My hope with this article series is to explain the role of each region of the body as it pertains to the act of running so everyone can appreciate why it’s important to maintain a strength and mobility routine to prevent injury and even boost performance. We all understand the importance of having our “why” as we undertake the mental and physical challenges of trail and ultrarunning. Without a big enough “why,” we won’t get out the door to put the consistent work in, and we won’t endure the discomfort necessary to get to the finish line. Without the “why,” we aren’t going to take the time to put in the maintenance to keep us running healthy for years to come. I hope this article can become your “why” to begin a strength and mobility routine if you don’t already have one. Over the next few newsletters, I will divide the body into three regions: the torso, hips, and lower extremity. I’ll explain the role of each region and provide exercises to improve their mobility and promote strength. Today we’ll start with the torso.
Our torso has two major roles. The first is to absorb shock, and the second is to create rotation to be converted to torque. Looking at our spine vertically, besides keeping us upright, it acts as a spring. If our spine is stiff or the muscles that support our spine are weak, it can’t effectively absorb shock. Our thoracic spine also rotates with the help of our arm swing, and that rotation is converted to torque by our hips using the iliopsoas muscle, our primary hip flexor. The iliopsoas is a muscle complex comprised of the iliacus and psoas major muscles. It’s the only muscle in our body that has an attachment to our spine, hips, and legs. Our back and abdominal muscles also play a major role in not just postural support but also load transfer. To better understand how rotation momentum creates torque, picture a ceiling fan on high that looks like it’s about to swing off and take flight. Looking at our body while running, as our trunk twists left toward our left knee driving forward, our right hip extends to put force through the foot that is in contact with the ground, then our leg kicks back propelling us forward. This then happens on the opposite side, and repeats as we move down the trail. The faster you run the more rotation occurs, generating more torque through the hips. It’s important to have symmetrical rotation on each side, or we won’t use the hips evenly, which can lead to problems all the way to our calf and foot. If we aren’t rotating much and bobbing side to side instead, this isn’t just wasted energy, it can lead to sacroiliac joint pain and, in some cases, a sacral stress fracture.
While I introduced the iliopsoas today, we’ll discuss how to stretch and strengthen it in the next installment of this newsletter with the rest of the hip. Now that we’ve discussed the importance of the torso, here are some exercises to promote mobility and strength. Demonstrated below is thread the needle. It is a great exercise to help promote mobility spinal mobility. As you’re exploring your range of motion with this exercise, this is a gentle movement, you’re not trying to force anything. Do 1-2 sets of 10-15 on each side. If one side is more limited than the other, do an additional set on that side.
To improve strength through this rotational motion use a plank with a row or a side plank with a row, as demonstrated below. Don’t let the plank be the limiting factor here. If a full plank position is too challenging, use a modified plank on your knees. If combining the exercises is too challenging, then break them apart. Do a standing row and address your core strength separately. As you row the arm back, your midback should twist as well, but keep your hips stable. To properly dose an exercise to promote strength you should select a weight or resistance band that only allows you to complete 8-12 of an exercise. Always do at least 2 sets. If you can easily do 3 sets of 12 of an activity, increase the weight until you are forced back into the appropriate dose range.
After you’ve been working on the isolated movements, you can then integrate this into something more similar to a running motion to use the body as a whole. Not only is this targeting multiple muscle groups, but it will help your strength and mobility improvements better translate into your running form. Walking forward lunges with rotation toward the forward knee is a great integrated exercise. Just remember to add weight as necessary to make the lunges challenging enough to promote strength gains.
The human body is great at adapting and compensating, but developing bad habits and imbalances leads to injury. Maintaining a strength and mobility routine will reduce these imbalances and compensations, reducing injury. I hope you’ve found this article helpful and better appreciate the importance of making a strength and mobility routine part of your run training. In the next newsletter we’ll explore the hip, the engine where we produce our power. This article is not intended to replace medical advice, and these exercises are intended for healthy tissues. Please consult your physical therapist if you are working through an unresolved injury.
This post may contain affiliate links, for which Northwest Dirt Churners receives a small commission from any sale when clicked from this site. These commissions will provide entry fees for youth runners in Northwest Dirt Churners trail races.