Part 4: Supplementary Exercises – Are you fit for purpose, flexible and strong?
Disclaimer: Content herein does not constitute specific advice to the reader’s circumstance. It is only an opinion based on my perspective that others may learn from.
Anyone of any age who engages in running and related exercise should be in tune with their body and seek medical advice before embarking on any intensive activity (including changes to said activity) that may unduly extend them. This is critical should the aspiring athlete have underlying medical conditions and/or ongoing health issues requiring medication.
‘The world is divided into stretchers and non-stretchers – genetically determined, perhaps – and nobody switches sides.’ (1)
In my first article I described 5 main principles for training of the mature elite distance runner as Consistency, Quality, Strength, Supplementary Exercises, and Active Rest. Having covered the principles of Consistency and Quality in Parts 1 and 2, Strength Training (primarily free weights) and Hill Work in Parts 3A and 3B, today’s article is about Supplementary Exercises.
There are whole industries centred on supplementary exercises to stabilise your core strength, stretch muscles, improve balance, and maximise flexibility. And they would all have you believe that you need to do this extra stuff or things just won’t go right. But are they really necessary?
To me it is quite an individualistic issue that depends on performance context and your point in time life and running priorities. Are we talking about health and well-being, athletic performance, day to day living, injury prevention or rehabilitation? When you overlay such considerations with aging, the consumer’s choice of advice and products is more challenging.
There are many examples of elite distance runners, masters and open competitors, who don’t engage in supplementary exercises, but there are just as many that do.
In today’s article I have limited the examination of supplementary exercises to stretching, plyometrics, and core stability, wading into those issues that may be relevant to a mature distance runner. It is not really a ‘how to’ discussion but rather a ‘why do?’
For those who want detailed information about specific exercises, including their effect on running action I recommend the Human Kinetics publication Running Anatomy (2010), authors Joe Puleo and Dr Patrick Milroy. Another publication, Anatomy of Exercise (2009), author Pat Manocchia, explains anatomical structures that are involved in exercise, written for laypersons and experts alike. Both publications have fantastic illustrations throughout with great ‘how to’ descriptions and supporting theory. Chapters 12 and 17 of Earl Fee’s The Complete Guide to Running (2005) provides extensive information about stretching and plyometrics, and their relationship to running.
1. A Simple Goal
For any distance runner the end goal for engaging in supplementary exercises is to run fast and injury free, optimising performance by improvements in flexibility, strength and biomechanical adaptation.
Some respected coaches, authorities and distance runners are circumspect about the value of supplementary exercises such as stretching for the elite middle to long-distance runner. For instance, Noakes (2001) states that there is no evidence base that stretching reduces the risk of injury, promotes less muscle soreness post-exercise, or improves athletic/running performance. (2)
However, many who provide information about masters training are supportive of supplementary exercises as a means to mitigate the effect of aging on performance.
Telford (2015) comments that there is a negative correlation between running economy and flexibility and expresses some doubt about whether distance runners need good flexibility to prevent running injuries and/or perform well. In an insightful passage Telford concludes that ‘gentle stretching to sustain sufficient flexibility for optimal stride length proportional to mid-race speed would seem an appropriate training objective. (3) He supports gentle stretching as part of a warm up to running, ‘preparing muscles for action’ rather than a singular focus on improving flexibility. Telford expresses concern about risk of injury from stretching, however, posits that for a mature person well-designed and controlled strength and flexibility work (done with good posture and avoiding fatigue induced failure) can be beneficial. (4)
Robert de Castella has stated: ‘I have always said that runners run and I have never been a fan of cross training or doing too much core stability work. I do think it is important for runners to make sure they have no biomechanical imbalances though, and if exercises are needed to correct such imbalances then that is obviously worthwhile.’ (5)
2. Basic Tenets
The experience of open runners, younger adults, and elites as described above may be less relevant to the mature competitor. There is no doubt that aging causes a decrease in flexibility and a loss of elasticity in soft tissues that adversely affects range of motion, which limits stride. This manifests itself in increased muscle stiffness. As range of motion (and leg turnover) is central to speed development, many experts encourage mature runners to target their effort to deficiencies in this area. (6)(7) Utzschneider (2014) reminds us that a mature person loses 20 to 30 percent range of motion from the ages of 30 to 80. (8)
Despite any views to the contrary, on balance, when examining the specific needs of a mature competitor the following is self-evident about supplementary exercise programs:
There is potential overlap with strength training;
They can be done as an injury prevention strategy; and
They are an essential injury rehabilitation strategy.
I suggest that for a mature distance runner, optimal gains in flexibility should be sought in the ankle, hip and pelvic regions. As Fee points out, the iliotibial band (ITB) and piriformis (gluteus) muscles are common areas of neglect, that can cause knee and sciatica problems. (9) Based on personal experience, I can certainly attest to the former.
3. Summary of Benefits
A range of different stretching techniques exist – most notably ballistic, passive, contract-relax and static (10), the static seemingly the most popular. (11)
The objective of stretching is ‘primarily to help improve range of motion of both the joints and muscles. They may be performed before exercising as a preparatory activity to stimulate neurological awareness, during an exercise to provide blood to working muscles, after exercising as a method of cooling down and “reminding” joints and muscles of their movement patterns, or as a workout in themselves, as a method of recovery and regeneration from a prior bout of activity.’ (12)
Fee (13) identifies benefits of stretching as:
Ensuring good posture;
Improving flexibility and elasticity of joints, tendons and muscles;
Assists removal of waste products post a running workout;
Mitigates the natural loss of flexibility;
Generates increased muscle power if done prior to a running workout; and
Utzschneider (14) summarises the benefits for Masters more broadly as:
Increasing the range of motion and stride length;
Improving running form and posture; and
Raises personal awareness of muscle tension and tightness.
She also identifies that dynamic stretching is best performed before an intensive running workout and static stretching post workout. Utzschneider cites studies that have found static stretching causes the nervous system to tighten, not loosen the stretched muscle, and therefore adversely affects performance if done beforehand. (15)
It is commonly stated that static stretching should be held for up to 30 seconds, without pain or discomfort, but only at the point of tightness. It is also the conventional wisdom that both the prime mover and antagonist muscles be stretched in the same session. (16) (17) This is to ensure an equanimity in effect.
Plyometric exercises are advocated by many coaches, and other experts. However, whilst there are obvious benefits for sprinters, the level of consensus about their contribution to distance running performance is generally strong, though mixed.
Puleo and Milroy explain that ‘by definition, plyometrics means measurable increases, in this case through body-weight exercises’ and that ‘plyometric exercises train the neurological and muscular systems to increase the speed at which the body’s strength can be used.’ They highlight that plyometrics one main goal is the ‘conversion of strength to speed by generating a large amount of force quickly.’ They advise that plyometrics result in improvements to running economy (as a by-product of the development of muscular power). Puleo and Milroy differentiate between running economy (less use of oxygen at a set pace relative to other runners or your previous measurement) and efficiency of running form, observing that these two concepts are often confused. (18)
Telford is not totally convinced about the value of plyometrics for distance runners to improve running economy (and considers there is less potential benefit the longer the racing distance specialisation). Whilst he concedes they could have some value for middle distance athletes he states that the significant training volume of many elite distance runners means ‘they are effectively executing 150000 or more plyometric running steps every week, including up and down hills.’ (19) However, Puleo and Milroy (20) state that plyometric exercises trigger running economy through recruitment of muscle fibres that distance training does not.’ They go on to explain that ‘plyometric exercises train the neuromuscular systems with almost no impact on cardiothoracic systems’..and..’without running training, plyometric training could not sustain improvements in running performance.’
Fee describes the objective of plyometrics as improving an ‘athlete’s ability to generate maximum force in the shortest time, namely explosiveness. The focus is on speed of contraction rather than the magnitude of force (as in weight training).’ Fee explains that plyometrics can work in tandem with weight training, ideally done at alternate times. Fee also asserts that plyometrics can improve running economy (oxygen utilisation at a given pace), strength, ankle mobility, stride push off, stride length and reduce injuries. He identifies five broad areas of advantage concerning the central nervous system activity, high G (gravity) forces, eccentric contractions, specificity to running and the exercise of all body parts. In his opinion plyometrics are very useful to the over 60s, particularly by the activation of neural pathways, citing the possibility of reactivating fast twitch fibres that have suffered from disuse – which he optimistically describes as anti-aging. (21)
Friel (2015) notes that plyometric exercises that include explosive jumping, bounding and hopping drills improve economy (22). Friel infers that the benefit of plyometrics correlates to the level of risk of the type of plyometric exercise conducted ie high risk, high reward. For example, he considers that there is an inherent risk of injury for plyometrics that involve landings from downwards jumps or jumping over high obstacles and overall, advises caution and gentle progress in a mature athlete’s plyometric program. (23)
Utzschneider contends that plyometric exercises such as bounding and skipping can assist in increasing stride rate by building strength, activating reflexes and stimulating fast twitch fibres. (24)
3.3 The Core
The core muscles are the lynchpin for the whole body, originating ‘on either the pelvis or spinal column and are responsible for forward flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation of the spine.’ (25) They ensure the proper functioning of the hip and back, and extend to the transversus abdominis which are amongst those muscles responsible for stabilisation, not movement. ‘All athletic activities require the core muscles to stabilize and translate forces from the lower to upper body and vice versa.’ (26)
Puleo and Milroy provide an extensive examination of the pelvic bones and abdominal muscles that constitute the core, highlighting a susceptibility for lower back and hip injury, and some dislocation that can arise from frictional forces associated with repetitive running. (27) Given this possibility, I suggest it makes sense for mature distance runners to work on the core for stability and flexibility across the range of movement as described in the preceding paragraph.
Puleo and Milroy advise that there are a number of core exercises that require the movement of body weight only. (28) In terms of specifics, they suggest that multiple sets can be performed with many repetitions, that they be conducted in a slow and deliberate fashion and that in the absence of extra resistance the emphasis should be about perfect movement. This may be a safe option for the more mature.
They further advise that high reps are effective in developing muscular endurance; however increased strength comes from using heavier weights. (29) Given this outlook, I consider that where you sit on the flexibility to strength continuum will dictate whether to focus on additional resistance/weights or limit yourself to body-weight bearing only exercises.
4. General Discussion – Some practical application
In my experience, supplementary exercises do have some value in assisting a mature distance runner’s performance. How you apply them to your overall program is an individual concern.
4.1 Now well into my sixties, I know I’m not very flexible in a general sense. I never have been (even in my youth) but I consider myself ‘fit for purpose’ flexible (lower level) and strong enough for running. Occasionally I experience mild stiffness, but not soreness or pain and I feel strong. And why is this? How much flexibility do I need and where? I have pondered on this a lot in my lifetime.
My first competitive running career ended prematurely at 30 partly because I didn’t understand the importance of supplementary exercises. Despite recurring achilles tendon problems I did virtually no stretching. I ran many distance races off high mileage with my achilles tendons numbed out resulting in heavy stiffness and soreness post-race. I just persevered. Stupid! I did experience a range of other lower leg and feet injuries over the years but the achilles was ultimately my undoing. I’d describe my weight training at this time as largely toning.
4.2 In my fifties and now sixties I appreciate the value of stretching, but within limits, and I have largely conducted supplementary exercises as part of injury rehabilitation, not prevention. But quite successfully. At different times over sustained periods as long as 12 months I have conducted heel drops, calf raises, side leg lifts, ball squats, foam roller pad on legs, and used resistance bands on a daily basis – usually exercises recommended by a physio. Once ‘cured’ I tend to transition to what I call maintenance regimes. This involves continuing with set exercises say 3 days pw instead of the original 5-7 days pw, but eventually my commitment even to this lower frequency of exercises wanes and I cease them altogether. This has been a recurring cycle.
However, I have developed some insight over the years about where my deficiencies lie – biomechanical and muscular flexibility. I have go-to exercises I use if I feel a particular problem coming on and I am quick to reinstitute an exercise regime as part of an injury prevention strategy if need be. In this regard I have found that use of the foam roller on my legs (body weight bearing), ball squats and resistance band exercises are the most effective.
4.3 After a gradual return to running in my late forties I experienced some ongoing achilles tendonitis into my mid-fifties that I had to manage. After playing with a range of stretching regimes, including heel drops, this ‘injury’ was forever resolved at age 57, solely by conducting static calf raises 4 minutes twice per day consisting of 4×45 seconds hold, 15 secs rest. This provided immediate relief for a six year ongoing issue. I wound it back to once per day and ceased the exercise within a couple of months and have had no achilles tendonitis since, none whatsoever. Admittedly there are a variety of achilles inflammation and degenerative conditions that runners can suffer from, so I am not saying this would work for everyone. But I use this example to highlight the value of stretching as an injury rehabilitation strategy.
When faced with an ITB ‘injury’ that affected my right knee, age 56, I successfully opted for exercises recommended by a physio rather than surgery – stretching, body-weight bearing exercises and foam roller. It took 12 months of disciplined ‘at home’ rehab and a further 12 months of building back up to previous running training loads, to achieve my pre-injury homeostatis. As you can see, this affected my running for nearly 2 years. Ages 56 and 57 were a write off. Though suffering no pain and running freely, even now I cannot fully straighten my right leg. However, I was able to return to competitive running with some biomechanical adaptation to accommodate a reduced range of motion. And gradually, my range of motion has improved.
The ITB issue caused a change in gait and foot plant, seriously exacerbating my ongoing achilles tendonitis before it was totally resolved (as described earlier). This is a real-life experience of how a change in biomechanics in one area of the body can have unintended consequences elsewhere.
Since then, I have suffered one other major condition, at age 62, that affected my capacity to run and resulted in a 6 month lay-off. It was primarily associated with aging, as opposed to the physical activity of running – some mild early onset osteoarthritis in the left hip that was successfully ‘resolved’ by an exercise regime of leg raises, use of resistance bands, ball squats and a foam roller pad for full body weight exercises of my legs and hips.
4.4 As a young runner in the 1970s and 1980s I had no understanding of the core or what it meant. I can’t actually recall any particular emphasis on developing, strengthening and stabilising the core in that era. Though maybe I wasn’t attuned to anything outside of running. Since returning to competitive distance running, I have become more aware of the incessant preoccupation with ‘the core’ as a significant contributor to performance outcomes. Certainly, as a mature runner in my sixties I have noticed subtle changes to body composition around the stomach area that demands I pay more attention to strengthening the core.
4.5 Given my experience with injuries, and after much research relevant to my personal situation, I have now settled on the use of supplementary exercises solely as a short-term intervention in the event of oncoming injury, or in a worse-case scenario for rehabilitation. I rely moreso on strength training (weights and hill work as described in my previous articles – Parts 3A and 3B) to address issues of the core, strength and flexibility. My current routine at age 63 is:
Use of deadlifts within my weights program as a preferred option for building back and core strength, in addition to working the leg and glute muscles; and
Regular hill repetitions, frequent continuous runs on hilly courses, consistent running over varied terrain on soft and uneven surfaces – the overall effect has been the maintenance of strength and flexibility in the ankles and lower legs, improved balance (proprioception) and what I intuitively feel is improved running economy.
I have not done any supplementary exercises post my most recent rehabilitation of 2021, though the foam roller pad is always at the ready.
5. Concluding Comments
Given my injury record, some readers may think I’m delusional. Why not adopt a set approach of supplementary exercises for prevention of injury? Well, I’m already doing weights (short sessions, just enough) 2-3 times per week and I have now found the right ‘mix’ of activity for me that utilises the need to run with a central focus on strength and flexibility. Supplementary exercises are my hip pocket intervention strategy to be used on the first inkling of anything awry. I am disciplined in this approach and confident I will reap the rewards.
Can it be true that after nearly forty years of running spanning two separate competitive running careers that I have finally found the ideal formula? Assessing how I currently feel in my running I’d have to say it is so. However, the real test of success is twofold: whether I remain injury free and my standard of competitive performance. I am now settled and finally on the way back to improved racing outcomes. I can feel it in my bones, or should I say, ligaments, tendons, muscles?
To summarise, I contend that supplementary exercises are a useful adjunct to the mature distance runner’s training program, that can be plugged into your strength to flexibility continuum when/where they are needed. They are not a replacement for running or strength training. Their degree of importance will vary depending upon your body’s base physical condition and adaptation to biomechanical changes. Only you can decide whether the return on investment justifies the time and effort expended. There is no right or wrong.
At a minimum engaging in supplementary exercises should deliver improvements in health and well-being, or racing performance. Otherwise, why do it?
(1) Jerome, J, the elements of effort: Reflections on the Art and Science of Running, 1998, p149
(2) Noakes, T, The Lore of Running, 2001, 4th ed, p775
(3) Telford, D, Running: through the looking glass, 2015, pp91-94
(4) Telford, D, pp366-369
(5) Burke, S, Deeks’ de Master: Rob de Castella, posted by Runners Tribe 20/10/2019
(6) Utzschneider, K, Mastering Running, 2014, p71
(7) Fee, E, The Complete Guide to Running: How to become a Champion, from 9 to 90, 2005, p240
(8) Utzschneider, K, p71
(9) Fee, E, p241
(10) Noakes, T, pp775-776
(11) Fee, E, p244
(12) Manocchia, P, Anatomy of Exercise, 2009, p20
(13) Fee, E, pp240-241
(14) (15) Utzschneider, K, p72
(16) Noakes, T, pp328-329
(17) Fee, E, p241
(18) Puleo, J & Milroy, P, Running Anatomy, 2010, p174
(19) Telford, D, p96
(20) Puleo, J & Milroy, P, p175
(21) Fee, E, pp353-356
(22) Friel, J, Fast After 50, 2015, p81
(23) Friel, J, p136
(24) Utzschneider, K, p49
(25) (26) Manocchia, P, p154
(27) Puleo, J & Milroy, P, pp75-79
(28) (29) Puleo, J & Milroy, P, p78