Why is strength training so important for endurance athletes?
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
For quite a few years I suffered with on-going knee pain and niggles. I did a little bit of strengthening exercises like leg raises, body weight squats and lunges and this helped to keep any knee pain away initially. However, when I started to improve the speed that I was running at or gradually increase the distance, the knee pains started creeping back again.
This was so frustrating because my speed was really improving and I felt fitter but my muscles were obviously not strong enough to deal with it. Then one morning I woke up the day after I had been for an hour long run at a comfortable aerobic pace and my knees were really hurting. I tried resting but this just didn't help. I couldn't even run at all without any pain.
Eventually it got so bad that I just couldn't even walk at all anymore without pain. So I just stopped running altogether. I couldn't really do anything without my knees hurting, even swimming and cycling were not pain free. Knowing that I couldn't do any exercise without pain really made me sad. Exercise has always been therapeutic to me, even when i'm trying really hard. It is a way to forget about work or any other stresses and just focus on exercising. I started to feel really angry and sad all the time and I just didn't feel like myself. I'm sure many people can relate to this if they have ever experienced an injury or not being able to do something that is important to you.
I know what you are thinking, GO AND SEE A PHYSIOTHERAPIST!! Well... I did actually. I went to see about four different ones. And you know, physios are not cheap. I had almost given up hope after the first 3 as my pain just wasn't getting any better. I was given some general exercises like squats because they said my glute muscles were weak, but this didn't really make any difference for me. My knee pain was still not getting any better. I was beginning to give up hope of ever running pain free again.
THEN!! I went for a sports massage because one of my closest friends sister had started doing massages in a place near me called "Optimal Physio." She noticed that one of my muscles were super tight and actually when she massaged it, my knee pain was triggered. The muscle was my "sartorius" if you are intrigued. She recommended the head physio at Optimal Physio called Steven. So I went along, feeling skeptical and with low expectations and I thought it was just going to be the same as the last three. A few questions, a rushed assessment and a recommendations of do some squats.
However, although he recognised the same thing as the other physios that I lacked glute strength. BUT, squats weren't going to work for me because my ankles had rubbish flexibility and my hips were too tight to actually do a proper squat. So as a result, when I was doing squats I wasn't actually activating or strengthening my glutes. Also, my balance (proprioception) wasn't very good either, so when I was running I was really lacking control. Yep, I had a lot of work to do, and just doing some squats definitely wasn't going to cut it! So instead of hearing the dreaded "you need to rest!" ... I heard "you need to work harder!" I couldn't believe it! Finally, I had something to work towards again.
And guess what, after almost a year and a half of not being able to run, just 2 weeks after doing the exercises that Steven had prescribed for me... I could run again! Not very far to begin with but I could run. Not only run, but I could run without PAIN!
Many of the exercises that I had to do was single leg exercises. Which makes sense actually, as you use one leg at a time when you run. You don't just jump along the road on two legs do you? It makes me laugh to think of someone saying "oh i'm just away out for a jump, be back soon". So the exercises I had to do were pretty specific and specialised to the problems I had. It just shows how important it is so find the right physiotherapist for you who can really understand what you need as an individual. So if you have any pains or injuries that you are suffering from then I can't recommend enough searching for the right physio for you. You never know, it could be something quite small that you wouldn't even have thought could be causing a problem. Hey, I never thought I had stiff ankles, but there you go. Apparently having stiff ankles means you can suck at squats. And who would have thought that stiff ankles could be related to knee pain.
So I continued to work on my balance, my single leg exercises (bulgarian split squats and various different lunges.. killer!), hip raises, standing hip abductions, banded crab walks (for glute activation), ankle flexibility and my general flexibilty and I was able to run further and faster after not long at all. I went through all of the correct technique for my exercises with my physio and we continued to progress the exercises to make them more difficult to continue challenging and building my muscles. Remember, these exercises were specifically prescribed to me, so although they may help you if you are struggling with a running injury, but they may not solve the root of your own specific problem.
If you have lasted this long and read all the way to the bottom THANK YOU ! I appreciate it so much, and I would love to hear what you think? Have you had sports injuries? Interested in incorporating some strength training into your regime? I would love to hear from you! And as I said before, this is my experience, and I am not a qualified physiotherapist, but if you have or are suffering from some form of sport related injury then I hope you have realised from reading this that finding out the root of the problem can be so so beneficial to get you back up and running again and preventing future/recurring injuries from happening ! Since starting my physio exercises I got to spend one of the best summers training at a triathlon camp, I managed to FINALLY break my goal of a sub-20 minute 5k and even finish a half-Ironman... whaaaat? two things I never dreamed I would have been able to do before I visited Optimal Physio and got help. So don't just give up or sit on your bum and hope that you are going to get better, DO something about it !
Lots of Love,
I leave you with a picture of my happy and injury free running at the Vichy Ironman70.3 in France. I never imagined I would have been able to do this a few months before. Just shows what a little strength and conditioning can do.