Sports Medicine Program Gets Running Moms Back in Stride

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Madison, Wisconsin - A former college basketball player, Liz Hrodey took up running to keep fit after her hoops career ended.

"After I finished with basketball I wanted to stay in shape," she says. "I ran almost every day before I had kids. I really loved it."

With the arrival of A.J., her now 4-year-old son, and 3-year-old Allie, though, "everything changed."

Liz, a 35-year-old chemistry teacher at Sun Prairie High School, tried to get back into her running routine six weeks after Allie's birth, "but as soon as I started running," she says, "it was never right. My back, my hips…every time I ran, I didn't feel good."

It's a common occurrence for mothers returning to distance running, says UW Health Sports Medicine Runners Clinic director Bryan Heiderscheit, PT, PhD, whether the time elapsed between runs is six weeks or six months.

"The main concern is they may try to run the way they used to run," says Heiderscheit. "A normal running pattern prior to childbirth may be excessive when you're returning after pregnancy, especially if certain muscles are not being turned on in the proper manner. You're going to start to break down."

The Runners Clinic video evaluation system provides a biomechanical assessment of the runners's stride.

That translates to problems with the hips, knees and the hobbling lower-back trouble Liz experienced when she laced her running shoes back up. So what's a mom to do?

To smooth the return to running for women like Liz, the Runners Clinic is developing a two-pronged program in conjunction with the UW Health Spine Physical Therapy Clinic. The program identifies and strengthens muscles critical to running and assesses running form to correct flaws that may be causing undue pain. Patients also have access to ancillary services including sports medicine, physical therapy, nutrition and sport psychology, as necessary.

"We see patients at the Spine Physical Therapy Clinic with back pain, incontinence - all sorts of things - after childbirth," says Carrie Schwoerer, PT, a UW Health Research Park rehabilitation manager. "Bryan noticed in his lab that we may have some overlap. We wanted to find a way to have it more user-friendly for the patient and more of a streamlined product."

For Liz, it started with an appointment at the Spine Physical Therapy Clinic to address her back pain. She told her physical therapist she was struggling with her running, and the PT suggested she undergo gait analysis at Heiderscheit's Runners Clinic. But first she needed to get stronger, in a very specific way.

"There are four layers of abdominals," Schwoerer says. "They deepest ones tend to get turned off during pregnancy. We need to retrain women on how to use those deepest muscles so they're not overly dependent on muscles that aren't in good position to support the spine."

"Usually those muscles are totally ignored, because they're not the six-pack abs that everyone wants," jokes Liz. But they do support the spine and pelvis and thus are crucial to running, so Liz started a regimen of planks, lunges and balance exercises. "We worked very hard to get those muscles to activate."

Using the clinic's ultrasound imaging machine helped by providing visual confirmation that Liz was working the right muscles during these subtle exercises.

"The best thing was they gave me immediate feedback," she says. "I could see the muscles contracting and I knew what it felt like. Once they showed me what I should feel, I took off from there."

With her inner abdominals activated, Liz underwent evaluation of her running technique. Using the Runners Clinic video evaluation system, Liz learned she was overstriding, which was causing excess pressure on her spine.

"They shortened my gait and increased my cadence, so I could keep my speed and take a lot of pressure off my lower back," she says. "I run at the same speed without the pain."

Heiderscheit also sent Liz an audio file of her running cadence she could download to her iPod and listen to while she trained. 

"When I got my body into that rhythm, I increased my mileage faster than I thought I could," Liz says.

The program was so successful, Liz recently completed her first marathon, and says she suffered no injuries and experienced no pain during her entire training regimen.

"Every woman who wants to run after having a kid should do something like this, because it gets you back into your natural high," she says, alluding to the feeling of accomplishment and even liberation distance runners crave. Though every mother's primary attention is with her children, Liz insists, "you still have yourself as a person, too, and it made a big difference in terms of what I could do."

Date Published: 09/18/2012

News tag(s):  sports

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