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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Exercises that Runners Should Reconsider

Runners, like many athletes, tend to be creatures of habit.  When something embeds itself into the culture, it is usually there for the long haul.  Such is the case with many supplementary exercises, some of which have more grounding in tradition than efficacy.  Below are three exercises that runners commonly do, but are best left out of most generalized training programs: crunches, lunges, and heel drops.

Crunches

The crunch debate continues to rage and will probably never be fully resolved, despite the mounting evidence against the safety and efficacy of the crunch for all whose athletic priorities go beyond cosmetic abdominal development.  Nonetheless, the crunch remains staple exercise in running, particularly on scholastic teams.

There are several reasons why runners continue to crunch:

Convenience – It’s a mindless exercise for a coach to assign and to delegate supervision to team captains in a group warmup

Tradition -  “We’ve always done it that way”

Confusion –“ My abs are burning, so it must be workin’ my core!” 

Perhaps the simplest reason for NOT doing crunches in running is that crunches reinforce the exact posture that we are trying to prevent!

In addition to promoting a kyphotic (hunched upper back) posture, crunches can also lead to over-recruitment of the hip flexors, creating a host of other dysfunctions and injuries.  With athletic and lifestyle factors both pulling us into anterior dominance, there is no reason to add crunches to the mix.  Although there are arguments to be made to include moderate doses of spinal flexion in training programs, particularly for athletes with a lumbar extension disorder, the high volume and ballistic approach in which most runners do crunches does not advance this objective.    

Lunge

I can’t say anything bad about a GOOD lunge.  Unlike the crunch, which has negative qualities even when done correctly, a proper lunge will usually do no harm (assuming the runner is healthy to start with).  The problem with the lunge is that most runners bring physical limitations to the exercise that makes proper technique nearly impossible.  The lunge offers many benefits in theory, but we must consider reality.  In a team setting, it is quite hard for a coach or two to cue proper form for an entire team.  Unfortunately, many runners and coaches also place the lunge into the “if it burns it must be good” category. 

Feel the Burn!!

If you determine that lunging is needed in supplemental programming, the split squat is a much more reliable choice.  The split squat can be done either on flat ground or with the rear leg elevated.   Note, lunge STANCE is a valuable setup for exercises like chops and lifts, but walking or any sort of moving lunges in a large group setting with runners who are already in a state of fatigue is not an exercise prescription that I would recommend.  Split squats address the same movement pattern in a more suitable environment for supervision and quality learning.

This distinction might seem like a small detail given the obvious visual similarities between the lunge and split squat, but since most of the lunges in the running world are quite sloppy, choosing an alternative exercise only makes sense.  What’s important is not fitting the athlete to the exercises, but instead finding the right exercises for the athlete.  I used split squat as an example here, but there are plenty of other exercises besides the lunge that offer logical progressions and regressions to suit the capabilities of large groups of runners. 

Heel drops

Like the lunge, the heel drop is not a bad exercise in itself.  It can actually be a very useful exercise.  In fact, some literature suggests that eccentric heel drops can be used to treat achilles problems. However, its rare that runners will follow the exact protocol validated by the studies.

Also like the lunge, the heel drop requires a certain level of movement proficiency as a prerequisite.  The common thinking among runners is that the heel drop lengthens and strengthens the calves and Achilles.  Unfortunately, many runners can’t even tolerate the demands of flat ground!  If we can’t move the ankle safely on flat ground, adding load to the Achilles via a negative drop is not a wise strategy.   Furthermore, if an ankle restriction or calf weakness exists, it is usually a sign of other unchecked issues in the body.  Calf stretching via a decline board also provides a negative drop, but is usually more palatable since the load on the Achilles is far less than with a heel drop.    

Frequently with heel drops, the body rejects the strain of the heel drop and stiffens even further.    The heel drop may provide temporary relief but can set the athlete onto a vicious cycle of injury, stiffness, injury, stiffness, injury, and so on….Ultimately, assignment of the heel drop must come with an appropriate exercise prescription based on the athlete’s present abilities. 

Heel raises on flat ground rather than off a stair or off the side of a curb have a much more favorable risk versus reward if we’ve made a determination that lower leg strengthening is needed.  If you follow an assessment process that leads you to the heel drops as an appropriate exercise, feel free to use them.  However, too many runners use the exercise because “it feels right” or “I saw others doing it” without proper consideration of the demands needed to perform the exercise safely.   

See also...

Sit up Saga

The Crunch Debate Continues

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