According to Runner’s World, 13% of runners surveyed had an injury over the course of the year, and of that number, 40% were knee injuries.
Shit, knees must be really badly designed, or really unstable, or they simply wear out. Right?
Um, no. Well, maybe. I have a mantra: assume the best, always. That comes to conversations with my wife, interactions with my students, and (when I remember) other drivers on the road.
It also applies when it comes to injuries: always assume the best-case scenario, and address that. If your solution doesn’t work, go to the next step. While this may take a little longer, it’s much less likely to result in an invasive procedure if you don’t need one. Here’s an example…let’s say my left knee hurts. What could be causing it?
- Instability in the hip
- Overly tight hip or ankle
- Worn out shoes
- Tear in my ACL
- Stress fracture
Now, when I start working to understand what’s happening, where in this list do I want to start? I’ll first see if some foam rolling of the thigh and calf, plus strengthening exercises for the hip and foot, can help. I’ll also check the wear patterns on my shoes (low-hanging fruit). If those interventions don’t help me out, I may head to a specialist for another opinion. But, if making my hip stronger though 10 minutes a day of stability work takes away the knee pain, isn’t that better than heading immediately to a specialist? If you like your specialist – sexy, smart, and compliments you – maybe not. But for me, I’d rather be able to take care of it myself.
So, without further delay, my favorite 5 exercises to improve your running and reduce your likelihood of injury:
- Monster walks: activating and strengthening the muscles on the outside of the hips and thighs is essential to promoting knee health, and can be particularly helpful in preventing IT band syndrome. When these muscles don’t do their job, the knee will likely cave in with each step, putting unnecessary sideways forces on the knee. No good. When and how many? I like to do 3 sets of 10 steps each way before a run (enough to feel a slight burn, but nowhere near failure). You can also add these into lower-body strength sessions for an added bonus. These minibands from Perform Better are ideal; I suggest getting the 4-pack of mixed resistances.
- Deadbugs: core strength is essential while we run, especially for keeping the pelvis stable. If the pelvis shifts side-to-side, the muscles that should stabilize the knee don’t have a stable platform to work from, so they’re not able to keep the knee safe. When and how many: 3 sets of 10 (per leg) before a run are a great warm-up. Don’t make these harder than you can control. Slow and controlled is key – fast won’t make you stronger.
- Overhead walking lunges: once we’ve got the core strength, we want to challenge it, and taking some weight overhead – simply the arms or a piece of PVC pipe – adds to the challenge. When and how many: 3 sets of 10 steps (per leg) is a great warm up; add these in to your strength sessions to build endurance.
- Goblet squats: Few exercises open the hips and build the thighs and butt like a goblet squat. Do these. Go light for a warm-up, before running or strength sessions, and go heavy during strength sessions. When and how many: 3 sets of 8 reps at light weight before a run will get your legs moving. During a strength session, 5 sets of 5, heavy enough to be challenging, is perfect.
- Military presses: the standing overhead press, or military press, when done alternating (as shown in this video) is great for building strong shoulders, but it also challenges the core to resist leaning sideways or backwards, and as your core gets stronger, you’re able to engage more lean for more speed. When and how many: these aren’t so much a warm-up for a run, but they should be a part of your strength training. 5 sets of 5 presses (per arm), done twice a week with a moderate weight, will do the trick.