(a repost from Women's Running, January 2018)
I’ve been a runner my entire life. Sometimes I’ve run short and fast; sometimes I’ve done ultra distances or even been part of a multi-sport event. For each type of running, I can see my body adapt and easily become dominant in one area while it grows weak in another. I have also had the opportunity to coach many women runners of all body shapes, sizes, ages and speeds. Though each woman is unique, there have been some similarities, often in terms of weak areas which can be overlooked and neglected during training.
Whether in myself or in others, I have found that the key to staying active and running for a lifetime is focusing on those weak areas. Think of the saying, You are only as strong as your weakest link. You can strengthen that link by going to the gym, but you can also get some functional work done in the pool. Yes, the pool!
Think of water as another training platform. You can work in the water two to three days each week for almost anything. I have used this platform to improve my running distance, speed and mobility, as well as for focused area work. Working in water IS NOT just for rehabilitation. This training method can help your running form, fitness and strength, and it won’t impact your joints. You can honestly run every day if you add water running on your ‘off’ days.
Though water running has many positive attributes, there is a catch: The first few workouts can feel frustrating, as it takes time to figure out how your body functions in an open kinetic chain environment (for the exercises I recommend below, your feet will not touch the pool floor). Each time you hit the pool, you’ll become more coordinated with the movements and feel your body working harder and more efficiently. The harder you work against the water, the more challenging the workout becomes. Within a few weeks, you will begin to notice how much better your body feels and recognize the effects of your hard work when you run on land.
Water workouts intended to strengthen women’s weaker points tend to focus on the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus. Truth be told, the most common weak areas in women are usually along the entire posterior chain (the erector spinae, trapezius and posterior deltoids). The following workout targets these areas and simultaneously works on overall running form. Each stroke is performed inthree sets of 30 seconds each (performed at hard and easy effort levels, with 30 seconds to one minute of recovery between each stroke). The final drill boosts effort levels with three one-minute sets. This workout begins as a 22-minute effort; as you familiarize your body with the movements and exertions required, you can begin adding to the sets–or even duplicate them in full. Before you begin, always remember to warm up, cool down and stretch.
Cross Country: Focus Forward
The Cross Country is a sweeping, opposite arm to leg motion (with a slight bend to the joints) in a pendulum movement. The reach in front should be equal to the reach in the back. This is the basis of the stroke, which is quite balanced posteriorly and anteriorly. With each movement, it is important to engage the lower abs. From here, the movement can change to focus on the weak posterior chain. Take the stroke and imbalance the power ratio (but not the overall arm or leg reach) by driving a harder effort with your legs from the front position through to the back position, relaxing the effort when your leg returns forward. If you have trouble doing this when your arms are working, place your hands across your chest and perform it “legs only”. You will feel the added work on your hamstrings, glutes and more.
Water Run: Long Reach
The Water Run is as versatile as the Cross Country, as it can change cadence and reach to target weaknesses. For this drill, instead of matching your land-based cadence, go after a longer reach to dial in your posterior chain. In the water, your leg will extend out in front and you will try to scoop a bit more water when pulling through your full leg movement. Unlike running, your arms will perform a coordinated overextended reach. The longer reach from both limbs affects not just the hamstrings, glutes and core, but also your erector spinae, trapezius and posterior deltoids. You will feel the extra work during your harder efforts, for sure!
Cross Country: Upper-Cut Punch
Now that you have the Cross Country down from the Focus Forward motion, the next step is to tweak it by adding a punching stroke. Rather than sweep your arm from the back to forward position, you will perform more of a punch, with your obliques tightening while you drive your arm (palm up, hand closed) forward with very little bend to your elbow. The further your arm reaches behind your body, the more your lower abs and obliques are initiated to drive the punch and drives you backwards, making this an anterior-focused stroke. To adjust this move to focus on posterior muscles, try to travel forward. By changing the intensity of your movements, your hamstrings, glutes and entire posterior chain will work double time to battle against the uppercut punching.
Breaststroke: Knees Together
A breaststroke in water running doesn’t look anything like a traditional breaststroke. Start by positioning your body so that it’s vertical in the water, with your hips directly below your shoulders. Reach your legs and arms out in front of your body and catch the water with feet flexed upward, then pull your limbs in a broad sweeping stroke out wide from your body. Finish with your arms tucked in to your sides and your legs completing a wide-knee hamstring curl. The focus of this movement is on your lower abs and rectus abdominis, both engaging while your hamstrings and glutes drive your pelvis forward. Your upper body is nearly performing a water row with scapular retraction while your chest drives forward. It is by far one of the hardest strokes to master (plan on completing this exercise at least five times before you get the hang of it). For a posterior focus, keep your knees in together throughout the entire movement. This will create more effort in the hamstrings, adductors, glutes and all the way up your posterior chain.
Regular Run: Progressive
This final exercise will test your ability to maintain full-body engagement with speed. The Progressive Run begins with the Long Reach exercise discussed above. As the minute-long exercise progresses, you’ll work harder while making your leg and arm swings a bit shorter. These strokes will produce a quicker cadence, mimicking that of your land run. The key is to maintain engagement of all muscles; if you are increasing your cadence and you lose muscle engagement, lower your effort until you can get your muscles to match your effort. Perform this exercise three times at one minute each. Make sure you are pushing your effort harder throughout until you have reached an all-out effort for the last 15 seconds of the workout.
I am one of those runners where, as soon as the snow melts, I just want to run on any surface that’s neither snow nor ice. It is so tempting to tie on your running shoes and hit the trails, doing what you’re “good” at without another thought. In the meantime, make a change to your winter workouts and jump into the pool for some focused training. By targeting weak areas instead of ignoring them, you could make this spring season your best ever!