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7 Ways to Become a Better Runner Without Running

Stay Injury-Free

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Whether you're new to the sport or a veteran marathoner, injuries are a runner's biggest enemy. And while if you want to run faster and farther, of course you have to actually run, it’s equally important to spend a little time not running.

Just as preventative maintenance can head off the need for costly repairs for your car, a little prehab can prevent the need to repair your body. These seven simple tips will save you from common injuries, improve efficiency, and make you stronger and healthier when running and in your everyday life.

Photo: Thinkstock

Learn How to Stand

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In our age of deskwork, many of us stand (and sit) incorrectly, with our backs arched and bellies sticking out [left], says physical therapist Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners. This translates to poor posture in running and lower back pain.

The solution: Stand with arms at sides and notice where your weight falls (typically it’s the back of the feet). Drop the front of your rib cage slightly until you feel the weight shift to the middle of your feet [right]. Rotate arms so thumbs point outward. Practice standing and sitting like this whenever you can. When you run, think again about dropping your ribs, and also about making the back of your neck long.

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Practice Toe Yoga

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Shin splints and plantar fasciitis most often occur when the feet are weak. Stand and drive your big toe into the ground while slightly elevating your other toes. If you can’t do this without moving your big toe, it means you are using the muscles up the shin instead of the foot, placing undue stress on your shins.

The solution: Toe yoga improves coordination of the foot muscles so you can use them more readily. Keeping big toe still, raise and lower little toes. Then keep little toes still and raise and lower big toe. Do this for 1 to 2 minutes each day until it is easy. (If you aren’t able to move your big toe independently of your little toes, sit with foot flat on the floor and lift big toe off the floor with fingers. Push big toe straight down as you slowly resist the motion with your hand. If needed, you can place a finger on the knuckle of your big toe to keep it straight until you learn to move it correctly.)

Photo: Thinkstock

Strengthen Your Core

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“A strong core can improve your posture, creating better mechanical positions for running,” says elite and collegiate running coach Mike Smith. When your foot strikes the ground, it absorbs force that travels up your body to the core. A weak core can’t handle that force, making you less efficient, slower, and more susceptible to injuries.

The solution: Smith recommends the “pedestal routine.” For the entire sequence, keep your legs and torso straight, and raise your foot at least 6 inches off the ground. Come to forearm plank, making a straight line from shoulders to heels. Lift right foot off the ground 10 times, keeping leg straight and pressing heel toward the sky. Repeat with left foot. Flip over so you are facing upward, still supporting yourself on your forearms. Lift each foot off the ground 10 times, this time with toes pointing toward the sky (pictured above). Do a right side forearm plank, lifting left foot toward the sky 10 times. Repeat on the left side. Do the entire sequence once a day.

Photo: Laura Davis

Control Your Core

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Having a strong core is helpful only if you know how to put those muscles to work. Just ask elite triathlete Linsey Corbin, who came to Dicharry’s REP Lab in Bend, OR, seven weeks before the Ironman World Championships with a stress fracture that made running impossible. Testing showed Corbin’s imbalanced form had put extra pressure on certain bones, so Dicharry taught her the “rotisserie chicken” exercise explained below to improve hip rotation and core control—and seven weeks later she PR’ed in a marathon and placed 10th overall.

The solution: Lie face-up with lower legs on a Swiss ball (place the ball in a corner for added stability). Place hands on hips, lift hips, and bridge up so body is straight. Lift right leg and rotate it back and forth, moving toes like a windshield wiper. Focus on moving from the hip and avoid arching or tightening the back. If you feel any tightness in your back, lower hips a little. Do 10 reps and repeat with left leg. Do 1 to 3 sets per leg once a day.

Photo: Laura Davis

Achieve Balance

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Poor balance can lead to ankle sprains and may also be an indication that the hip flexors, feet, ankles, and core are not strong enough. If one area is too weak, your body will compensate by overworking another. These imbalances are often the culprit of the most common running injuries.

The solution: Stand on right leg and spell the alphabet (in all caps—it’s harder) with left foot, pretending that your heel is a marker and you’re writing in the air. Keep left leg straight and make the letters as big and as high in front of you as possible without collapsing the leg or hips. Repeat standing on left leg and “writing” with right leg. Do this every time before you run.

Photo: Laura Davis

Become Multiplanar

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Since running chiefly involves front-to-back motion, runners are often challenged with side-to-side and rotational movement. Over time this can create imbalances and injuries.

The solution: Do five reps of each of the following on each leg. (This also functions as a great warm-up if done daily before the start of your run.)

1. Front lunges
2. Front lunges twisting upper body toward front leg
3. Side lunges (keep feet facing forward)
4. Back and to the side lunges, stepping foot back and at 45-degree angle and pointing toes of back foot to the side
5. Reverse lunges, kicking butt with heel as you step back

Click here to see video of each move.

Photo: Thinkstock

Lacrosse Ball Massage

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Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are often damaged from the normal demands of training. Whereas healthy muscle fiber looks like a bundle of aligned straws, damaged muscle fiber looks more like a pile of disorderly straws—and that mess can’t perform at full capacity, doesn’t recover well, and can result in injuries.

The solution: Using a hard rubber lacrosse ball (a baseball, golf ball, or foam roller also works), you can realign damaged fibers in your feet, back, quads, and calves. Lie on the floor or on a chair to really target hamstrings and glutes. Roll out tight or overly sore areas, adjusting the pressure and movement until you feel the tissues begin to break up and get softer. Smith’s athletes do soft tissue work for 15 minutes before and after every workout, but most people will notice an improvement in two to three weeks by rolling a few minutes daily.

Photo: Laura Davis