Sunday, April 1, 2012

Four Things This Old Runner Can't Do Without

I get home from my month long running odyssey today. I will be happy to be home, not just to sleep in my own bed or to know for sure that my shower has hot water and good water pressure, but because I inadvertently left one of my key pieces of running equipment at home. In fact, that little oversight might have helped contribute to the disasterthat was DWD Green Swamp. When I packed for the trip, I remembered running shoes (several pair), hydration pack, gels, bottles, socks, electrolyte caps, and almost everything else you would think a runner would need, but I forgot one key piece of equipment: my foam roller.

You see, I am one of the saddest of all species, an aging runner. That means that besides all the normal training things I have to worry about, I am also now engaged in a never-ending battle to keep my body from tightening up into a flesh and blood version of the tin man from the Wizard of Oz.

I first became aware of this as a new runner, a spring chicken in my late 30s. I was attending a running camp put on by two veteran runners, who at that time were in their mid to late 50s, I believe. We were staying at a dormitory, and every morning we would meet outside to go for a run before breakfast. There were only about ten of us campers, me being the oldest, and most of the others being high school cross country runners. We would be out on the lawn stretching and bouncing around, ready to get going. Out of the dormitory would come our fearless leaders. Both were hobbling so badly that we all had serious doubts about whether they would be able to continue walking, let alone run. Somehow, once they got going, they both managed to loosen up and could have easily left any of us in the dust. I laughed at them then, but now I know exactly what they were going through.

As I have aged as a runner, I have found that there are certain things I absolutely require if I am going to run injury free and keep myself moving. I have tried a lot of things over time, but I have found that there are four things that are essential to keep me running injury free.

1. Strength Training:  Strength training is hotly debated  in the running community. Many runners feel that time "wasted" strength training is time that could be better spent running. However, I find that as an aging runner, strength training is essential. Science will tell you that I am fighting "sarcopenia," which is age-related muscle loss. I have to weight train, just to keep from losing what I once had! There is more to it than that though.

I lead a very sedentary life, despite the fact that I run 30-40 mpw. I am an online English teacher. I sit for most of the day, plain and simple. That does horrible things to the muscles in my hips, glutes, and lower back. They just waste away. In addition, when I am running,  it is repetitive motion using primarily the same set of muscles. I need to strength train to be sure that the muscles in my legs don't become imbalanced.

I don't do a typical body builder type of strength training, though. I do more of  a dancer's workout, including lots of plies', squats, and leg lifts of various types that target the supporting muscles in my legs. I also do core work and upper body work. In ultras we often have to carry bottles. Several hours of carrying a 20 oz. bottle (a little over a lb.) can fatigue the muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms, so strengthening these is necessary as well.

Often as I get fitter from the strength training, I am able to increase my mileage and am running so well that I tend to let the strength training slide. The inevitable result will be problems with my IT band that could have been avoided if I had stuck with the strength training program. I am embarrassed to say that I still have problems remembering this lesson when I am running well.

2. Yoga: Another essential that I have found that keeps me running more comfortably and with fewer injuries is yoga. I have never been a big fan of stretching before or after a run (although I do stretch more often after a run now than I used to -- usually yoga type stretches), but I have found that doing yoga has definite benefits. When I am doing yoga on a regular basis, say two to four times a week, I feel better, am more flexible, and move more easily.

My favorite Yoga DVD
Perhaps more importantly for me, yoga helps with balance and propriorecption (a sense for where a person's body parts are and how they are moving). I found out recently, first by being told by my massage therapist (more on that later) and later through the school of hard knocks, that my aging, repetitive motion exercise, tightness, and muscle imbalances are leading to some problems with "lateral stability" and balance. With road running, this was not a big deal, but with trail running, balance and stability are very important (they keep one from falling and rupturing a spleen, for example). Yoga shows me where my balance is off and helps me make improvements in those areas.

3. Foam Roller: This is a new addition to my running necessities. Prior to my downsizing (and subsequent drop in income), the work of my foam roller was handled by my running essential number four (the massage therapist). However, in these tight times, I simply could not afford the weekly or bimonthly massages that I had used in the past to loosen up all the knots that I had tied myself into with running, particularly hilly running or speed work. The foam roller is the poor runner's massage therapist.

The foam roller has become a key part of my running routine. In case you haven't met the foam roller, it is one of the greatest torture devices known to runners. It works on the principle of myofascial release . Basically, when we run, we do muscle damage, such as creating small tears in the muscle fibers. The body, in an attempt to heal these tears, lays down scar tissue between and around the muscle fibers. This creates adhesions where the muscle fibers stick together. They interfere with the muscles' ability to work properly. The foam roller breaks up these adhesions and allows the muscle to move freely again. Unfortunately, this process involves quite a bit of pain, as anyone who has used these rollers (or who has had a deep tissue massage) can attest. Often I will not realize that I have a problem in an area until I feel the pain as I roll over the spot.

My primary running problem is related to my IT band. I have a leg length discrepancy that over time has caused my pelvis to twist and tilt. It causes tightness in the glutes and leg muscles on one side of my body. It is a chronic condition that will continue as long as I run. I have found that I can manage it effectively, though, with the foam roller and massage. I believe that if I had brought the foam roller with me to use after the marathon in KY, my IT band would probably have been fine at Green Swamp. Although I was not having pain or noticeable tightness leading up to Green Swamp, the adhesions were probably there from the damage done to the muscles on that hilly KY run. The soreness in my legs after that run were a warning that I should have paid more attention to.

4. Massage: Massage used to be a key part of my running training. In fact, back when I was running much faster, I had a weekly massage appointment, usually one or two days after my speed workout or a race. I counted on those sessions to undo the damage that I had done to myself with the hard running. Sometimes the entire session would be spent working out the problems I had created on one side of my body. I have been very fortunate to work with some really outstanding massage therapists who understood what I was doing as an athlete and who were able to recognize what I needed to keep my body in working condition.

I have also been fortunate in my running career to have had all soft tissue and overuse injuries, usually the type brought on by imbalances. I have never had a running injury that could not be addressed effectively by massage. Many runners brush aside suggestions of massage as a way to deal with injury, but I believe having a good sports massage person on speed dial is important for keeping a master's runner healthy and running in top form. It is not an "indulgence":; it is a necessity.

You may wonder why I still feel massage is a necessity, now that I have the foam roller. Well, the roller is great, but it is not as good as an actual massage. The hand can get to spots in ways that the roller can't, and the knowledge of anatomy and the feel for what is going on in the muscles provided by the massage therapist are still my preferred way of dealing with problems in the muscles, when I can afford it.

In addition, the foam roller could never have said to me, "You need to start addressing some of your muscle imbalances and work on your lateral stability," which is what my massage therapist told me two years ago, long before the problem had gotten out of hand. Unfortunately, I did not take him as seriously as I should have at the time. I could possibly have prevented the fall that led to my ruptured spleen if I had addressed the issues when he first brought them to my attention.
Being a master's runner and trying to maximize my performance is no picnic. It requires a lot more attention to the little things than it used to when I was younger. I would like to think that somehow being fit is a silver bullet that will fend off the ravages of time, but that is not the case. If I am going to still be running ultras in my 60s, I have to take better care of myself now. 


  1. I suppose this means my never used foam roller should make its way out of the closet? I don't know, you did mention pain was involved, lol!

  2. Lori, This was most informative and I can relate to so much of what you have written here. I tried the foam roller at the gym, and OUCH! It provides a necessary evil though by releasing the fascia. I too used to get massages a lot, bi-weekly, and as an athlete they are most helpful and necessary on top of just that they feel great. I have not had one in quite some time due to my own financial constraints, so probably should invest in a foam roller for my home and make myself use it. It hurts but it is really effective. I have been doing yoga for years and it was life changing for me. Pro football, basketball, and runners, etc. are incorporating regular yoga practice to improve their game. For me, the strength training and yoga help me create balance and gets me in tune with my body. Thanks for writing this blog Lori! I enjoy reading what you write. Melissa

  3. Melissa,
    Thanks so much for the feedback. I resisted getting the foam roller too. I don't know why. I am so glad I did, but I hear you on the OUCH!! I love yoga, but my biggest challenge has been finding the time to fit all this in.


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