It’s the end of January. In the northern hemisphere we’re in the depths of winter: it’s cold, it’s sloppy, it’s dark. We’re vitamin D deprived, depressed and darn right pissed off. And still we don’t know when we’ll be able to travel again, or go to an event, or run in a race. Long-term running goals seem as tangible to us now as retirement is to a teenager, and working toward them equally un-motivating.
So let’s keep it simple: We need a few essential things that will help us keep getting better, a few things to focus on to keep ourselves afloat, moving and ready when spring comes again. With simplicity in mind, here is one stretch, one exercise and one mindset to add to your running and get you through winter 2021.
One Essential Stretch: Hip Flexors
Why: We need to be doing this one regularly because we’re humans living in the 21st century industrialized world. And because it’s winter. And because COVID. All these conspire to make us sit for much of our lives — even more than usual. So our hips are always in a flexed, sitting position, such that we have trouble fully standing up. When our hips stay forward rotated it throws off our stride, turns off our glutes and causes all sorts of havoc. When we asked four therapists their advice for daily prehab for runners, three of them mentioned stretching the hip flexors.
How: Kneel in a lunge position with one foot in front and one knee straight below your hips. Try to lift the top of your head as high as you can over the knee beneath you. Lift your torso tall, straighten the curve of your spine and rotate your pelvis backward — imagine an axle sticking straight out of your hip bone and rotate your hip around it, so that the front comes up and the back goes down. Try to “tuck your tail.” You should feel the stretch in the muscles at the front of your hip over your kneeling leg, and feel that glute contracting in the back.
Hold for 1–5 minutes. Do the stretch daily, after you run and other times during the day. Fit it into your life: At your work desk, while you’re brewing coffee, or in front of the couch watching TV (you can put your trailing foot up on the couch for an advanced option that also stretches your quad).
One Essential Exercise: Bridge on a Ball
Why: The glute bridge works to correct the same problems as the hip flexor stretch by activating and strengthening the muscles that will allow you to maintain a balanced, upright hip posture once you’ve got the mobility to achieve it. Moving the bridge up onto a Swiss ball increases the difficulty due to the elevation and the instability, plus lets you do hamstring curls that strengthen your posterior chain while challenging you to maintain your posture through a dynamic range of motion. Jay Dicharry, physical therapist and author of Running Rewired says that this bridge and curl exercise, “recruits the glutes to drive your hip into extension, improves hip rotation control, and challenges your core stability on an unstable platform — all while using the exact same propulsive stride motion you use when running.”
How: If you’ve not done glute bridges before, start with laying on your back with your feet flat on the floor and lift your hips until you form a straight line from knee to shoulders, with your hips rotated backwards (stomach flat, tail tucked) and glutes engaged. Hold for 10 seconds, lower to the ground, repeat 10 times. Work up to 3 sets. Advance to doing half of the bridges one legged. Work up to doing them with your feet elevated on a bench or chair.
When you’re ready, do the bridge with your feet resting on a Swiss Ball. Start with the ball about six inches from your butt with your feet flat on the ball and your knees above your belly button. Bridge up until you’ve formed a straight line from knees to shoulder with glutes engaged, tail tucked and stomach flat. From there, roll the ball away from you until you reach a flat plank with your heels on the top of the ball. Roll it back towards you, making sure not to let your hips drop — keep your straight line from knees to shoulders as your knees bend and feet come back.
Do the exercise 2–3 times per week. Start by doing 10–15 reps. Build up to 3 sets of 15 reps.
One Essential Mindset
Why: With the first wispy winds of change blowing into the doldrums of the pandemic, it’s tempting to feel like either waiting for a better day before we do something, or optimistically making plans assuming the best. But truthfully, the finish line is still shrouded in mist and may not be anywhere close. Decide to wait and we could end up languishing in a holding pattern for a long time. Move forward on expectations of finding the finish, and we may arrive there to discover it was an illusion and we have miles left to run, which no one needs studies to show is more demoralizing than not having ever had the expectation.
How: To get through this winter and be ready for a spring, whenever that may come, I think we would do best to adopt — or maintain — an ultra-runner mindset. Ultra-champion Courtney Dauwalter explained to me how she maintains this mindset: “Keep the focus on what can I do right now… I try to think through the facts and stay where my feet are, on how to move forward as best as I can.”
Assess the facts, honestly determine what we know we can do, set goals toward those marks and move toward them — no matter how far they might be from what we wish we were doing or where we may eventually aim. “I have to not have the finish line be the beacon,” Dauwalter says. “I have to make closer beacons for myself in order to stay in the moment and not be overwhelmed by how far away the end still is.” The mindset is even more important when the finish line is not only far, but uncertain. “I do think it is dangerous if you get attached to a certain distance or marker in life or this race,” Dauwalter says.
I confess I’m not as good at this as Courtney. I like having a big finish line out there pulling me; I’m a better me, more disciplined, more engaged, and more alive. And so I grasp at hope, attach myself to faint beacons of light and find myself adrift when they prove illusionary.
But I’m learning to pay attention to her advice. “If you’ve attached yourself to something ending, and then it doesn’t end,” she says. “I think you have to just recharge yourself, and then assess the situation, realize that’s the reality, and then move forward with however that looks for what’s going on.”
I’m ready to recharge, reassess and take simple steps forward while I dream — but not plan — for a distant spring.