You can run up to a certain distance feeling great, no pain. You feel like you could run forever. And then, it hits out of nowhere. Pain develops somewhere in your leg. Certainly, it’s just a random occurrence, right? You attempt the distance again after a couple of pain free, shorter runs and the same thing happens. Same distance, same pain.
Sound like a familiar cycle?
If so, you are not alone. This is a common pattern that occurs in many runners, causing them to feel discouraged, frustrated, and hopeless in their journey to achieve a longer distance race goal. Luckily, this does not mean you have to give up your dreams to run that longer race distance. There is a reason this issue happens.
What this pattern often tells me is that your muscles have the endurance to support your body up until a certain distance. After that distance, the muscles fatigue and no longer support your body like they were. This results in running technique breaking down, increased torque and forces going through your legs, and therefore pain developing.
But why does this happen?
Our bodies have what I like to classify as Mover Muscles and Stabilizer Muscles. The mover muscles are the bigger overlying muscle groups that we think about strengthening (assuming you are doing some regular strength work) – quads, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, calves. The stabilizer muscles are smaller and deeper muscles that surround the joints. These muscles are often neglected when it comes to strength work. Partially because people don’t know they exist and therefore don’t know they have to strengthen them, partially because it can be a little boring to do the slower, isolated work required to strengthen them. Regardless of the reason, they get neglected.
The stabilizer muscles are the ones that support our joints and keep everything in good alignment. When they are fresh and firing strong, they stabilize the joints well and keep the body in a good position while you are running. With repetition over the distance you are running, they fatigue. That is when problems develop. The pelvis begins to drop, the knee collapses in, the foot collapses in, all resulting in increased torque and tension through the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, increased forces on the bones, and increased stress on the joints. It becomes a situation in which it is not a matter of “if” pain will develop, but more a matter of “where and when” the pain starts.
Start working on improving the muscular endurance in those stabilizer muscles. And I don’t mean only in the area that is painful, but in the entire body. Yes, the ENTIRE body. It is not just our hips down that control what happens in our legs. What happens in our upper back and shoulders, mid back, and low back also play a role in what the legs do when running. It really is all connected!