy back exercises into your post run or cross-training regimen can start to strengthen your back immediately. I recommend doing three sets of this circuit workout, with 10 reps of each exercise.
The row can be done in a variety of different ways. My favorite version is the the one-armed row. This exercise can be done in a bent over position with one arm by using a weight that you can comfortably do for 10 repetitions.
To do this variation, bend at the waist, elbows close to your sides, using a bench to support yourself. As you pull upwards with each arm, make sure to concentrate on the contraction in the center of your back. I imagine that I am driving my elbow through the ceiling. Hold for a second and release, moving slow and controlled back down.
Alternately, another version is the seated row. If you're attempting this workout at home, I suggest using a heavy resistance band. It can be placed around a table leg or anything that you can pull against. Sit back, with your back at a 90 degree angle to your legs. Pull the resistance band to you, keeping your elbows tracking your sides. As you pull back, make sure to maintain a tall back, focusing on pulling your shoulder blades together. Hold for one second and slowly release, not allowing the band to snap back to the starting position.
** Advanced athletes could do an alternating row in a plank for an added challenge.
The cobra is an adaptation from the yoga environment to weight training. Lay on a flat surface with your stomach on the floor and your feet and toes relaxed. Keep both legs together. For me, it helps to imagine that my legs are a tail. Your fingertips should be on the ground, just under your shoulders. Focus on raising your chest with your back, not your arms. Hold up for two seconds and then release.
** Advanced athletes can do this posture while laying on a fitness ball (hands on ground for support) for an added challenge.
Rear Delt Fly
Arrange your body in the same position that you were in for the bent over rows -- body at 45 degrees, knees slightly bent. With a weight that you can comfortably raise, lift your arms until they are parallel to the floor with your elbows slightly bent. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
**Advanced athletes could sit bent over on a bench for added focus.
Adding each one of these exercises into your post run routine will not only help strengthen your back, but aid in better running, and ultimately, better racing! Try these out today!