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Run Longer and Ditch Low Back Pain & Stiffness? Deadlift!

Don't let this be you, runner:


"I don't really know what these strength exercises are supposed to do.


I just know this coach on the internet suggested them.


They're supposed to fix these issues I have...but I don't feel a difference."


At this point, you might be feeling frustrated.

Overwhelmed.

Maybe even feel a salty at being lied to because you're putting in the work with no rewards to show for it.


You're low back gets stiff on long runs.

Your knee is aching after a tempo run.

And your hips flexors won't let up no matter how much you stretch after a couple days in a row.


What else can you be expected to do?


Don't give up yet!

And here's why.


You're so close.

You're a dedicated runner who knows they need recovery, strength work, mobility exercises, cross training, etc/


Which means....you probably already have the tools you need to fix the issue.
You just need a guiding hand to point you in the right direction.

Consider yourself directed. ;)


All those issues we mentioned above, can be addressed with an exercises you're probably already familiar with.


  • Deadlifts

  • RDLs

  • Single leg deadlifts


What about about this one?

  • Hip Thrusts.


I'm not trying to go all cross-fit on you, I promise.

But how does this sound?


Happy low back.
Effortless long runs.
Better running form.
Knees and IT bands that can go for miles without a niggle...

But maybe you don't feel confident with your deadlift?

You don't understand the movement or the exercise?

Or where you're supposed to feel it?

What it's supposed to do for you?

Maybe you've even tackled the Romanian Deadlift (the single leg version) that's supposed to be *amazing for runners* but you always lose your balance?


Why would you want to do an exercise that drives you crazy and leaves you feeling incompetent?


I hear you. Loud and clear, running fit fam. Let's dive in!





Why Runners Should Care About Deadlifts
Do you struggle with any of these?
  • ITB Syndrome (more info in this blog -link ITB blog)

  • Runner's knee (more info this blog -link knee blog)

  • Patellar Femoral Pain Syndrome

  • Low back pain and/or stiffness

Then you're probably going to benefit from some version of a deadlift.


And like we talked about, the science suggests you're probably already doing some version of one:


"Most concurrent training studies (running and strength workouts during the same training cycle) to date in this unique (long distance running) population implement closed-chain, high-load, low-velocity multi-joint exercises using free weights, body weight, or resistance machines for maximal strength development.


The most frequently used exercises include:

  • the back squat and leg press variations

  • Romanian-style deadlift or deadlift variations

  • plantarflexion variations

  • split squat variations

  • hamstring curl and knee extension."


Anything you're already doing on this list here?


Let's keep going...


"Although deadlift variations were not as popular in the literature, applying the perspective of injury risk reduction and posterior chain maximal power output development...


it would be prudent to use this exercise in at least one session per week for distance running athletes.


Multi-joint exercises are a time efficient method for maximal strength and power gains due to multiple large muscle group activation with a singular closed-chain exercise.


Applying concepts in the strength and conditioning literature and understanding exercise prescription, if time is limited, it is advised to implement complex multi joint exercises such as a squat, a deadlift, and split-squat variations and exclude accessory exercises and plyometrics for that session."


What this amazing quote is saying (from a physical therapist, no less), is that while deadlifts are thrown into general strength programs, they should take more of a deliberate and center stage for runners


Not to mention, the author also realizes, LIFE GETS BUSY. You don't always have 2-3 hours to workout in 1 day!


So she's inviting you to work smarter, not harder. Exercises like a deadlift work muscles that cross multiple joints. You build more strength in less time over an entire range of motion span.


What the heck am I talking about...


Meet your hamstrings.

Can you see how they start above your hip joint and then plug into below your knee joint?



That's what we mean by a multi-joint exercise.


Running is an multi-joint movement.

When you go to take your next stride forward, you don't stiff-leg it, only moving from your hip. You bend your knee AND your hip!


So for runners, it's crucial to Dare to Train Differently, strengthening your muscles in a ways resembling running.


Stronger Hamstrings = Longer Runs without Fatigue

Sounds pretty great, right?


"Moreover, the muscles that showed the earliest signs of fatigue during running are biceps femoris and rectus femoris (hamstring muscles), are both required during the contact phase (Hanon et al., 2005) (Martinez)."



What's Martinez talking about above? He's saying on your long runs, it's your hamstrings, not your flexors that tire out first.


Why?


Quick anatomy lesson:


  • Our muscles work in two ways: concentrically and eccentrically, meaning the movement the muscle is directly responsible for performing and the opposite of that movement it's responsible for slowing down.


What the heck...


I know, hold on.


  • As your leg swings forward and your knee drives up to you chest to take your next step, you can feel however powerfully those hip flexors are working (your front leg muscles, like your iliopsoas and quads). These muscles are working concentrically.


  • But behind the scenes, those hamstring are the real star of the show. They're actually working eccentrically, helping control the forward-driving leg and decelerating it so you can land on it...instead of falling and face planting into the trail.


With this perspective, can you see how those hamstrings (and really glute muscles too) get tired FIRST? They're both CREATING and CONTROLING a lot of power and speed, that you generate step after step after step after...


Longer Runs with Better Form

It just keeps getting better, right?


Not only do strong hamstrings (and glutes) decrease risk of injury, they also improve your running form.

(And we know from THIS blog, good running form also means decreased risk of injury. (Want to improve your running form stat? Check out Running Form 101.)


How?


By creating both strength and endurance.


"It has been suggested that local muscular endurance during concentric action of hip extensors, and during eccentric action of knee flexors is important to maintain a stable running style or stride mechanics, preventing or delaying the kinematic changes associated with fatigued running (Hayes et al., 2004). Our results support this idea…


Therefore, our results suggest that the development of knee flexors and hip extensor strength, as well as eccentric muscle actions of the hamstrings, should be introduced into a training programme for runners, as previous studies indicated (Hayes et al., 2004)…improving the strength of this muscle group and maintaining a balanced hamstrings/quadriceps ratio should also be considered in complementary training programmes."

What this author is saying: your hamstrings create both tremendous power, stability, and strength.


Normally, the quads and hip flexors get all the glory.

But now, you know.

  • You know that the true strength and support you feel on your best runs are because your hamstrings are carrying the team on their back.

  • They're directly responsible for that smooth stride when they're strong.

  • And may be a tad responsible for an over-stride when you're fatigued.

Not to mention, that low back pain.

  • Low back stiffness or pain can cause major havoc on your running form. So fix both issues at the same time.

  • Often, when the muscles supporting the pelvis (the hamstrings and glutes) aren't strong and working together in conjunction with your core, the repetitive, high impact load of running for miles get's dumped into your back.

  • You low back made to be stable and strong, and it is!

  • But it wasn't meant to take on the hamstring's job too, generating AND controlling power, strength, and stability.


Oh by the way...that last part of that quote, does that sound familiar at all?


"improving the strength of this muscle group and maintaining a balanced hamstrings/quadriceps ratio..."


Because maybe you struggle with...

Quad Dominance? Deadlift!

What is quad dominance?

  • It's when you overuse your quadriceps during exercises that aren't designed to specifically target the quads.


And runner's get a really bad rep about this. (I've struggled with this personally).

Fortunately, the Literature has a solution. (By now, you can guess what it is ;) )


"For instance, deadlift is conducted by hip extensor moment, while back squat is conducted by knee extension moment. One possibility of hip or knee domination is likely to be caused by the different joint angles in which the peak joint moments were generated in the lower limb. Different joint-angle strength trainings lead to the different specific joint angle-moment relationships throughout the neuromuscular adaptation. This would conclusively affect the sensitivity of the transformation of strength training into specific dynamic motions."


What's this quote illustrating?

  • It's describing how squats are primarily controlled by your quads.

  • Don't get me wrong, your butt will still be sore the next day from back squats, but if you're already quad dominant, than your body will "cheat" and dump a lot of the work into those front leg muscles.

Why?

Because of "specific joint angle-moment relationships throughout the neuromuscular adaptation."


Yup, our old friend neuromotor control is back (your mind-muscle connection).


Neuromotor control can be tricky when it comes to quad dominance. Essentially, your body will take the easiest way out, dumping work into your quads, even though that's not the more efficient method.


But your body can be re-taught.

Your neuromotor control, corrected.

Quad dominance, reverse.

With...you guessed it... Deadlifts.


But...


Do Deadlifts Confuse for You?

I understand, they can be confusing.

And this blog post could be giving you some anxiety hearing how this *magical* exercise can fix "everything" for runners.


Especially if you've routinely tried to add RDL's to your strength program.


Can you relate to any of these RDL errors?

  • Losing your balance

  • forgetting to keep your hips facing the floor

  • feeling more work being done in your back instead of your glutes and hamstrings

  • maybe even having to stop the exercise because of low back soreness or tightness

Solutions:

  • Balance problem? Use a kick stand.

    • Put that trailing leg to use! Rest your back toes on the ground instead of balancing solely on one leg. I promise, this isn't cheating! As long as you're still moving from your hips and just using those toes a little balance assist, you're doing just fine

  • Hips opening up? Shorten the range.

    • If you find that deliberatly keeping your both your hips facing the floor is almost impossible for you, you might need to shorten up the range of your RDL, meaning, you don't have to go down to the floor. It's important to move through your hips rather than your low back

  • Feeling the work in your low back?

    • It's ok to have a bend in that front knee! No one said you have to lock out your knee or it doesn't count.

    • Also, that kickstand trick should also take some pressure of your back.

    • Lastly, hold the weight in the opposite hand of your stance leg.



Need an Alternative? Try the Hip Thrust

If that single leg deadlift just isn't working for you, don't worry.

Hip thrusts are just as effective.


Here's the science to back it up:


"The purpose of this study was to determine kinetic characteristics of the lumbosacral, hip and knee joints in the barbell hip thrust, compared to those in representative standing resistance exercises. This information will draw out the effectiveness of the barbell hip thrust compared to deadlift and back squat for better training methodology to maximize dynamic motions such as sprint running."


"The peak values of lumbosacral and hip extension moments were significantly larger in the barbell hip thrust than those in the back squat (differences: 24 ± 21% and 42 ± 24%); however, no significant differences were observed in those between the barbell hip thrust and deadlift".


Hip Thrust (youtube link for demo)


Reasons you might want to try Hip Thrusts:

  • you're new to running and lifting

  • you don't have the balance *yet!* for the RDLs

  • The "bending from the hips" that happens during a double leg deadlift doesn't make sense to you

  • both of those other deadlift versions can give you a stiff, sore back and almost make things worse rather than better

  • the list goes...

Regardless of where you're at with your running and lifting experience, hip thrusts and any deadlift version should make their way into your strength work.


Because who doesn't want to be an unstoppable, confident, resilient, and fast runner?

And all you have to do, is Dare to Train Differently.


Until next time, running fit fam,

Marie Whitt, PT, DPT // @dr.whitt.fit


P.S. get your hands on some other dynamite strength exercises specfiically designed for runners, just like these ones we talked about today. Grab your FREE running guide HERE!


 

References


Barrie, B. (2020). Concurrent Resistance Training Enhances Performance in Competitive Distance Runners: A Review and Programming Implementation. Strength &Amp; Conditioning Journal, 42(1), 97-106. doi: 10.1519/ssc.0000000000000528


Connelly, C., Moran, M., & Grimes, J. (2020). COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF HIP MUSCLE ACTIVATION DURING CLOSED-CHAIN REHABILITATION EXERCISES IN RUNNERS.


International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 15(2), 229-237. doi: 10.26603/ijspt20200229

Encarnación-Martínez, A., Sanchis-Sanchis, R., Pérez-Soriano, P., & García-Gallart, A. (2020). Relationship between muscular extensibility, strength and stability and the transmission of impacts during fatigued running. Sports Biomechanics, 1-17. doi: 10.1080/14763141.2020.1797863


Otsuka, M., Honjo, T., Nagano, A., & Isaka, T. (2021). Kinetics in lumbosacral and lower-limb joints of sprinters during barbell hip thrust compared to deadlift and back squat. PLOS ONE, 16(7), e0251418. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0251418

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