How I fix endurance athletes so they can do what they love the most forever

I love working with all of my clients, and I get such a kick out of all the different pieces of every puzzle that I have to put together to help every body function at it’s best and help each client reach their individual goals. A group that I have a lot of experience with is endurance athletes.

Many of my private clients are endurance athletes that are starting to feel injuries/dysfunction/pain. They come to me either for help on continuing their sport or thinking they might need to adopt a new fitness routine as a result of pain/injuries. In my 16 years of experience, I have only had one client who truly needed to stop running (she has a family history of bad knee issues and her body just needed something different).  

While every client is different, there are many commonalities between my endurance runners and cyclists. Number one, they are all very “quad dominant,” meaning their front thigh muscles are obviously more developed than their glutes. It is usually obvious both in appearance (thigh muscles are bigger and harder, bum muscles are smaller/flatter/softer) as well as in movement patterns (their bodies have found a new way to move that allows the quads/hip flexors to do most of the work, and the glutes to do little). I always compare this situation to two co-workers, one that does all the work and one that’s lazy, the harder the one works, the lazier the other gets and vice versa. 

The results of all this quad-dominant stuff? Usually, knee and/or back pain. What’s the fix?  Loosening up the quads and hip flexors, strengthening the glutes, relearning movement patterns with a lot of focus to teaching bum muscles to work.  Basically speaking – relearning how to do squats and lunges with a lot of rolling, stretching and glute emphasis. Every runner needs to be doing good quality/full range of motion squats, lunges and deadlifts. If it hurts, that is a very good sign that you should be getting some help learning to move right and balancing out your leg/hip muscles. Because your body will perform these movements throughout your life, avoiding them because they cause pain/injury will set you up for a much higher chance of injury, instead we need to do the hard work of relearning techniques.

The number two thing I find in my endurance athletes is a left/right imbalance. One leg is significantly stronger than the other. I always tease my runners that they’ve clearly been running with only one leg. Similar to the front/back imbalance above, this is likely to lead to pain and is a sign of dysfunction. One side being stronger/tighter often leads to the pelvis being pulled to one side, joints on one side being overworked or an underlying issue that is creating a weakness on one side. How do we fix it? Unilateral work! Lunges, Pistol squats, weighted step-ups, single-leg deadlifts and bridge lifts (you guessed it – all with an emphasis on using your glutes). This type of training can be frustrating as it will highlight which side is stronger/weaker, but it is very worth pushing through to rebalance your body.

Does this type of training help? Absolutely! While I can’t take all the credit at all, it is absolutely up to my clients to do their homework diligently and see a few specialists that I recommend (I think we all need an awesome team taking care of our bodies). My clients not only improve their pain, ability to perform activities of daily life, but they usually end up FASTER, too. 

I will give you two examples of clients who have had amazing results (because they were so good at doing all the homework!).  

Kristin:

Kristin came to me first in Mommy Bootcamp with her second baby. She was obviously one of the fittest moms in the group and I took great pleasure in challenging her and making sure she was always the sweatiest at the end of the class. Sometime after her return to work, she started experiencing a lot of knee pain and began questioning whether it was time to adopt another form of fitness and give up on her love of training for and running in marathons. Unlike many of my runners, Kristin is a former dancer and hyper-mobile. Although tightness wasn’t an issue she had the classic overdeveloped quads and no bum, she moved and lifted using the front of her legs and very little glutes/hamstrings. She also had a very obvious dominant leg.  We worked really hard at learning to move differently. She even relearned how to go up stairs!  Once she mastered glute engagement on her basics she started to learn Olympic lifts. She is currently my strongest female client! And guess what? Not only is she still running, but she is faster than she’s ever been! She qualified for and ran in the Chicago Marathon with an awesome time and is faster both at short distances as well as long runs. I’m so proud of her because she worked SO hard to keep running in her life and she continues to excel even in her late 30s after 2 kids! I ran with her just yesterday and nearly died trying to keep up. After 7.5 km she dropped me off and went for a second faster run!

Neety:

Neety is one of my newest clients. She started with me back in March when Covid hit and the gyms closed. In fact, we had been training virtually and only met for the first time about 3 months in! Neety is an ultramarathon runner. That means she runs races longer than 42km (50-100km!). Neety was hilarious when she started — obviously, ridiculously fit and strong, but so tight and quad-dominant that she couldn’t squat properly at all (she basically squatted by leaning her chest forward and bending her knees a little). She couldn’t lunge – especially on one side. She thought she couldn’t do many movements because they all hurt her back and she was scared of not being able to run, as well as scared of getting big muscles that would slow her down (a common fear amongst runners – especially if they were trained wrong by their former trainers). While she really struggled with her basic movements it was very obvious that Nelly was strong, determined, had great body awareness and was stubborn enough to do all the things necessary to reach her goals.  Her first few sessions mostly consisted of rolling, stretching, glutes and core. She, of course, began doing her rolling/stretching routine daily and we very quickly saw a huge change in range of motion. Her glutes started to kick in and all of a sudden we were able to move better. As her movements improved, so did her confidence in herself and in me, and we were able to start pushing SO much harder! Three months in, she told me that with NO extra effort she was consistently running 20-30 seconds faster per kilometre! She can do movements that used to hurt her back without pain and she’s so happy she’s trying to get both her parents, her brother and her husband to train with me!

The Moral of the Story:

My endurance athletes see a great improvement in pain and performance when they have learned how to do their basic functional movements while engaging the proper muscles. 

I want to teach all endurance athletes to be proactive and begin to work on this before they’re injured and in pain instead of after. If you are an endurance athlete and you are feeling great, start incorporating functional fitness and HIIT into your program. If it feels bad in your body – get in touch with me. If you are an endurance athlete who is beginning to experience more and more pain, get in touch with me! I will help! My goal is to keep you performing well at the things you love for as long as possible!

This blog post was written by Coach Kate Laird.