Flexible Fitness: Run strong and injury-free

Leah Jensen and Ashley Saulnier

This is the time of year when people's motivation to run peaks. Whether you have been running for years or are breaking out your first pair of running sneakers, it is important to make sure your body is properly prepared.

While the motivation to run may spring from many sources, the need for adequate preparation remains consistent. Running is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise but it places a great deal of demand on the body. Without proper muscle strength to support this demand there is a large risk for injury. Studies have estimated that as many as 70 percent of runners experience an overuse injury in any given year. Examples can include shin splints, achilles tendonitis (heel pain), plantar fasciitis (foot pain) and stress fractures, among others. Consider that with each stride, a runner hits the ground with up to 400 times their normal body weight. Without proper muscular strength and balance your body becomes highly prone to injury.

For those runners entering races, increasing strength can help to boost performance and decrease risk of injury. There is a growing body of evidence to show that incorporating dynamic strength and balance exercises into your regular training program can increase speed, running efficiency and overall endurance.

Many runners are concerned that strength training will bulk them up too much, potentially harming their running performance. That does not need to be the case. There are a considerable number of studies demonstrating that strength training will not only improve overall body composition, but increase lean body mass. Strength training allows your body to use oxygen and become more efficient at producing the energy necessary for running. This will simultaneously promote faster recoveries from those long runs and allow you to get right back on your feet again.

When designing a strength-training program, the runner should start at the core. This is the foundation which works to control all of the additional muscle groups necessary for running. If the core is strong, the rest of the body tends to follow. Training the abdominal and low back muscles will provide a stable base from which to generate power.

The hips and buttocks are essential to improving speed and efficiency. Leg exercises are particularly important when it comes to decreasing risk of injury in runners. Knowing that the hips and knees are the most common sites for injury in runners, strengthening exercises can help to decrease your risk for injury. The more supported by surrounding muscles they are, the more stable the joints become and the risk of repetitive stress injuries is less.

Running can be extremely rewarding and fun but it also requires determination, balance and a strong body.

Physical therapist Leah Jensen graduated from Boston University and is a clinical supervisor at Spaulding Framingham. Physical therapist Ashley Saulnier graduated from Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute of Health Professions and is physical therapy intern at Spaulding Framingham. Both have a special interest in sports and orthopedic physical therapy.