Been sitting cross-legged all day? Do these three exercises before you run

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Been sitting cross-legged all day? Do these exercises and stretches before you run.

By Amanda McCracken

You've been chained to your desk all day, dreaming about your trail run with friends after work. But wait! Sitting at your desk all day lengthens certain muscles and shortens others. These imbalances make you more susceptible to injury.

Consider how often many of us cross our legs while seated. While it may be habit to sit this way, there can be consequences for runners—especially those who aim to hit the road directly after a long day in a chair.

"Crossing the legs compromises blood flow and pinches nerves," says Lisa DeBord, a physical therapist and runner. "We tend to favor one leg crossed over the other which creates patterns of asymmetry."

After 18 years of experience working with college athletes at Colorado State University and professional athletes through her company Fort Collins Functional Movement Institute, DeBord has seen the instability patterns that arise from prolonged seated positions.

Warming up, stretching, and activating these muscle groups before you jump from your seat to run can counter the effects of prolonged sitting, and reduce your chance of injury.

Hip Flexors

The hip flexors (particularly, the psoas): The psoas is approximately a 16-inch muscle deep beneath our guts which connects our spine to our legs. Ideally when we walk or run, we swing the leg forward by engaging the primary hip flexor, the psoas, so as not to tax the quads and secondary muscles. This muscle is shortened in a seated position. A tight psoas may present as low back pain. What should you do?

1) Stretch the psoas in a lunge position. Reach over your head with the same arm as the forward bent knee. Squeeze your butt at the same time. When opposing muscles (the glutes in this case) are engaged, it allows the target muscles to better stretch.

2) Release and tone the psoas by getting on the floor on all fours. While maintaining a straight spine and not allowing the belly to sag, extend one leg behind you and extend the opposite arm in front of you. Hold of 5-10 seconds and then switch sides.

Glutes

The glutes (particularly, gluteus medius—an often overlooked and under-trained muscle found on the outer surface of the pelvis): The glutes “turnoff" during prolonged sitting, especially when crossing your legs, creating instability in the pelvis. Other muscles and tendons start compensating when the glutes are “sleeping." These secondary players aren't made for the job, so after a prolonged period of time of picking up the slack, these muscles and tendons get injured (i.e. a torn hamstring or calf muscle).

1) Roll out the glutes and the quads using a foam roller or a tennis ball. This type of self-massage reminds the overactive muscles to let go and the underactive muscles to wake up. This also breaks up small adhesions in the fascia that wrap around muscles like bubble wrap. By rolling out these adhesions—think of them as tiny bubbles—we create more room for movement.

2) Do a resisted squat exercise. Place a resistance band around legs directly above your knees. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, chest up and back straight. Then squat, sticking your butt out behind you and arms out in front of you. Be sure to keep your knees over your toes. Return slowly to a standing position.

“Runners tend to reach for the ground using their quads rather than push the ground away using their glutes. Thus, they become quad dominant," DeBord says. "When you squat with a band around your knees to create resistance, you encourage the glutes to fire." When the glutes are engaged, there's less pressure for the quads to do all the work and for tendons to do jobs they weren't meant to do.

3) A side-lying leg raise exercise can engage the gluteus medius. While this muscle has multiple functions, the important one here is its ability to stabilize the hip. Make sure your back and butt are against a wall. With the bottom leg bent, raise the extended top leg. Make sure the hip is internally rotated.

4) Do a floor bridge to engage the glutes. To keep the pelvis steady, imagine a glass of water resting on your pubic bone. Hold the bridge for 20 seconds, rest, and repeat. To advance the exercise, slowly march in place in bridge position.

Abdominals

The abdominals, particularly the transverse abdominus: Most of us have horrible posture at our desks. Our abdominal muscles become so lazy they need a little reminding to support us before we go running.

“Forget sexy abs—we need functional abs to keep us moving forward efficiently," DeBord says.

Contrary to popular belief, crunches won't engage the core muscles that get lazy when we sit. Weak or disengaged core muscles could result in back pain and pressure on your discs and vertebra.

1) Try switching out your desk chair for a Swiss ball. By sitting on this large inflated ball, you have to engage your core to create the stability you'd get from a chair. If you slump, you'll fall right off. Thirty minutes before running, make a conscious effort to sit with good posture to wake up the core.

2) Do rotational abdominal exercises that mimic running such as Russian twists. Sit on the floor so that your upright torso and thighs make a V-shape. Bend your legs at the knees. Beginners, place your feet on the ground for more stability. To increase the difficulty, lift your feet up off the ground about six inches. Focus on keeping your back straight (no slumping) to protect your low back and concentrate on locking-in your core. Then, slowly move your hands, a feather-weight ball (i.e. volley ball) or a weighted ball from side to side. Imagine you are rowing a boat while stabilizing your core so that your torso and eyes remain facing forward.

These exercises engage the underactive muscles and train the brain to coordinate muscle engagement with movement cues. We have to remind our body of the motion after being "turned off" in a seated position all day. It's like telling your brain, 'when my arms swing while running and minutely twist my spine, fire up these abdominals for stability.'

3) Hold a side plank for 20 seconds, then rest and repeat on other side to engage the internal obliques that become weak in a prolonged seated position. The stronger these core muscles are, the more stable the runner becomes and less prone to injury.

If you're worried you won't have time between work and your run to do a few of these stretches and exercises, consider how much time physical therapy takes, to address injuries. “Despite having disengaged muscles, we will continue to demand the same output from our bodies and something will have to give," says DeBord.

If you want to be a better runner, why not recruit all the help from your body you can get? By strengthening and stretching these target muscles, you'll not only prevent injury but also be able to train more consistently, push harder and, therefore, become faster and stronger.

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