So, first rule of injury prevention: don't fall down.
Second rule: your hips are weak.
But I run fast, you say. But I am healthy, you say! But I've been doing this longer than you have, emmbee, you say!
That is true.
Still, your hips are weak. Especially if you're female, and especially if you've had a baby.
I'm a new runner, but I'm an old pro at starting running programs and giving up due to knee and IT band pain. I knew my feet were flexible, and that I overpronated moderately, so I bought motion control shoes, and, well, I still had pain.
Then I had a baby who liked to eat, and I spent many hours nursing and reading books about running on my Kindle. And I learned that many of the aches and pains of runners can be attributed to weak hips.
Here's the deal. When you run, you take about 3000 steps per mile, give or take. Your body is a marvelous machine, so imagine any other machine you like. A bicycle, maybe, or a stand mixer. Now imagine a tiny problem with its mechanics -- maybe a slightly wobbly tire, or one tooth on a gear slightly out of position. How would it last after 15,000 repetitions?
Why would your body be any different?
Now, this is not all to say that we need to have the same form. Your personal history and movement patterns are stamped on your body. But if something small is out of balance, it can lead to greater problems down the line.
Think about your hips and glutes. If they're not strong, or if they're not firing, when you stride forward powerfully, as you do when you run, your leg will cave in slightly. Assuming you don't fall down (see protip #1), some other muscle and joint has to compensate to absorb the force. That means that your foot rolls in more, and your quad and IT band have to tighten to catch you. Do that 15,000 times, and you stand a good chance of injury.
Often, it's not a matter of pure strength. If you want the easiest, no brainer fix, just find a trainer and learn how to squat and deadlift. Once you can do those, you'll have sorted out your hip and glute issues. But you might not be into cross-training, nor might you have time or access for a gym, and the thing is, there is no savings account in strength training. You have to work these muscles all the time.
So, what to do?
There are so many things, but here's what I like as a starting point:
- Stand tall. (If you do yoga, think of mountain pose.) Stand with your weight equally balanced on your feet, with a neutral pelvis, tail neither tucked nor popped. Your weight should be over your heels; check this by wiggling your toes off the ground.
- Now, think of rotating your knees outward from the hips. You won't actually move your knees --- you're just trying to find that little stabilizing muscle.* What you're thinking of is moving your glutes (buttcheeks) together without clenching them, rotating your femurs outward without moving your feet.
- Now, notice what it does. Pay attention to your body! You'll notice that your knees separate a bit, and your legs are straighter. Your arches will lift slightly.
This is what you need to get your body to do while you run. Obviously, you're not going to be able to concentrate on that, so you do strengthening exercises to get those muscles to fire.
Here's my three favorite hip strengtheners.
- Air squats. Standing tall, squat down to parallel or just below, and then stand back up. Here's what you need to think about while doing this:
- Remember that little stabilizing muscle in your butt? Think about it. Feel it push your knees outward as you squat and rise. You want to keep your knees from collapsing in, and you want that to happen from your butt.
- Power yourself back up with your glutes -- you want to avoid tipping forward. Keep your weight over your heels as much as you can.
- I like to do these after runs, maybe 20 or so.
- Monster walks. For this one, you need one of those stretchy elastic flat bands. Loop the band around both legs, around your calves or ankles. Stand with your feet about hip width and bend your knees into a high squat. Then, keeping tension in the band, step sideways.
- Do ten steps in one direction, and then come back ten steps the other way. You'll feel this in your hip rotators, too.
- Three sets of ten should do ya.
- Roll-outs. For this one, you need that flat band again, a soccer-ball sized rubber ball (like the kind your kids want at the supermarket), and a chair or a stability ball.
- The band goes around your legs just above the knee. Your butt sits on the big ball. The little ball goes between your knees, feet about hip width apart. Keep your hands on the little ball.
- Think about that little stabilizing muscle, and feel it work as you roll your feet to the outside -- your legs will part, and you'll feel the band stretch. Then, return your feet to neutral, and squeeze the little ball between your legs. You're basically doing a clam shell, but while sitting, with a little added resistance.
- Three sets of eight should be good. If you Kegel as you squeeze the ball, and lift your pelvic floor, you'll get a good workout there, too. (Important for us mother runners.)
And you're on your way! Bulletproof. Just don't fall on your face.
* Technically, it's all these little muscles. But they're hard to tell apart, and you're looking for a feeling of rotation.
(Standard sort of disclaimer: I'm not a medical doctor, just a hobbyist, so think critically when deciding whether to listen to some loon on the Internet. Ta!)