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How to Find Your Weaknesses as a Runner and Avoid Injury

By Caitlin Chock | For Active.com

Every runner is imbalanced. I'm not talking mentally—although we do have our quirks—but physically. Your body isn't two perfect mirror images between right and left; some muscles are naturally stronger than others, and some areas are tighter or looser than others. In other words, all runners have weaknesses that can contribute to getting injured.

For the "normal" person, these weaknesses aren't such a huge deal, but, as runners, we demand that our bodies carry us for miles and miles while performing the same repetitive motion. Over time, our imbalances become glaring weaknesses that cause us to be less efficient and more prone to injury.

A runner's imbalances are the slumbering volcanoes for injuries. Interestingly, injuries can manifest in some ways that are tricky to diagnose. You may be having problems in your feet, but the culprit is weakness in your glutes.

The best way to deal with a potential injury is to be proactive before you're actually hurt; you can't stop them all, but you can do your best.

Your imbalances will differ for you and your running friends, but many common points of weakness center around the core:

  • hips
  • hamstrings
  • glutes
  • back
  • ankles (OK, these aren't near your core, but one out of five isn't bad)

When it comes to the hips, adductors, abductors and glutes, it's like a minefield. So many people have issues—tightness here, weakness there, slacker muscles making other muscles pick up the work. This has the trickle-down effect to knee issues and tons of lower-leg problems. That's why improving flexibility in the hip region, and strengthening those small, intrinsic muscles is so important.

Here are some quick exercises and stretches that you can do to correct your imbalances.

Core

Planks and Leg Raises: This version of a suped-up plank engages nearly every muscle. As you get stronger, you can integrate leg raises, which work the glues and hamstrings as well.

Plank Pedestal Routine

Start in a plank position, balancing on your forearms and toes. Keep your body in a straight line; suck in your tummy, and make sue your butt isn't sticking up in the air. Lift your left leg up and down 15 times, and repeat on the right leg 15 times.

Flip over so you're balancing on your heels and forearms, with your chest facing skyward. Again, work to keep your body in a straight line. Lift your left leg 15 times, then your right leg 15 times.

Turn to the right, and balance on your right forearm and the side of your right foot. Stack your hips so your left leg is resting on top of the right. Keep everything tight and sucked in, and don't let your hips sag to the floor. Lift your left leg up and down 15 times.

Turn to the left, and repeat sequence, this time lifting your right leg up and down 15 times.

Glutes and Hamstrings

Back Bridge: Lie on your back, pressing the small of your back flat to the floor to engage the core, knees bent in the air, feet on the ground a fair distance from your bum. Squeeze your glutes and lift your butt into the air until your body, from your knees to your shoulder blades, is in a straight line. Lower back down, and complete two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.

Hamstring Ball Roll: Lie with your back on the floor, arms at both sides, legs straight ahead. Place your feet on top of an exercise ball. Lift your torso up so that only your shoulder blades are on the floor. Your arms should remain on the floor for support. Bring your knees to your chest by rolling the ball inward towards your butt, and then roll back out. Complete two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.

Toe Touch Balance: Stand straight, balancing on your left foot. Keep your left leg straight, and reach down to your left foot, leading with your right arm (so the right arm crosses the body). The trick here is to keep your balance without putting your right leg on the floor. Raise back up to the starting position and repeat 10 times. Change sides, balancing on the right foot, and repeat toe touch 10 times.

Mobility

Hip Circles: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, place your hands on your hips and make circles with your hips. Really exaggerate the movement, and get as much circumference as you can without moving your feet. Do 10 in the clockwise direction, and 10 in the counter-clockwise direction.

3-Way Leg Lunges: Imagine you are standing on a giant clock; ahead of you is 12, behind you is 6, and you are in the center where the hands originate. Start with both feet together, then lunge your right leg directly in front of you to where the 12 would be; dip into the lunge and then back to center. Without moving your left foot—keep it planted—lunge with your right foot leading to where the 3 would be on the clock. As you dip down, focus on opening up the hip area. Lunge back to center. For the third lunge, keep the left foot planted and really work on opening up your hip by leading the lunge with your right leg to get as far past the 3 o'clock as you can. As you gain flexibility and range of motion, see how close you can get to the 6 o'clock. This is tricky in terms of balance. Once you do three lunges with your right leg leading, switch to leading with your left leg. You'll notice that often times one side of your hip is tighter than the other. Work up to doing a few sets on each leg.

Donkey Kicks: Get down on all fours on your hands and knees. Keeping your right leg bent at the knee, draw it under you toward you chest, then reverse the motion and swing it up and back, raising the leg up into the air. Think about kicking toward the sky (you'll also feel this in your glute muscles), and then bringing your leg back down to the starting position. You want a slow, controlled movement; don't allow momentum to take over. Do one set of 10 on each leg.

Leg Swings: Stand to the side and hold onto a wall or post for balance. Swing your left leg in front of you and then back behind you in a swinging motion. Aim to reach your leg higher in front of you and farther behind you the more swings you do. Do a set of 10 to 15 reps on both legs. You can complete lateral leg swings (facing a wall) by swinging your legs across your body to the right and then left in a sweeping motion.

Ankles

Pillow Balance: Ankles are prone to rolls, and you want the small muscles around the ankle to be strong and supple. To improve your ankle strength, balance on a Bosu ball or pillow. Start by standing on a pillow, balancing on one foot and holding it for a minute or two. You'll notice this is easier on one side than the other, so you'll find out if your imbalance is on the right or the left side. When the pillow balance becomes easy, try completing the toe touch balance exercise described previously while balancing on a pillow.

Calf Exercises: Complete one set of three-way calf raises for 10 to 15 reps each.

The argument of sanity aside, every runner is imbalanced in a way unique to him or her. Sometimes it takes a little hunting around or an injury for your to find yours, but do all you can to become as balanced as possible before an injury strikes. Both your running and your sanity will be better off.