Monday, February 3, 2014

For the Runners, and People Who Want to be Runners, and CrossFitters, and Basically Anybody Who Likes to Get Off Their Bum and DO Things

I don't understand my legs.

Exhibit A: rolled the ankle this past fall.  Suffered through two extremely painful runs wondering what the heck was going on, went to the doc and was informed -sprain.  SUPER.  Two weeks of no running, then eased back in cuz there was a marathon in my near future!  Ankle was a persistent issue.  Decided to do a trail half as a training run.  After that, the ankle was right as rain.  Hasn't caused any problems since then.  What did I do, pummel it into submission??

Exhibit B: one year ago, something popped in the left knee.  I couldn't even go up and down stairs for days.  Gave it six weeks of ZERO exercise ... zip, zero, nada, nothing, no bike, no CrossFit, no running, NOTHING.  (It was an awful six weeks, let me tell you.)  Then physical therapy for two months, then back into running, and miraculously no problems!  Granted, the orthopedic surgeon warned me I would not be running any marathons any time soon (as in, until 2014... oopsie, I was already signed up).  So I made sure to start very slow ... didn't run more than a 5k until June.  Marathon training went along okay without irritating with the knees (messed with other joints instead), but by the end of the Ice Marathon, my left knee was hollering quite persistently.  I had to talk it through the last couple miles.  (Yes, I was talking to myself while running through the great white nothing, don't judge)  Did a short run in Chile about 10 days after the marathon and it complained quite a lot.  Didn't run again until a 3.5 mile race the second weekend in December.  Every step hurt, but I finished anyway.  After that short race, the knee hurt every single day.  Stopped running on it.  Biked, went to yoga, and did CrossFit, since those didn't seem to exacerbate it and all help with strengthening.  After three weeks, I couldn't take it anymore.  Went for a short (read: less than 2 kilometer) run on January 1.  Every step hurt.  Same thing on Jan 2.  And Jan 3.  Jan 4.  Jan 5 there was finally no pain during the run, but some twinges when I finished.  Ran Jan 6 (in sleet, that was fun) with no issues.  Have run a minimum of 1 mile every single day of this year thus far, and there is no longer pain during the run or recovery.  Again, what did I do, pummel it into submission??

I have no idea what's going on with these pesky appendages.  But I am so very glad I'm able to run again, even though it's only 1.5 miles at a time.  Was going a bit bonkers.

So!  What's the point here?  To help all of you (runners, walkers, CrossFitters, cyclers, yogis, beginners to all of the above, basically anybody who does anything besides sit on their bum) avoid putting yourself in my annoying situation of being incapacitated for lengthy periods of time.  It really messes with your training rhythm!  And sanity!  Weak hips equal messed up knees (that's my problem).  Weak knees mean weak ankles.  And ankles are just weak in general.  If your core is strong, your hips are strong, and your knees are strong, you can keep doing what you love.  So here are the exercises I've learned from the docs and therapists over the past year or so to help strengthen those weak points.  Although some of them should be used more intensively as injury-recovery, ALL of them should be incorporated with regularity into your training regimen.  Even just once a week will make a difference!

We shall start from the ground up.  Here are three exercises you can do to make your ankles less susceptible to twists and turns and sprains.

1. Alphabet Soup
       This exercise is easy to do when you're sitting at your desk, or on the train, or in front of the TV.  Stretch out your leg a little bit, make sure your foot is not resting on the ground, and inscribe the alphabet in the air using your toes.  Do one ankle, and then do the other ankle.  It'll help with mobility and flexibility.

2. Calf Raises
       When you're first starting out, just stand on a regular flat surface.  Put your hand on a wall or tree or whatever you need for balance.  Keep one leg off the ground (doesn't have to be dramatically off the ground, an inch or two will suffice) and raise yourself onto the toes of the foot that's on the ground.  Do 10-15 repetitions and then switch feet.  The key is to raise yourself all the way up to really stretch and strengthen your ankle.  For an increased challenge, stand on a step or a ledge so your ankle starts the movement from a position lower than parallel to the ground.  For a different increased challenge, stand on a squishy surface like a thick pillow or a Bosu ball.

3. Band Stretches
       Sit down and put a foam roller or a pillow or something under your knees so your feet are supported and off the ground.  Tie a loop in a therapy band and put that around the ball of your foot.  Do 10-15 repetitions at a time pushing against the band's resistance to the left, to the right, and away from your body.  You can use your other foot to help provide the resistance for the sideways motions.  Personal experience has previously proven to me that verbal explanation is very, very confusing of what I mean by using the other foot is wholly insufficient, so here are photos:

On to the knees and hips!  Most of these exercises strengthen both, so I'll just lump them together.

 1.  Knee Bends.
       Lie flat on your back with your legs stretched out.  Keep one leg stretched out, and slowly draw the heel of the other foot towards your body until your knee is bent at about 90 degrees.  Then lay the leg flat again by pushing the heel back out away from your body.  Your heel should just barely be dragging along the floor the entire time.  Do 10-15 repetitions and switch legs.
2.  Leg Lifts
       Lie flat on your back with your left leg stretched out and your right leg bent so that your foot is flat on the floor.  Lift your left leg straight up, keeping your foot flexed, until your knees are even.  Then slowly lower the left leg back to the floor.  Do 10-15 repetitions and switch legs.  You'll obviously be engaging your thigh muscles to lift the leg, but pay attention to your hip flexors and lower abdominals also.
3.  Scissor Lifts
     Lie on your side.  Rather than striking a model pose with your head lifted and supported on your bent arm, lay your arm flat on the ground and pillow your head.  Put your other hand (connected to the shoulder NOT touching the ground) flat on the ground in front of you for balance if you need.  Keeping your legs aligned one over the other, raise the upper leg (the one not touching the floor) as high as you can without changing the even alignment of your body.  So when the leg is raised, your head to shoulders to hips to knees to toes should still make a straight line; don't let your leg drift forward.  Slowly lower the raised leg so your legs are again touching.  Do 10-15 repetitions and switch legs.
4.  Opposite Scissor Lifts
       Lie on your left side with your left arm flat on the ground to pillow your head.  Put your right hand flat on the ground for balance if you need.  Stretch your left leg out straight.  Bend your right leg and plant your right foot flat on the ground in front of your left knee.  Keeping the left leg straight, lift as high as you can off the ground, hold for a moment, and then slowly lower it back to the ground.  As with the scissor lifts, try to keep your body straight and don't roll forward.  Do 10-15 repetitions and then switch sides.
5.  Belly Leg Lifts
       Lie on your stomach.  You can support your head with your chin or your forehead on your arms; whatever allows the most neutral spine is the best.  Stretch your legs out behind you.  Keeping your upper body in contact with the floor, raise one leg as high as you can.  Then slowly lower it back to the floor.  Do 10-15 repetitions and switch legs.
6.  Supported Knee Bends
       Lie on your back.  Bend your right leg so your foot is flat on the ground.  Put a foam roller or rolled blanket or something underneath your left knee so a slight bend is created and supported.  Your let heel should rest on the floor.  Slowly raise your heel off the floor until your leg is straight.  Hold for a few beats, then slowly lower your heel back to the floor.  Repeat 10-15 times.  Then switch legs.
7.  Clam Shells
       Tie a therapy band in a loop that loosely fits over your thighs.  With the band around your legs just above your knees, lie on your side.  Position yourself the same as for Scissor Lifts, but bend your legs.  Keeping your heels together, raise your top leg.  You will be pushing against the pressure from the band which is trying to keep your knees together.  At the top of the movement, your heels will be touching but your toes and knees will be separated.  With control, relax the upper leg and bring your knees back together.  Focus on engaging your hips and abs while doing this exercise too.  Do 10-15 repetitions and then switch sides.
8.  Standing Resistance Extensions
       Tie a therapy band around a chair leg or banister or some other object that will stand solid when you're exerting your muscles against it.  Tie the other end of the therapy in a band that will loop around your ankle.  Stand facing the banister where the band is tied.  Keeping your leg straight (but not locked, so it should have the slightest bend), extend the leg backwards against the resistance of the band.  Then slowly relax it forward.  Do 10-15 repetitions.  Then turn 90 degrees so that you are presenting a shoulder towards the banister.  Keeping your leg straight but not locked, extend the leg to the side and away from the banister.  Then slowly relax until you are back in a regular standing position with your feet side by side.  Do 10-15 repetitions.  Turn again 90 degrees so that the banister is behind you.  With your leg bent but not locked, extend your leg forward.  Then slowly release it back until your feet are together.  Do 10-15 repetitions.  Turn one more time 90 degrees so you are again sideways to the banister, but with your other shoulder.  Keeping your leg straight but not locked, extend the leg away from the banister.  Then slowly relax it back into your standing position.  Do 10-15 repetitions.  Turn one last time and you should be where you started--facing the banister.  Switch legs and do it again!

9.  Marching Bridge
       Lie on your back with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the floor.  Then lift your hips so your butt and back are off the floor, but your shoulders are still touching.  Raise your hands straight up towards the ceiling.  Lift your feet so that your weight is only on your heels and your toes are in the air.  Using your core to hold yourself stable, slowly march in place by lifting your right knee towards your right arm, then setting your heel back down and doing the same with the left knee.  Take 20 steps (so 10 for each leg).

10.  Flamingos
       Get something squishy such as a Bosu ball or a pillow and set it on the ground in front of you.  Step with your left leg onto the Bosu ball, and raise your right leg so your knee is bent at 90 degrees and perpendicular to your body.  Then set the right foot back onto firm ground and step back with your left leg so you're standing with your feet together.  Do this 10-15 times and then switch so your right leg is standing on the Bosu ball and you're lifting your left knee into the air.  Do this stepping forward onto the Bosu ball with each leg, and also stepping sideways onto the Bosu ball.  So if you stand to the left of the Bosu ball, you will step onto it with your right left and lift your left knee into the air.  Then switch!

Last but not least, STRETCH.  Lots and lots of stretching!  Stand and relax yourself forward and touch your shins or your ankles or your toes or the ground or however far you can reach.  Do the same thing seated.  Use a band or towel or something that you can loop around your feet and pull on for a deeper stretch.  Lots and lots of stretching to combat the perpetually over-tight hamstrings that plague us, especially those that are stuck sitting for most of the day, will really help you stay injury-free.

The pain train is no fun; if you hear it coming, sprint as fast as you can in the opposite direction.  And since you will have been doing these exercises, you won't have any problem with that!  Win!

Thanks to my friend Shelby for help with the photos!

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