Most of us have some type of muscular imbalance–even if we don’t know it yet. Unfortunately, these imbalances usually make themselves known in the form of an injury.
But, we can assess and address muscular imbalance before we find ourselves on the DL. If you are already dealing with an injury from a tough season, well, this post can help you too.
During the USAT Level 1 coaching clinic that John and I attended in October, we heard quite a bit about muscular imbalances that are typical for runners and triathletes. And, a year of battling with ITBS has taught me much about my lazy butt and lopsided hips.
Suffice to say, I’ve been schooled on muscular imbalance, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.
Off-season (i.e., NOW!) is the perfect time to build functional strength and to work on muscular imbalances, while preventing new ones from cropping up. In this post, I’ll talk about how you can assess your unique muscular imbalances, and offer an exercise routine that addresses some of the most common muscular imbalances for runners and triathletes.
Who you calling unbalanced, Doc?
Ideally, the first place to start in determining your unique imbalances is a doctor with sport-specific knowledge. An exam consists of performing various movements and exercises, which will allow the doctor to see where your problem areas might be.
If you live in the Southern New Jersey/Philadelphia area, I highly recommend Dr. Eric Nelson of Nelson Chiropractic in Atco, NJ. For those of you not in this area, I recommend combing your social networks for recommendations from people you trust for sports-specific doctors. It’s a good idea to do some research online as well. Knowledge, personality and the fit with your needs and lifestyle are important factors for making your decision about putting together a team of professionals who support your training.
If you have a coach, you should also work with him or her in determining and addressing muscular imbalance. While only a doctor can offer medical advice and treatment, your coach is an important piece of this puzzle, as he or she can offer specific training routines that will help you correct imbalances and problems with form.
During the USAT presentations, Bobby McGee explained that a lot of running injuries experienced by triathletes, actually begin on the bike. This was something I finally figured out in September of this year. An improper fit on my bit exacerbated the problems I’ve had with my IT band throughout the 2011 season.
It’s important to get a proper fit on your bike when first purchased, as well as when anything changes. In my case, I went from being a fairly novice rider to a more experienced rider, so I needed a re-fitting to reflect those changes in my body position. Some recommend getting a new fit at the beginning of each season. Not a bad recommendation at all.
There are other bike components that matter as well, at least for my IT band. Thanks to a recommendation from my coach, Vince Matteo, I’ve also switched out my spd pedals for a pair of sah-weeeetttt carbon Look Keo pedals and a new pair of the flashiest dang tri shoes I’ve ever seen. –>
Don’t be jealous. I’ll be disco dancin’ my way to T2 next season.
The new pedals have made a major difference in my pedal stroke. When doing single leg drills with my old pedals, I almost always had a dead spot (i.e., no power) at the top of my stroke. Now, I can feel a nice, easy circle when I do these drills.
Using toys as tools
Recently the weather has made a definitive turn for the winter side of the seasonal calendar, which has driven me indoors for many of my rides either due to coldness or darkness. The CompuTrainer’s data offers another useful indicator of muscular imbalances, thanks to the spin scan technology.
For example, during the last several rides that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that my right side is definitely my dominant side, pulling anywhere from 51 to 56% of the power load of each pedal stroke. This tells me that I need to even out my pedaling, which I’ve been working on during my indoor rides. For those of you with CompuTrainers or Power Meters, consider what your data might be telling you about muscular inefficiency.
Another useful toy is your video camera. Video feedback, especially for running and swimming, can be invaluable, helping you to identify any inefficiencies you have in your movements. Share this video with your medical professional, coach, and/or experienced friends. An objective eye can be very helpful.
Finding your balance: Skills, drills and functional training
Once you’ve determined what your specific imbalances might be, it’s time to start working on them. The most typical areas to work on for runners and triathletes include deep abdominals, glutes and hips, and the shoulders, particularly the scapular stabilizers (see image to the right).
During the offseason, one of the best things we can do for future performance is devote time to low intensity skill work. Drills may not be the most adderal exciting types of workouts, but they can pay huge dividends in our performance by improving biomechanical efficiency. In other words: we can go faster without as much effort. As we (I!) get older, efficiency becomes increasingly more important not only for performance, but also to avoid injury.
A full listing of drills that you can do for swimming, biking and running is beyond the scope of this post (heck, it’s too long already!). But, I highly recommend a quick search on YouTube for some tutorials for drills in each sport. (**If there’s interest in a drill/skill post, I’ll do one in a few weeks. Either email me, or post in the comments that you’d like to see a post on this.)
In addition to drill work, functional strength training is a key element in correcting imbalances and preventing (or recovering from) injury.
Strength training does NOT mean we have to head to the gym and sling weights. For triathletes and runners, functional or sport-specific strength is much more important, especially from the perspective of correcting muscular imbalances.
With valuable input from Dr. Nelson, I’ve developed a routine for both activating and strengthening the weak areas. While this is specific to me, given the large number of people who have hip and glute weaknesses/imbalances, I think sharing this routine would be beneficial to many triathletes and runners.
The Routine: Hips, Glutes, Shoulders & Dynamic Stretching
Here’s the basics: I perform a series of exercises, one set a piece for 30 repetitions. I have a master list of exercises that focus on my abdominals, my glutes and hips, and more recently we’ve added a few exercises for my shoulders. I complete this routine daily for 15-30 minutes, depending upon how much time I have. It can be done in your home, and all you need is an exercise band and if you want to get really, really fancy, you can get a swiss ball. For the $20 investment, I recommend going fancy.
I begin with several sets of abdominal exercises. I have a master list with all of the options, here’s the spreadsheet:
After completing 4-5 of these exercises, my core feels warmed and ready for the next set of exercises, focusing on my glutes and hips, which are the main weaknesses for most runners and triathletes. Here’s my spreadsheet of exercises:
From this list, I select anywhere from 8-12 exercises, which is mostly dependent upon how much time I have. As you can see from this list, there are exercises that use the same or similar movements, but they are slightly different to introduce variety and increase difficulty. As with abdominals, I seek a range of exercises each day and throughout the week. If you’d like descriptions of any of these, just ask in the comments or via email.
To increase the intensity or difficulty of any of these movements, add a band, lateral movement, an unstable surface, or a swiss ball (as appropriate). But, before you increase the difficulty, make sure you have correct form. It is MUCH MORE important to do these movements perfectly with no resistance than it is to do these movements incorrectly with resistance. The point of these exercises is to train efficient and correct muscle movement through neuromuscular activation. So, doing them incorrectly with (or without) resistance will not correct any imbalances.
With my lazy butt activated, it’s time to move to my shoulders. Here’s the spreadsheet of exercises I’ve introduced so far (just in the past two weeks):
I don’t have as many exercises for the shoulders yet because I only recently introduced these into my repertoire, and not a moment too soon. My left shoulder’s been giving me angst this week. For my shoulders, I’m only doing 1 set of 10 reps each because my scapular stabilizers are weak, WEAK I say!
I round out the routine with some dynamic stretching. For you spreadsheet junkies, here’s the exercises for my lower body. I need to start adding in some for my upper body as well.
You may be wondering if all of this works? Well, so far, so good. I haven’t had any problems with my leg in a few months. My pelvis feel firmly rooted, and my butt and hamstrings are firing more effectively when I run. As an added benefit, all of this attention to the hip, glute and core area is fighting against gravity in its attempt to pull down my derriere. At 38 years old, I’ll take all the help I can get ;).
In addition to these exercises, I also incorporate yoga and plyometric training, but those techniques will have to wait until another post.
In the meantime, stay balanced, my friends.
Do you have exercises that would be useful to the running-a-life community? Leave your tips and ideas here.