I’m doing some corporate talks about getting started with fitness next month and one of the most important elements to consider when beginning a new training regime is finding balance across your activities. Most of us tend to just focus on one primary form of training and forget to build ourselves up in other areas, so it’s important to look at what your body needs beyond what you enjoy doing most.
(With my client Linda in the studio at Sweaty Betty Bristol.)
The three pillars of fitness are: cardiovascular health, muscular strength, and flexibility and balance. Without addressing all three areas, you are potentially setting yourself up for mechanical imbalances that could lead to weaknesses that will impede your progress long term and maybe even cause injury.
For example, if you are a keen runner you may be very focused on putting in the miles, especially if you are training for a distance race. However, lack of overall muscle strength and specifically a lack of stability through the trunk can create an uneven distribution of force through your joints every time your foot strikes the ground. If you are running off road, you may be less able to deal with uneven terrain and correct your balance to avoid falls.
Runners often avoid strength training because they fear getting too heavy, but there’s no need to worry. Even some simple bodyweight exercises can help build stability without creating bulk. Developing strength and stiffness through the core (the area between your diaphragm and pelvis, including your back muscles) will add stability while running, especially through the lumbar spine and help avoid lower back pain, while strengthening the leg muscles builds greater stability through the hips, knees and ankles. These are all joints ripe for potential damage when you are performing a repetitive movement with a heavy load. You need strong joints and muscles working through the appropriate range of movement to decelerate with care and distribute the force meeting you upwards from the ground with every foot strike.
Stretching also needs to be part of an athlete’s training repertoire. My client Linda has been a runner for many years but coming to my HIIT classes and performing different movements like squats and lunges has shown very clearly how muscle imbalances have been created over time. Her left piriformis (under the gluteals) became overactive, tight and sore. An overactive muscle can cause painful spasms as well as little ‘knots’ or trigger points that need releasing through a static stretching programme & some myofascial tissue release using a foam roller or massage. Partner stretching with me has given Linda a great deal of relief.
(Linda performing banded squats above to help strengthen her gluteals and correct the knee valgus you can see below on her right side.)
Linda’s focus on running also created a weakness in her gluteus medius on the right side, leading to weak abductors (the muscles that move the leg laterally away from the midline) and her right knee developed a tendency to knock in (valgus) while squatting. The quadriceps often take over when we run and weaker gluteal muscles can be a common problem as a result. A programme of activating and strengthening these underactive muscles now sees Linda performing squats with much improved alignment, strength and range of motion. She has been a clear example of how strength training helps to even out muscle imbalances, while stretching to relax overactive muscles has taken her out of pain and enabled her to perform a range of exercises safely and with better form.
So, if you want to train in a balanced way and avoid imbalances that can lead to injury, think about your week. Plan in the exercise you prioritise, maybe three runs. Then add a short stretching routine after each run, and two strength training sessions of 20-30 minutes. A programme of bodyweight exercise can be performed at home and doesn’t need the gym.
(Linda is 55 but can now perform some advanced bodyweight exercises and has developed a strong core which will help her running form.)
Now, if you’re a yoga bunny and think that your practice is giving you everything you need, then think again. As both a yoga teacher and fitness instructor, I can tell you that while you may have great strength and flexibility, even the most vigorous yoga practice will not increase your heart rate to the level it needs to achieve to really improve cardiovascular fitness. One or two HIIT sessions a week, or spin classes – whatever you can do – will help build all round health.
Because I’m seeing increasing numbers of clients with imbalances and injuries, I started studying a few months ago for a specialisation in corrective exercise with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). What I have learned so far has already enabled me to help personal training clients like Linda and has also started to change the way I teach yoga, looking at different ways in which to modify poses to suit people’s anatomy rather than getting them to conform to traditional alignment that may not be possible due to physical limitations. I’m incredibly grateful that I decided to study this programme and work more effectively and safely with my clients.
While my current clients are already benefiting from my increased knowledge base, I will be offering individual corrective exercise 1:1s when I qualify as a specialist service. In the meantime, please exercise safely and try to balance out your range of movement and activity.