My Favorite Things: Upper Body Exercises

In keeping with the theme of my favorite things for the beginning of this week I am going to share some of my favorite upper body exercises.  Many people often think that as runners we do not need to work our upper body.  However, a weak upper body can lead to poor form, especially as you get tired.  By keeping your entire body strong you will see improvements across the board with your running.  Plus, who doesn’t love having toned arms?!

Curls/Reverse Curls:

This simple workout will work both your biceps and triceps.  With any upper body exercise it is always important that you keep your core and shoulders nice and steady.  Never lean or swing your shoulders.  Make sure all of the work comes from the muscles you are focusing on.  Aim for light to medium weights and longer reps around 20x each exercise to work on toning and not bulking up those muscles.  Heavier weights with fewer reps are meant to build up  muscles which is the opposite of what we are looking for.  We want the tone but not the extra heft to carry around for miles!

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Rows/Shoulder Press:

This is a great combination that gets into the upper back and shoulders.  Many runners tend to either fall forward or hike up their shoulders as they tire.  By working these muscles you will find that you can maintain proper running form longer.  By doing these in combination you will find that you can effectively work and exhaust both muscle groups well.  I like to do 20-30 reps of each, one after the other.  Begin your rows by slightly hinging forward from the hips and pull in your abdominals.  Lift your arm up with your elbow pointing to the ceiling and slowly bring back down.

I recommend starting shoulder presses on a weight bench or a chair for back support.  Start with the weights at shoulder/ear level with your palms facing out away from you.  Lift both weights up and above your head to touch and then back down to starting position.  Anytime you do any exercise that involves the shoulders you should take your time and focus.  The shoulders are the most susceptible joint to injure and it is important to never over load them.

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Armpit Squeezes:

I do this one mostly for vanity’s sake.  This exercise gets into that armpit flab that ails me no matter what I do.  However, it also works your chest muscles which will help balance out your upper back muscles.  All you have to do is hold two weights about six inches away from your chest.  Press them together and use a squeezing motion.  You will feel your pectoral muscles contracting.  This is a good exercise to do larger repetitions with (see if you can do 50!).  Aim to do one or two sets until exhaustion.  Make sure you keep your back up straight and elbows pointing out!

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A recycled pic. I forgot to take a few new ones.

 

Paddy Cakes:

This is another favorite of mine.  This works your armpits, shoulders, back, and biceps.  Hold two weights just as you would for arm pit squeezes.  Lift one weight on top of the other and lower your bottom hand.  Then bring your bottom weight above the other and continue to repeat.  It looks somewhat like you are climbing a rope or a ladder.  20-30 repetitions should do the trick. Aim for 3-5 sets and you will feel that good burn!

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My Favorite Things: Leg Exercises

Last week I discussed the value of adding a good strengthening workout to your weekly training.  Strengthening your legs is so valuable for your running and a great way to mix up your winter workouts.  Our legs are large and powerful muscle groups which also means that when we work them out we get a great metabolic boost.  So not only do these workouts make you a stronger and healthier runner but you can add in a great calorie blast too!

Below are a sampling of a few of my favorite leg workouts.  These are relatively easy to do and work several large muscle groups at the same time.  Try doing these in the evening for 15-20 minutes once or twice a week and you will notice some great results.

Squats With Running Arms:

This is one of my recent favorites.  Squats are a super powerful tool to add to your workout regimen.  They certainly work the quads and you will definitely feel it.  But they also get into the glutes and hamstrings which are often the root of frustrating injuries such as IT Band Syndrome and piriformis pain, among others that nag distance runners.

Grab some light weights and add in the arms for a nice upper body workout at the same time.  The key is to keep your core centered and avoid twisting.  This adds in a nice additional core strengthening too!  As you squat down one arm pumps in a running motion and as you rise, your other arm will pump in the same way.  Start out with 20 reps.

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Safety tips:  Any time you do squats it is essential to keep your weight centered (not in your toes or heels) and there is no need to squat too far.  Feet should be shoulder width apart.  Keep your back erect and do not lean forward.  Start out nice and slow, take your time, and try using a mirror to ensure you are doing these and any exercise properly.

Squats With Kettlebell Swing:

I love the kettlebell for so many reasons.  By adding in this one piece of equipment you can take your workout to a whole new level.  Kettlebell workouts will make you sweat and give you some nice cardio addition too.

Do the same squat as above but hold the kettlebell with both hands.  As you squat down allow the kettlebell to swing back between your legs.  On the upward motion the kettlebell swings forward to chest level.

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Safety tips:  You always want to protect the knees anytime you do squat exercises.  It is also important to protect your back and shoulders whenever you use a kettlebell.  Keep your back erect and do not allow your upper body to move as you swing the kettlebell.  This swinging motion should come from your arms while the rest of the movement comes from your legs and hips.  The swinging motion should be slow and smooth to protect your shoulders.  Always take your time, especially as you begin.

Lunges (Forward and Reverse):

I love lunges.  For some reason they always kick my behind!  You can do these with or without weights.  I prefer to hold light weights at my side for the added resistance.  These are great for working the quads, hamstrings and glutes.  Lunges also use a nice slow stretching motion so ladies you don’t have to worry about bulking up (Note: Ladies we don’t have enough testosterone to worry about any of these exercises bulking us up).

Try doing 20 forward lunges and then reverse it and step backwards for another set of 20.  This will definitely get into the hamstrings and glutes!

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Safety tips: It is always essential to protect your knees.  Never lunge too far down.  Your knee does not need to touch or even come close to the floor to get the benefits of this exercise.  Always start with feet hips width apart and your back erect.  I strongly recommend utilizing a mirror to watch your technique.

Happy running and strength training!

Strong Legs=Fast Legs

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday break.  I enjoyed a really nice long vacation with my friends and family.  There was a lot of fun family time, lots of naps, and a ton of food.  Thus begins my trek back into healthy eating (aka no more Christmas cookies) and back into the fitness routine.

For most of us the winter is a hiatus from racing.  This is the perfect time to take a rest from training and scale back the miles.  It is also the perfect time to strengthen your legs in different ways to improve your speed.  We often spend a lot of time on the road or trails putting in plenty of mileage.  Hopefully if you are trying to get faster you are also adding in your weekly speed work sessions.

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But there is another, and just as important way to improve your overall running and speed.  Strength training is a great way to become both a stronger and faster runner.  It can also help you avoid injuries during your training season by not only strengthening your running muscles but also building up any muscular weaknesses that might sideline you later in the season.

Strength training will of course make your legs feel tired and heavy for the first week or so but you will soon notice the results.  In fact, over the past month and a half I have put in a really strong effort to add strength training to my weekly workouts.  A week ago I went out for a nice long run on a beautiful Saturday and came back 10 miles later feeling absolutely fantastic.  Because it was a nice and easy 10 miler I didn’t look at my GPS and was using my perceived effort to keep my pace and heart rate at a nice easy level.  But when I got back and looked at my times I was floored.  My pace had markedly improved (almost 30 seconds per mile).  I wasn’t trying to push myself to run fast.  In fact I was trying to keep my heart rate down and just enjoy the run.  I attribute most of this to my strength training.

During the off season it is a great time to lower your mileage and just keep a nice steady base.  I personally prefer to run around 50-60 miles per week during the training season.  However, in the winter months I tend to keep my mileage around 30-40 miles per week.  Instead I use that extra time to work on muscles that will help with my running later on in the year.

So where should you focus?

Pay attention to your major muscle groups, especially in your legs.  Your quads, hamstrings and calves will give you the biggest bang for your buck. You also want to focus on your glutes because despite the fact that we don’t use them too much during our running, weak glutes tend to be the biggest culprit of bummer sideliners such as IT Band Syndrome and many other overuse injuries.

Focus on exercises that work major muscle groups and multiple groups at the same time.  Squats, lunges, and plies will really help your legs in a big way.

Don’t forget your abs!

I love working my abdominals.  First of all, it pays off come Spring Break or summer vacation.  But you will also notice a huge difference with your running.  Working your abdominals will help keep your running form, especially as you tire and form tends to go kaput.  Strong abdominals also help propel your body forward.  Give it a try and you will notice a difference.

The good news is that you don’t have to do hours of crunches.  In fact, skip those crunches.  Spend 10 minutes doing planks and you will get way more of a benefit.  Planks focus on all areas of your abdominals unlike crunches that really only hone in on one area, and minimally at that.  Planks can also be done in all sorts of variations to mix it up a bit.  Try doing forearm planks or side planks or alternate between the two.  A few minutes a day will make a huge difference.

Take advantage of these cold months when you might not feel like heading outside for a run.  Grab some weights and strengthen those legs and abs.  You will be so glad you did when spring rolls around.

What are your favorite ways to strength train?

Seize The Moment

Hello frozen friends!  I am assuming that most of you are dealing with frigid weather where you are, unless you live in Florida and in that case I’m moving in.

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We have been up in Northern Michigan since Saturday and the weather has gotten progressively worse since we arrived.  When we first pulled in there was snow everywhere.  I took a picture because it looked like a lot for November but then it continued to snow, and snow, and snow.  It also got colder, and colder, and colder.  That being said, I wimped out and didn’t get much running in.  Where my family lives is pretty rural.  The roads were covered in snow, making it nearly impossible to run.  I did go to the local ice rink on Monday and used the treadmills but there are only have two decent mills and both are preset to 20 minutes maximum.  That means every 20 minutes I had to stop and restart my running.  Kind of a drag.

Post treadmill shuffle to the car.

Post treadmill shuffle to the car.

I took this as an opportunity to do some other forms of cardio and mix it up a bit.  When I was 14 I had a major knee surgery.  While I was on the mend and doing physical therapy my parents got me a really nice stationary bike.  Twenty years later it still does the trick.  I rode that thing like it was going out of style this week.  I also brought some weights, kettle bells, and medicine balls with me.  I made sure to spend a good hour each day doing strengthening exercises to work my legs, core and upper body.

Winter weather tends to be rough for most of us.  There is snow and other awful forms of precipitation.  There tends to be a ton of annoying wind and the temperatures get downright nasty.  But on the bright side, most of us don’t have a lot of races on our schedules.  The rare winter races or runs tend to be centered around having fun and helping each other get through the cold months.

This makes winter a great time to refocus and seize the moment.  Last week I started small group training classes in Chicago.  These groups are focused on strength training for half of the class followed by a group run or interval session.  The idea behind these classes is to use the off season months to focus on building strength in the muscles we need most for running.

During marathon season many runners faced some common injuries.  Among these we saw a lot of shin splints, IT band issues, calf pain, and varieties of tendonitis.  Most of these injuries stem from weakness in different muscles and often not right at the spot where athletes were experiencing pain.  For example, a lot of runner’s who deal with IT band issues find that by strengthening their glute muscles, they can alleviate the pain.  Many of my own foot issues stem from my calves.

By taking the offseason to step away from worrying so much about your mileage, you can instead focus on key muscle groups that will help keep you stronger and healthier once your training picks back up.  With the holidays creeping up I also like to use this time to work multiple muscle groups in the hopes of keeping things toned and relatively lean as I continue to do damage on my diet!

Focusing on your calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes as well as your core will help you become a stronger runner.  If you have the time make sure to add in some upper body exercises to give you an overall strengthening program.  Try to look for any muscle imbalances you might have.  This is a great way to hone in on what needs the most work.

Don’t neglect your running completely.  Keep your base mileage going.  Doing 3-5 mile runs, or the equivalent of your short runs a few times a week is all you need.  Keep it stress free and avoid long runs for awhile.  If your legs are feeling good and fresh an occasional mid/longish run is fine to add.  But don’t fret if you aren’t feeling like doing longer runs or can’t find the time.  Taking a break from extra mileage and focusing on your base and strength training can even leave you ahead of the game by the time spring rolls around.  By maintaining minimal base mileage you also won’t need to worry about your endurance.  This mileage will be plenty enough to ensure you don’t “lose” anything once spring finally returns.

Go ahead and seize the opportunity to be that strong, healthy runner you always dreamed of.

Stopped by our snowed in lake house.

Stopped by our snowed in lake house.

No swimming this vacation!

No swimming this vacation!