Stability for Runners – Part 1: Understanding Stability
By Peter Colagiuri
Stability in running is one of those funny things. Like the foundations of a large building, it enables the rest of the construction to work effective. But no-one has ever stood at the front of a magnificent building and remarked “Wow! Those foundations are awesome”. So stability can often get relegated as a training priority. But without solid foundations, how effective is the rest of your construction/training going to be?
Stability is the ability to provide firm platform for optimal force transfer from your body to the ground. If any part of the stabilising system isn’t performing its job, the force generated by the leg is wasted. The easiest analogy is like hopping on firm ground compared to hopping in a canoe. In a canoe, you won’t be able to jump as high because so much force is wasted on the wobbly surface.
So what can go wrong with the system? Oddly enough, muscle weakness is one of the least common causes of stability issues in runners. More common causes are a lack of endurance, poor muscle coordination and muscle overload causing cumulative fatigue.
A lack of endurance is often seen when a runner increases their weekly or long run distance too fast and the stabilising muscles are unable to cope, leading to poor running form and increased risk of injury. On the other hand, poor muscle coordination can occur when something disrupts the biomechanics of running, such as a sore toe or stiff ankle. The muscles learn to compensate and don’t revert back to their previous motor patterns, even after the cause of the disruption goes away. Muscle overload and fatigue will also change the functioning of the stabilisers and is most likely to occur after races when there has been inadequate recovery time, causing running to feel heavy and clunky. Lastly, weakness is only an issue after a prolonged period of time off due to holidays or illness and probably takes around 4-6 weeks of inactivity before becoming an issue.
Stability issues tend to manifest gradually with a cascading effect of soreness and overload. One day it’s a sore ankle, then hip muscle soreness followed by hamstring tightness and finally, the knee begins to get sore. And this cascading effect is due to the design of our stability system. If one part isn’t performing, another part will increase its efforts and try to help out. Most times, the extra effort will cover the shortfall and you have no trouble. But if the problem continues or the extra load is too much, the extra effort causes fatigue and leads to its own problems.
There’s a loss of performance, a feeling of sluggishness or abnormal tightness/soreness in muscles that have tried to compensate. The loss of performance and sluggishness can present late in a run or throughout the run and can affect your top speed, hill climbing ability or just make it feel like hard work. The abnormal tightness or soreness will present in muscles that have tried to assist with stability, such as muscles in the calf or behind the hip, or in muscles that have to drive harder against poor stability, such as hamstrings.
But here’s the catch with stability problems: where you’re feeling it may not necessarily be the source of the problem. Overworked hamstrings may be the result of poor ankle stability. A sore lower back may be the outcome of overactive hip flexors, compensating for toe problems which limit your ability to push off. Confusing, right? But it’s the reason that some stretches and exercises for the sore area just don’t seem to make the trouble go away.
The next instalment goes into detail on how the body stabilises itself during running and the final instalment covers the all important prevention of and fixes for common stability issues.
Peter Colagiuri is a Sports Physiotherapist, specialising in running injuries. He practices in Miranda and Manly in addition to researching at the University of Sydney. For more information see bioathletic.com.au, firstname.lastname@example.org or book an appointment (02) 9977 1580.