Greasing the Joints for Spring Trail Running Training

This article was written by longtime ATRA contributor Stephen R. Santangelo and first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of  our Trail Times newsletter.

For many of us living in the upper Northern Hemisphere, temperatures are rising to comfortable levels as winter comes to a close and spring freshness is upon us. During the winter months, many of us do not have access to trails for speed work and hill repeats due to rain, mud, ice and snow. Thus, most of our training consist of long slow runs or perhaps snowshoe training or ski-mountaineering.

Training such as this, restricts our range of motion around our joints due to a slightly shorter stride. High repetitive movements of flexion and extension in the sagittal (anterior–posterior) plane of motion will lessen mobility. The movements take place at the shoulder, hip, elbow and knee in a front-to-back motion. Consequently, this neglects our transverse and coronal planes of movement. As we introduce speed workouts on the track or trails, as well as hill repeats for spring training, we need to understand there is greater force on our joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments, as they work at a more intense level than on long slow runs.

Constant repetition in the sagittal plane without addressing other joint movements can, and often does, lead to injury. This requires us to rethink body mechanics while preparing the entire system for training and racing. Let’s take a look at the transverse and coronal planes of movement in order to implement these in our dynamic warmup. The purpose is to “grease the joints” at different angles of motion to flush plenty of fluid into them as well as strengthening the connective tissue. Most importantly, these exercises will develop our bounce and reactive response in our stride allowing more force application and better ground contact.

Calisthenics and bodyweight exercising are a great way to add to a dynamic warmup. Everyone seems to be lifting weights nowadays, without giving any thought for creating a foundation of healthy, strong, durable connective tissue necessary for safe, effective training. An advantage to the exercises below is that a gym is not necessary, nor is any special equipment.

My #1 exercise is the popular jumping jack, named after fitness guru Jack LaLanne. Sadly, even though this one exercise has been neglected, I suggest it for all of my athletes. Over the decades, I have created various modifications, which have great rewards in physical adaptations. Two variations are the Star Jump and High Pull Jump. These exercises, as their name indicates, are performed as a standard jumping jack, except the arms are held in different positions and focus on the muscles of the upper torso along with adduction and abduction of the hips, inner thigh and outer thigh. Training these areas is quite different from the running motion of the joints, their surrounding attachments and firing patterns. Focusing on our weak points improves our running ability and lessens the chance of injury as well as greater joint mobility. Incorporate these two exercises in a pre-season conditioning program and as part of a pre-workout routine.

  • Star Jump: Begin with the feet shoulder width apart and hands held at the shoulder. As you jump “up,” the feet move out to the sides (abduction) and the arms are extended, outward, in a 45-degree angle to the left and right. This creates the star pattern. To finish the movement, jump and bring the feet in (adduction) and return the arms to the side and hands to the shoulders.
  • High Pull Jump: Begin with the feet shoulder width apart with arms straight down in front of the body, not to the side. As you jump “up,” the feet move out to the sides (abduction). Keep the arms in front of the torso, shrug the shoulders, pull the hands up, keep the elbows high. By shrugging the shoulders, this helps open the shoulder joint allowing more blood flow and oxygen to enter. To finish the movement, jump and bring the feet in (adduction) and return the arms to start position, always keeping them in front of the torso.

When jumping out and back in, stay on the ball of the foot. This will improve amortization of ground contact and ground force. These two dynamics will improve running speed and encourage tendon stiffness in the ankle. Tendon stiffness is not the same as tight ankles. Tendon stiffness refers to the strength of the tendon. Tendons and ligaments provide an elastic response, a stretch-shortening recoil effect which helps you jump, run, lift heavy objects, and absorb impacts. Think of it as a rubber band. When a rubber band is stretched, it becomes stiff. As it recoils, it releases power/thrust. It is through stiff tendons that muscles transmit force and make movement possible. A stiff tendon can help us transmit more force and be more stable in our running mechanics, and stability is imperative on the uneven surface of the trails.

Examining the movement of the shoulders and arms, the shoulders are rotated differently than in the back-and-forth motion of running. This enables the shoulder to open for a greater range of motion allowing more fluid and blood in the joint nourishing it in a way more effective than the arm swing in running.

Now, applying it to training. During the conditioning/pre-season cycle, the goal is 3 sets of 60 seconds with 60 seconds rest between sets for each exercise. This equates to 6 sets in a total time of 11 minutes. For in-season warmup, 3 sets of 20 seconds with 20 seconds rest. This is a total time of 3 minutes and 40 seconds for both exercises combined. Each of these repetitions per set is to be performed AFAP (As Fast As Possible). Speed becomes imperative in order to create the stretch-shortening recoil in the development of tendon stiffness.

Create a well-oiled machine for those heroic efforts on the trail and dominate the competition!

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