Are you a runner? Chances are you have had some sort of leg pain or injury in the past. Some of you may have even sustained a longer-term injury. While there is no surefire way to prevent running injuries — trust us, we’d love to find that magic elixir as much as you would — there are ways to keep the body strong and limber enough to withstand all of the miles you are putting on it, whether you’re just going out a few times a week or training for your next marathon!
Exercise 1: Soleus Stretch
Let’s face it; most runners aren’t great about stretching, and the ones that are don’t always hit everything they should. The soleus is one of those oft-neglected muscles that could use some TLC, especially if you have had any Achilles issues in the past.
For this running stretch, position yourself like a normal calf stretch; move into a staggered stance, with one leg in front of your torso and one leg behind you. Keep the back heel down as you lean forward, but make sure to bend your back knee as you lean into the stretch. This one may feel a bit awkward at first, and you may need to have your feet a little closer together than usual. You can also put your big toe up on a small book or something similar to get more of a stretch in the soleus, Achilles, and even plantar fascia.
Exercise 2: Toe Yoga
Nothing is more important for a runner than taking care of your feet. Not only does this mean providing appropriate skin care and avoiding blisters, it also means keeping them nice and strong! Many runners who suffer foot or ankle injuries suffer from a lack of strength and stability within the foot’s intrinsic muscles. These muscles provide your base of support, and can affect everything else up the kinematic chain.
For this exercise, you can either sit or stand with your foot flat on the floor. It is best to do this exercise barefoot at first, so you can see what exactly your foot is doing. Start by lifting your big toe up while keeping the rest of the foot relaxed and flat on the floor. Return your big toe to a resting position, and then lift your other toes up off the floor. You should be able to lift the other toes without the big toe curling; if so, your flexor hallucis longus (one of the muscles coming from your calf) is compensating for a lack of foot intrinsic strength. Keep working on this one until you can keep that big toe straight while lifting the others.
Exercise 3: Prone Hip Extension
Most PTs tend to focus on the hip abductors when evaluating runners for hip and knee pain, and for good reason! Runners only tend to move in one direction, resulting in weakness in the outside of their hips. However, their pain may not always be related to weakness in the gluteus medius, the main muscle responsible for hip stability on the outside of your hip. Instead, research is showing that weakness or a lack of firing in the gluteus maximus can result in hip and knee pain in runners.
For this exercise, lie face down and bend your knee up to 90 degrees or more. It may be a good idea to perform this exercise in front of a mirror at first to get a sense of where your knee is in space. Once in position, lift your foot straight up towards the ceiling, and focus on activating your gluteal muscles. If this gets difficult after 5 to 10 repetitions, keep working on it! Those glutes need to be nice and strong to keep you stable when running.
Single Leg Balance
If you break it down, running is merely the body jumping back and forth from one foot to another. You will never have both feet on the ground at the same time when running, so it is extremely important to have good balance on one leg!
This one is as easy as it sounds. Stand on one foot! It may be better to do this barefoot at first, as you want to avoid your toes from “splaying,” or spreading out and trying to grip the surface you are standing on. If this seems easy, progress to standing on carpet, a pillow, or a piece of cushy foam to create a more unstable surface, forcing your foot and leg to stabilize even more.