Every runner at some point or another has been told that they need to improve their core strength. Improving your core will decrease your chance of getting injured, improve your running mechanics and...
Every runner at some point or another has been told that they need to improve their core strength. Improving your core will decrease your chance of getting injured, improve your running mechanics and lead to an increase in overall performance. If you can train harder and not get hurt then it is a big win. Having consistency in your running routine is one of the most important factors when you are chasing new personal bests. Do your core routine so you can have uninterrupted training. This all seems to make perfect sense. So why do so many of us still get injured?
If I had to guess, I would bet that you are doing your core strength on a consistent basis. Of course you do! You are a distance runner and we all know that core strength is probably the only work in the gym that distance runners actually like to do. However, if your routine hasn’t changed since you first learned it then I am sorry to bring you the bad news that it isn’t working like you think it is. Core work, like all other training that we do, needs to be dynamic. It needs to move through various levels of difficulty from the most simple to the most complex and back again. I know that having that six pack of abs shows the world that you are hitting the gym, but unfortunately it doesn’t do a whole lot more than that. So let’s take some time here to go back to the beginning and learn how to build a foundation that will set the core up to do all that it promises.
Before we begin our journey to getting a better core routine we first need to know what muscle groups we are actually dealing with and how they all work. When I first started running as a kid I was told that I needed to do my sit ups if I wanted to be fit. If I could do 60 sit ups in a minute then I passed the test and all was right in the world, and I even got a Presidential Physical Fitness badge to prove it. Unfortunately this classic exercise only develops about 10% of our total core strength capacity. Why? This is because a traditional sit up only works the rectus abdominis and possibly the hip flexors depending on how you do it. Also, it only works those muscles in a way that creates flexion in the spine and not much else. When we look at all the possible ways we can move our core it is so much more than just that simple exercise. We can flex, extend, adduct, abduct, rotate to the left & right and then combine flexion & extension with both of those rotations. We can even do isometric holds for all of these directions as well. There are probably even a few more combinations that I can come up with if I think about it, but you get the point. The core is complex and just doing a few of these and a few of those while you lie on your back isn’t going to get the job done.
So where do we begin? There are a few different ways to start, but before we do let us see what we know how to do first. This is when doing a muscle activation circuit comes into play. The goal is to wake up all of the muscles in the upper legs, hips, abs, back and obliques one group at a time. The exercises are simple and only require your own body weight for resistance. The main point is to get the brain connected to the body via the nervous system. Below is one of the circuits we do as a basic warm up routine early on in the season and when coming off of a break from running and strength training. Start with 10-15 reps per exercise and do this 2-3x per week.
Single Leg Straight Leg Raises (supine position)
Alternating Straight Leg Raises (supine position)
Double Leg Straight Leg Raises (supine position)
Side Lying Straight Leg Raises (abduction & adduction)
Supermans & Alternating Supermans (prone position)
Fire Hydrants (kneeling position)
Bent Leg Hip Thrusts (supine position)
Straight Leg Hip Thrusts (supine position)
Once you are comfortable with knowing how to activate each muscle group to do the various exercises then you can move on to test the endurance of your core strength. This is where your typical Plank Isometric Hold routine comes into play. The goal for planks is to be able to hold each position for 30-40 seconds without deviating from the initial set up. If you are wobbling all over the place then try to do them as reps of 10 sec holds until you can manage the full time without any problems. What planks aren’t about is doing them to failure or just for minutes on end. If you can do an isometric hold in each position (prone, supine, medial & lateral) then it is time to move on.
Next up from the planks is what we call The Bunkie Test. What makes a Bunkie different than a traditional plank is that they are done with only one leg for support as opposed to two. This is important for runners since when we run we are always balancing on one foot at a time. We need to have a core that can coordinate its movements to this ever changing need for stability in a split second and do it over and over again. Completing the Bunkie Test will give us an understanding of what is happening with everything from the shoulders down through the torso, hips and on to the supporting leg. Just like with the Planks the Bunkies are more of a precursor routine to prepare our bodies for the more complex core moves than they are an actual staple exercise in the program.
So far, all of the above exercises are performed while you are lying on the ground. This is important as a starting point since gravity makes balance and stability quite challenging, but at some point we need to get up onto our feet. This is why we need progressions for our strength routines. We start with the most basic and move on to more complex ones as we become proficient with each exercise. Once we are ready to stand up we can start to incorporate exercises and that both fight gravity and challenge our balance. This is where rotational core training comes into play. Exercises like med ball throws, med ball catch & throws, wood chops and many others all focus on keeping the body upright and stable while dealing with forces that cause us to twist and return back to neutral. These are very important movements to have sorted out as this is where the muscles of our back, abs and obliques really come into play. Teaching these various muscle groups of the core to work together is what will allow us to run efficiently and with the least amount of stress on our bodies.
When starting any standing core routine, the first place to start is with a double leg stance with your feet placed shoulder width apart. Advances will then go to using narrower and wider stances, standing on wobble boards or air pads, then on to split leg stances with one in front and one behind and then finally to the most relative - the single leg stance. The options you have for exercise choices are quite numerous. By engaging in a multidirectional approach to core stability you will never be bored with your routine and always facing a new challenge.
One final reminder before you get started. Many people make mistakes with their core training regimen by having their head in the wrong position. Often we find ourselves looking down at the muscles we are trying to work as opposed to keeping our head in alignment with the shoulders and hips while the eyes should be looking straight ahead. When our heads & eyes are looking down it inhibits our ability to improve the proprioceptive skills that are needed when moving in any direction. Instead try not to look down and use this time to develop your feel for the muscles that you are targeting as opposed to trying to identify them visually. This will help once you hit the road for your next run. Looking down at the ground right in front of you is not what you want to be doing when you run. Not only will it shorten your stride length and slow you down, but it can actually lead to unwanted injuries. Keep your head level and your eyes looking where you want to go, not where you already are.
Improving your core stability takes repetitions, but it shouldn’t take a lot of time. Getting in as little as 20 minutes per session 2-3x a week will do wonders. Be consistent and find the time each week to get it in. It will save you a lot more time then when having to deal with an injury and also make your running that much more enjoyable.