How to Warmup, Strengthen, Stretch, and Roll-Out your legs to make them last a lifetime

Monday Mug Thoughts #39

Good Evening Finishers,

Another Monday in the books, and another Mug Thoughts coming your way. Hopefully, you had yourself a restful weekend and hit the ground running this week (figuratively AND literally 😎) feeling refreshed, revitalized, and ready for greatness.

Last week I shared with you all that I’ve been experiencing some issues with my knees and have started going to physical therapy. While this is my first rodeo personally with knee pain, I’ve learned that “Runner’s Knee” is actually THE most common form of injury for runners.

Up until about 3 weeks ago, I would have bet $1,000,000 that shin splints would take the cake as the most common running injury. But, a quick google search will show you that it’s not even close: Knee Injuries are the most common running injuries by a mile.

My Full Physical Therapy Workout Routine

If you didn’t read last week’s mug thoughts, you are definitely gonna want to start their first. The article offers a basic understanding of the makeup of your knee, the different variations of the “Runner’s Knee” injury, and a few tips on how to think about recovery.

As promised, this week I’m going to give you guys all of the warmups, workouts, stretches, and foam-roller techniques that I’ve been using to bring my knees back to life. All of these movements come directly from my physical therapy team and are things I’ve been doing 3x a week for the last month.

Running killing your knees? Me too. Here’s why and how to fix it

Now there are a few objectives that we are trying to accomplish with these workouts:

  1. Stretch - My quads, hamstrings, and IT bands are incredibly tight from all the running I’ve been doing over the years. This tightness is responsible for much of my knee pain. These exercises are intended to stretch and loosen up these muscles.

  2. Strength - I’ve been doing nothing but running for a very long time. This has led to really strong calves and quads, and very weak glutes and hips. This muscular imbalance has impeded my patella from tracking properly within my kneecap and has contributed to the majority of the kneed pain I’ve been feeling.

  3. Mobility - Several of these exercises are designed to practice proper form and to train my body to run in a way that is more favorable for my knees.

With that context in mind, let’s get into the actual workouts 💪

Warmups

One of the biggest things I’ve learned since starting physical therapy is just how important it is to spend 5-10 minutes warming up before you run. I’ve practiced a very bad habit of going straight from a long work from home day to my daily run and it usually just leads to me feeling stiff and slow.

Notice how I’m NOT telling you to “stretch out” before you run, but instead to “warm-up.” Try some of these dynamic stretches before going out and notice the difference you feel during your run and after you’re done (hey that rhymes 😜).

Inchworms (Down and Back x2) - Pick a wall about 20 steps away and crawl your way there and back with these inchworms. Focus on getting a good hamstring stretch as you inch your legs underneath your hips.

Butt Kickers (Down and Back x2) - There and back to the same wall as before but this time you’ll be kicking your butt and tapping the outside of your heels with your hands. Here we’re activating the quadriceps and knees.

Toy Soldiers (Down and Back x2) - I’m sure you have some sort of memory from high school P.E. doing these bad boys. Try and get a good hamstring stretch here as you down and back twice (avoid kicking anyone nearby in the process).

Spider-Mans (x10 both legs) - Your spidey senses may not be tingling, but after these, your hips will for sure be! Get your inner thigh/hip flexors nice and toasty with this stretch.

Strength

The warmups are going to be great for before your runs, but the next section of exercises is for days that you’re cross-training. And yes you should be cross-training!

If you aren’t sure what cross-training is, this is when you perform more strength-oriented exercises in order to support your typical running habit. In other words, when you do exercise besides running.

Implement one day of cross-training a week to enhance your speed and avoid injury.

These workouts are going to be very focused on the hips, glutes, and hamstrings as those areas all support the knee in different ways and require some attention weekly in order to capture your full potential as a distance runner.

Lateral Walks (Down and Back x2) - With enough resistance, these will really make you feel the burn. Put the band(s) just above your ankles and shuffle down and back. Make sure to lead with one leg going down and the other leg going back.

Monster Walks (Down and Back x2) - Bring the bands down to your ankles and with each step try and land your foot outside of your shoulders. You’re trying to keep the band stretched with every step and activate your hips.

Runners Lunges (2 x20 each leg) - When doing this motion, you want to focus on keeping your knee straight and avoid having it collapse inward. Don’t try and go fast, but instead maintain good form throughout.

Glute Bridges (2 x20 each leg) - Here we’re trying to tighten up those glutes. As you extend your legs into the air, try to squeeze your butt as much as you can. Again, don’t speed through these and instead try and get the best squeeze possible with each rep.

Pistol Squats (2 x10 each leg) - This is a functional movement that strengthens your quads, hamstrings, calves, and hip abductors. Here we are again trying to keep our plant knee straight, and extending the opposite leg out in front of us as we squat. I can’t get very low with these but you might be able to do it better.

Toe Taps (2 x20 each leg) - Keeping your plant knee straight again, we’re trying to maintain good form while tapping the opposite leg in front, parallel, and behind us. This emulates a running motion.

Med Ball Thingy (2 x20 each leg) - I wasn’t given a good name for these, but the intention here is to focus on using your hips to roll the ball up and down as opposed to simply raising your knee.

Triple Threats (3 x10 reps) - These are tough for sure. Keeping your butt off the ground, you’re going to curl the ball in to activate your hamstrings, and bridge yourself up after that. If using two legs to do this is too easy, you can also do a variation of this by using one leg at a time.

Squats (2 x20 reps) - Here we’re doing a normal squat but pressing a lightweight out in front with each rep. This forces you to keep your weight back on your heels as opposed to putting the weight on your knees. This is a really good way to practice form and train yourself to squat correctly.

Hip Hikes (2x20 each leg) - Keeping your plant leg straight on a slightly elevated surface use your hips to bring your other leg up and down. Squeeze at the top and make an effort to activate your hips with every rep.

Stretch

Stretching after the run needs to become just as much of a routine as the run itself. The longevity of your running career depends on it. Your muscles are getting tighter and tighter with every single run, so please make sure to commit the time necessary to stretch them out once you’re done.

These simple stretches have been very helpful for me after each PT session, run, and just in general when I’m feeling tight. It only takes 5 minutes to complete this entire routine, so there’s really no reason any of us should be skipping the stretching.

Hip Flexor Strech (30 seconds on both sides) - You’ll start by kneeling your leg out in front for 30 seconds trying to stretch out your hamstring and hips. After 30 seconds, open your legs up by placing your foot on the outside of your body to get an even better hip stretch.

Hamstring Stretch #1 (30 seconds on both legs) - This is the first of a three-part stretch. You can use a band designed for stretching or just use a belt, dog leash, or whatever you have in your home. Keeping your leg straight, pull your leg up and try to point your toe down at your face. Hold this for 30 seconds before moving on.

Hamstring Stretch #2 (30 seconds on both legs) - Next, bring your knee up and foot across your body. Try to pull your foot towards you for 30 seconds.

Hamstring Stretch #3 (30 seconds on both legs) - The best one in my option. Now bring your leg out to the side forming at least a 90˚angle and pull your leg up towards you. You should feel a really good stretch in your hips and hamstrings here.

Foam Roller

I’m guilty of almost never using a foam roller after my runs, but since starting physical therapy, I’ve been making it a post-run tradition every time. I notice a huge difference between when I roll out and when I don’t roll out and therefore strongly encourage you guys to be doing the same.

There aren’t necessarily a specific amount of reps you need to do for these but spend at least 5 minutes after your runs on the foam roller. When you’re doing these, move around in ways that roll the muscle out from different angles. Don’t just go back and forth in the same spot.

Calves Roll-Out - Put the roller underneath your calves, lift your butt off the ground, and use your arms to push yourself back and forth.

Quads Roll-Out - Flip it around and position the roller underneath your quadriceps. Almost like a plank, use your forearms to bring yourself forward and backward.

Glutes Roll-Out - Now bring the foam roller under your hamstrings and again use your arms for support.

IT Bands Roll-Out - Finally, position your body on its side and put the foam roller in between your knee and your hip. Bring one leg out in front of you and use that to push you forward and backward (that would be my right leg in the video). You can move the roller a few times to hit different areas of the muscle.

Make it a Habit…

There you have it, the full workout routine that I do every single time I go to physical therapy. Whether you are experiencing knee pain or not, these are still very helpful exercises to PREVENT any type of knee pain in the future. You don’t need to be doing every single one of these workouts every single day, but I would recommend maintaining the following rules for yourself:

  1. Warmup 5 minutes before every run. No exceptions.

  2. Stretch after every run for 5 minutes. No exceptions.

  3. Commit 1 day a week to cross-functional training. This could be a HIT class, Yoga, biking, swimming, weight lifting, Calisthenics, etc. Implement 3-5 of the strength exercises above in each session to ensure you’re building muscle in your glutes, hips, hamstrings, and quads.

Take my word for it. Knee pain is incredibly frustrating. It’s a very subtle type of pain that doesn’t go away in a short amount of time. Put the work in now to ensure you aren’t sidelined, and if you are experiencing knee pain now, start prioritizing these types of workouts.

If you want to identify as a runner for as long as possible, these exercises need to be part of your life. Take care of yourselves!

Cheers,

Zack


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