Back in Balance

Running well is all about balance. Strengthen your weaker side to cut down on injuries.

A few years ago, Jim Rose kept getting injured while training for a half-marathon. Nearly 20 years of running had taught him that the sport and injury are often partners and he was clocking 50-100 kilometres a week, but Rose was struck by an odd consistency. “My injuries in my calf, knee, ankle, hamstring and hip were all in my left side,” he says.

A chiropractor told him one-sided running injuries were connected to being either right- or left-side dominant. After a few adjustments and some exercises to strengthen his weaker side, Rose recovered, but he continues to be dogged by injuries, usually on his left side.

One-sided injuries of that sort are familiar to physios, coaches and sports doctors. “Running is a sort of balancing act,” says Dr Lynn Berman, who specialises in physical therapy. Our right and left legs perform a ballet of coordination and opposition as one pushes off while the other swings forward, he adds. “This coordination breaks down when one side shows weakness.”

Most people would agree that one side of their body is stronger than the other. But that’s not the issue, says orthopaedic surgeon Derek Ochiai. “I don’t think it’s that one side is stronger, it’s that the other side is weaker than optimal,” he says.

When one side isn’t strong enough to bear the burden of extended running, it can lead to common injuries, including iliotibial band syndrome and patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee). Injuries often centre on the hips.

The appearance and result are similar to what we see with another common muscular imbalance, when muscles in the buttocks and hips, such as the gluteus medius and abductors, are weaker than the quads and hamstrings. “Your hips tend to drop or tilt,” says sports doctor Cherie Miner. “It will look like one side is dropping down.” When one hip drops, it can overstress the knee and other focal points for injury.

One cause of left-right imbalance is running in one direction on a cambered road or track. “By running in the opposite direction, [athletes] can even it out,” says physio Gary Guerriero. “As often as every other workout, it should be reversed, so they maintain a balance.” But one-directional running isn’t the only cause. A previous injury can cause one side of the body to be weaker. Even consistently crossing one leg over the other can inhibit strength on that side. Cross-train with cycling, Pilates and core work.

Physios, trainers and doctors also recommend several exercises that can help strengthen a lagging side. Some you may already do, such as lunges, clamshells and one-legged squats, with or without weights. Guerriero recommends assigning the non-dominant leg an extra set of these exercises. “Do each exercise unilaterally, and start and end on the weaker leg,” he says. “This way it’s getting a little extra work.”
Of course, you need to know which side is dominant. One easy way to identify your problem-prone side is to balance on one leg at a time for as long as you can. You should be able to stand longer on the dominant side.

Of course, nobody ever wrote a book called The Joy of Clamshells, and, when it comes to pure pleasure, standing on one leg in a gym or living room does not compare with running down a beach or trail. Rose admits that despite his history of injury, he struggles to keep up with his assigned therapy. Guerriero says runners at all levels have this issue. “Everybody just wants to do the activity that they want to do,” says Guerriero. “But if they do this secondary stuff – the strengthening and flexibility exercises – it will help prevent injury so they can continue to enjoy what they’re doing.”

Do these moves to equalise your running muscles
Good balance is essential for distance runners, according to Jay Dicharry, biomechanist and author of Anatomy for Runners (Skyhorse). Because running involves having one foot on the ground at a time, it’s important to be able to quickly stabilise your body. Balance is “about your ability to keep your body aligned in all three planes of motion,” says Dicharry. Without that alignment, the forces produced by running can lead to injury. Because runners mostly move forward, Dicharry says they often fail to develop the stability necessary to balance joints in other planes of motion. These exercises, performed three times a week, target the non-dominant leg.


Back in Balance Clamshells
Illustration: Charlie Layton

Lie flat on your side with knees bent. Keeping ankles together, lift the upper knee. Take two seconds to move through the lift, hold for one second at the top, and take five seconds to lower back down. Do 15 to 20 repetitions per set, two to three sets.


Back in Balance Stand and Pivot
Illustration: Charlie Layton

Stand on one foot and pivot your body away from the side you are standing on. For example, stand on your right foot and hold up your left foot. Rotate your upper body and hips to the left. Twenty repetitions before a run will fire up the supporting muscles and 20 repetitions after a run will help build strength.

Back in Balance Stand and Lift
Illustration: Charlie Layton

A variation on the first move. Place both ankles inside an exercise band, around 20cm apart. Raise one foot slightly off the ground. Adjust your weight on the supporting foot so that it is evenly distributed between forefoot and heel. With your leg straight, move your raised foot forward (A), back to centre, to the side (B), back to centre, backward (C), and back to centre. Continue for two minutes on each leg. Repeat twice on both legs.


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