Distance running: What to do when your hip flexors try to abandon ship.

Yesterday, I had the first big trail run of the year. It ended up being around 26 km, over rolling hills. I don’t consider myself a running. Running has always been more of a cross training method to make my other outdoor pursuits less painful (or at least painful at a slightly faster rate.)

26 km is the furthest I have ever run. The first 21 km were great! I felt strong, I kept up a decent tempo, walked when there were steep uphills and ran pretty much everything else. However, at the 21 km mark, both hip flexors seized up and my left knee developed a stabbing pain on the lateral side. Bending and unbending my knee became a serious issue and the last 5 km of the trail were something of a test in pain endurance. Suffice to say, I was quite happy I had my hiking poles to use as crutches. Not a fun way to end a run.

After hobbling home and lying around on the couch in pain with an ice pack, I got an encouraging email from my favorite Ultra marathon runner (read: my Dad.) He had a few tips to make my next epic run a little less painful.

  1. Break up the run differently, try running 5 min on, 1 min off: This recruits different muscle fibre types. In this case, 5 on 1 off would recruit mainly fast oxidative-glycolytic fibres which have a mid range endurance capacity but are stronger than the slow oxidative fibres that are used for long endurance activities. Being able to recruit these midrange oxidative-glycolytic fibres means that you will have more fibres to work from giving you a longer period ofgood strong running before your muscles are fatigued.
  2. Use the couch stretch to free up hip flexors forever: For those unfamiliar with the couch stretch, it’s the number one tool for loosening up tight hip flexors. This should be done for about 2 mins on each side, held at the angle where you are tighest. Remember, humans are escape artists. Do not let your body escape the stretch. It should hurt
  3. See what Kstar has to say about knee and hip mobility. Kelly Starrett is a physiotherapist that runs a phenomenal blog at www.mobilitywod.com which posts information and demonstrations of how to perform basic maintenance on yourself. His videos have some really good information about most common problems that athletes run into. Just be forewarned: it will hurt (and it should, if you’re that tight, you probably deserve it.) This video in particular was quite helpful for my hip/knee issue.
  4. Full range of motion air squats: Learn to love them. They are a stretch as much as they are a strength exercise. I was told that “caveman squats” (full ROM squats) were a lifesaver for ultra runners. It makes a lot of sense, as a full ROM squat stretches out the lower quads, hip extensors, and calves, all areas that have a tendency to tighten up during long runs.

Don’t let injury get the best of you. Stay on top of your body maintenance and take charge of your physical wellbeing.  As Kstar says, don’t hide in the pain cave.

Keep on running.

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Conversations with a Chiropractor

“Well, the symptoms you’re describing to me are definitely in line with whiplash associated disorder, but they should have subsided within about 4 weeks. Since you’re injury was 6 weeks ago, that tells me there are other factors at play.”

6 weeks ago I took a really lame fall skiing and cranked my neck around enough to give me a bit of whiplash. A couple of visits to the physio and my Chiropractor in the city and I figured I was sorted. The pain and tightness subsided during the aforementioned 4-week period and I was back on my way.

Last week however, my neck flared back up and throughout the day, pain and tightness wrapped its way around my neck. I’ve recently moved out into a small town, and have started seeing a nearby chiropractor (“nearby” here defined as: in the town and hour and a half away, which is still closer than the city) who treats a lot of other climbers and mountain athletes.

After a full assessment, it was determined that being a climber has predisposed me to certain strength imbalances that are lending to aggravation of my injured neck muscles. If you are a climber, maybe this sounds familiar. I know I’ve written about this before, but balance is so important to maintain in the body, I don’t feel it can be said enough.

A common issue in the climbing athletes treated by my chiro is winging scapula, formed by a strength imbalance in the trapezius muscle. Upper and mid fibre traps are over developed giving the “Helga the shot putter” look as my chiro put it. Upper fibre traps, those highly developed shoulder muscles seen on climbers, are not supposed to develop like that.  Weak lower fibre traps cause the scapula to wing away from the body when you are hanging on one arm, and instead of carrying body weight through the scapula and into the ribs (strong ring structure) force is transferred into the upper traps and into the clavicle (weak structure). This is why separated clavicles are a common injury in the climbing community.

Weak lower fibre traps combined with weak serratus anterior (another scapular stabilizer) also cause a hyper-khyphosis (exaggerated curvature of the upper spine) which means that in order to look straight forward, it’s necessary to gut the chin forward, causing a cervical hyper-lordosis (exaggerated curvature of the neck). This means that the weight of the head is forward of the neck causing strain on the small stabilizing muscle of the neck.

It’s not as easy as simply correcting posture though. After years of strength imbalance, the brain forgets how to fire the lower traps, and they must re-learn their job. Exercises that isolate the lower traps are important to correct the issues.

Once Lower traps have increased in strength, the scapula will move along the rib cage instead of winging out, meaning that the force placed on the scapula from hanging on an arm will be transferred into the strong rib cage structure instead of into smaller, weaker joints and structures.

Battling strength imbalances is a tough job, but it’s important if one wants to maintain their body for years to come. Good posture, efficient motions and maintaining proper balance in the body will help to keep joints and muscles moving the way they should.

Climb on, but try to use your lower traps properly.

Climbing and the imminence of strength imbalances

At its core, climbing is essentially a functional movement body weight exercise. Every movement you make in during a climb is relying on your muscles to deal with the way your body moves in space, controlling the internal forces to produce efficient and effective strength.

While climbing does promote a total body strength increase, including important areas such as the core and lower back, there is a tendency to favor strength development in certain muscle groups over others. While a degree of total body strength is needed to perform at a high level, the fact of the matter is that the upper back and shoulders do the brunt of the work on any given climb.

This is an issue that I myself have problems with, and the vast majority of my back problems stem from a strength imbalance in my upper body. Climbing favor the upper and mid fiber traps which is the major muscle group the runs from the base of the skull, connects to the scapula, and runs down the spine to T-12. The lower fiber traps have a tendency to be thrown off balance by the overdevelopment of the upper/middle traps which can be seen as the lower corner of the scapula, sticking out from the back.   This can result in pain in the mid back, through the area of the lower traps.

Overdevelopment of the back and shoulder also has the effect of forcing the shoulder into a position of internal rotation. Take a look at the resting position of your shoulder in the mirror. If from the side, it appears that your shoulder is shifted forward, there is a good likelihood that the overdevelopment of the shoulder muscles is not being properly offset by the pectorals in the chest. This would once again put strain through the mid back and potentially cause pain or tightness.

Exercises that isolate the lower fiber traps and the chest are an important part of any climbing regime to keep the body balanced. Extreme strength imbalances can cause serious back problems. Resistance exercises that isolate the lower traps, pushups, isometric chest press holds and flexibility/mobility training directed at the shoulders are important to maintain a strength balance in the body.

Your body is a machine, it needs to have all of the parts in the right place to work properly.