It happens to so many of us. We reach a point when we’ve had enough of our couch potato selves and decide it’s time to make a change. We dive into a workout routine, full of gusto, only to get quickly side-lined by injury. Whether you are in school and haven’t worked out since last season, or you are a working adult and haven’t worked out since…well, let’s just say it’s been a while, our early enthusiasm doesn’t always match our fitness. Unfortunately, that abundance in zeal when not balanced with a knowledgeable approach can lead to discouragement or disaster.
How then do we get fit again without breaking something? The answer is prehab. This is a term coined by Meb Keflezighi, the 41 year old U.S. Olympic marathoner who also won the 2014 Boston Marathon at the ripe “old” age of 39 (just days away from turning 40). What prehab means is taking the time to prepare your body for your workout then going through the essential process of recovering after your workout. In Meb’s words, “Strengthening, stretching, form drills, cross-training, and recovery practices are among the ways I implement the ‘prehab, not rehab’ principle” (Meb For Mortals, P. 5).
According to a recent The New Yorker article on this very topic, Meb is very methodical and deliberate about everything he does. In his book Meb for Mortals, Meb shares how he has become the top U.S. marathoner by paying attention to those less than glamorous details – like regular napping.
Meb’s training philosophy goes hand in hand with what we do as coaches and trainers. One of the first things we like to assess is our athletes’ balance, stability and core strength. There’s nothing flashy about it, at all. We start by seeing if you can stand on one foot for more than 30 seconds. Many runners and field athletes struggle with balance. We’re so used to sitting at our desks, on the couch, or in the car that we haven’t had the need to maintain balance and stability. Then, we decide to start working out again, and we don’t realize we’re moving a bit off kilter. It doesn’t take too many repetitions to start developing an injury when the movement we are doing is done with improper form. People may think this is simply the pain of getting back into working out. When the pain does not subside but the workout continues, bigger problems can arise.
Two of the most common objections I hear about running is running is bad for my knees or running causes me hip pain. I am much more inclined to believe that bad running is bad for your knees or hips. We put a lot of pressure on our knees and hips when we neglect caring for the IT (iliotibial) band, the quadriceps, the hamstrings and the glutes. All of these muscle groups and areas need strength and flexibility work in order to help us run more effectively and without injury.
Another thing we have our athletes do are a few basic moves that tell us if they have any muscles that are over active (likely tight) or under active (weak and under used). For example, one of the most common issues I see when I have runners do a basic squat is that the torso leans too far forward. There are a host of possible reasons for this (tight calves or hips, or weak glutes, lower back, or abdominal muscles for example). If we didn’t address these issues and just kept squats as they were, runners would be much more likely to get injured in their workouts. By designing a workout that addresses under active or weak muscles, runners are much more likely to succeed in their fitness or athletic goals.
Another issue that can lead to injury is when the muscles that are primarily responsible for our movement get neglected. You know – the core. It’s the part of the workout people save for last, just in case they run out of time. With the MN Blaze, we do core work first. I subscribe to the philosophy that if you could only work one area of your body, make it the core. The key components of the core include the various abdominals, obliques (your sides), and certain muscles of the back. The core also includes your hip flexors (the front of your hips), hamstrings (back of your legs), quadriceps (front of your legs) and your glutes (yep, your butt). Because nearly everyone I have ever worked with has under active glutes, this has become an automatic part of my clients’ core routine. When our glutes do not do their fair share of the work, the hamstrings and hips have to put out more effort than they can sustain, and you guessed it, that leads to injury.
Before a workout begins, I recommend a 5 – 10 minute warmup such as jogging, walking or basic calisthenics moves. Once a workout is over, it is essential to cool down. Take a full 10 minutes to do flexibility moves from neck to calves and/or do some foam rolling (also referred to as self-myofascial release). We want every athlete to have a long and successful running “career.”
I hear you. These are not exciting things, but they do lead to exciting results. If you are just getting back into a workout routine, talk with your coach or trainer to find out where you need to place your focus. As you build a strong foundation and gain strength that is balanced, you will be able to do everything better – whether that is sprinting 100 meters, running a marathon, or keeping up with your kids.
Author Colleen Prudhomme is a high school track coach, certified personal trainer, and business owner. She also is a coach member of the MN Blaze Track Club.