I had set a goal. It was ambitious. I wanted to run the distance of a half marathon in a week. I hadn’t run any distances over about 4 miles up to that point. We were living in beautiful Wisconsin. It was the driftless region in the south west portion. There are many rolling hills and lots of small paved roads. It is beautiful there.
I had a loop in mind. It was exactly 8 miles. I ran it and felt great! The next day, 3 miles, then 2, then 1. I did it!
A few weeks later my project at work was canceled and I was let go. It was a tough blow and a complete surprise. I needed to clear my mind and recenter myself. I decided to go for a run. I had scouted out a route that was a little over 13 miles as my first half marathon distance. I decided to go for it.
It was amazing. It cleared my head, but as I neared 10 miles there was a steep downhill section that lasted for about a mile. I thought it would be a nice rest but it ended up being far from it. I was tired and the outside of my legs started burning. After about another half mile they weren’t burning anymore they were screaming! I could bearly walk and my pain was on the verge of being numb from so much pain. It was awful. I finished my run, but barely.
The Iliotibial Tract (IT Band)
I asked around and talked with a good friend and ultramarathoner. I found out that it was my IT band. The IT band runs from the top of the pelvis, your hip bone (illium), down through your hip, along the leg, and just to the bottom of the knee. It’s purpose is to stabilize the leg.
As I have continued to run I found three key things to lesson the irritation to the IT band. As I do these three things consistantly I haven’t failed to finish a run due to them.
IT Band Stretch
I talked to a good friend and amazing PT and she gave me this stretch to do before a run. While standing cross your feet. Rotate your ankle on the leg in the back. Reach the arm of the leg in the back towards the toe of the leg in the back. In an “across the body” direction. You should be feeling the stretch along the outside of your leg from your ankle up to your hip.
I may repeat this during a run if I start to feel the outside of my leg getting tight.
I also started watching closely at runners in videos. I noticed a different stance and gait than I had. When I learned to run I remember hearing about the indians walking with one foot in front of the other and walking single file. In my young age I thought “I want to be fast like the indians.” I ran like them creating an arc with each leg and landing inline. Think of it like running on the line on a road, or the dividing line on a track. Each foot strikes the center of the line. That is how I ran.
Running this way creates a much more acute angle at the hip and ankle. This increases the distance the IT Band stretches and makes the ankle more susceptible to rolling. It also makes it so the stride has to arc wide around each leg as it posts in the middle.
I noticed a different way to run. Shoulders and hips both very wide. A strong gait with legs traveling in a straight line instead of an arc. Like running with each leg on either side of the line. Think of it like putting your toes on each side of the line.
This descreases the angles at the hip and ankle, releaves the strain on the IT Band, and straightens the ankle. This makes the stride much more sturdy and strong. Very important for trail running. You can also see that the arc on each stride is more straight. You don’t need to swing your leg out in order to get around your posted leg. This is a more effecient gait.
Running On Your Toes Down Hill
To simplify the foot strike I think about it in three types: heel strike, toe strike, and midfoot strike. I try and run a mid/front strike almost all the time. When I want to increase speed I move to a toe strike. When I want to put on the brakes, I move to a heel strike. That had seemed to work well, but it actually caused issues when going down hill.
I have always been a little cautious, especially down hill. This timidness caused me to want to put on the brakes down hill by using the heel strike. The issue is that I was cutting out most of my shock system with the heel strike.
Instead of feeling so catious I started thinking about hills like I did on my bike, a chance to get some speed and rest at the same time. I started lengthening my stride and using my toes going down hill. It felt like I was sprinting. It was an odd feeling because I wasn’t tired.
Moving to the toe strike downhill put my natural shock system back into place. That shock system is the ankle. A heel strike puts the impact right onto your leg and back. Moving that to the toe removes that impact from your leg and back and has helped remove the downhill issue on my IT Band.
Doing all of these together I have been able to sleep after a long run because my legs haven’t been screaming at me for days. I have been able to finish my runs and start training to move faster.