Core of the matter
As runners, it's very easy to fall into the trap of purely focusing on training our legs and cardiovascular system to improve our running. You want to be a better runner? Then get out there and practise running. Sound logic on the surface and - to a certain degree - that simple philosophy does hold true.
But if it's real improvement you want, then you have to take a much broader perspective. After all, the whole body runs - not just the legs. In recent years 'core strength' has become the buzz term of endurance running. It refers to the training of the stomach, back and pelvic areas at the core (or trunk) of the human body.
For elite runners, core strength training has become an essential element of their weekly regime. Where they lead, we must follow, even if our aspirations are more humble. Quite simply, the benefits of this type of training are just too good for a runner of any level to ignore.
Working on the core will give you an improved posture, boost your running efficiency and increase your stability and balance. As a consequence of your bodily upgrade, you will be able to run faster, run for longer, be better equipped for off-road terrain and lower your risk of injury.
Think of your body as a football team. The legs are the star strikers that grab all the glory, but without those dogged defenders and creative midfielders around the hips, back and tummy, the legs are less likely to reach their goal come the big day.
So, here comes the science bit - concentrate! The core consists of around 30 muscles. The key groups are:
- Transversus Abdominals
- Rectus Abdominals
- Spinae Erector
- Hip Flexors
The Transversus Abs are the layer of horizontal fibres stretching from the side of the body to the front. They act as an internal belt and provide stability.
Their more glamorous cousins are the Rectus Abs or six-pack, as they are more affectionately known. They form the vertical wall at the lower end of the torso. Well developed Rectus Abs will not only gain you some admiring glances on the beach, but play a key role in improving your running. Their prime role is for the flexing and curling of the core.
The Spinae Erector consists of two thick columns of muscle that run either side of the grooves beside the spine. They enable movement of the spine and neck, providing support for one of the most critical parts of the skeleton.
The Obliques have the task of helping the mid-section twist and rotate, something the body does with every running stride.
Finally, the Hip Flexors connect the lower back to the pelvis and upper thigh. Their role is to stabilise and pull the thigh and knee up for each stride.
So, now the introductions are over, let's really build a relationship with our new muscular running buddies and see how we can work together to get to that finish line quicker. Here are some useful exercises to set you off.
Looks easy, but really requires a solid bit of effort for the benefits to come. This simple exercise can strengthen just about the whole body. Lie down on your front nice and flat. Push up on your forearms and toes, keep your forearms on the ground and your elbows directly below your shoulders. Clasp your hands in the middle as if praying, form a perfect straight line from your head through your back, right down your legs and hold. Don't allow your hips to sag. Hold for 30-90 seconds. It's good to have your smartphone on and directly below your eyeline, that way you can listen to a tune and keep an eye on the seconds counting down. Take a 30 second break and repeat for up to three reps.
A similar exercise to the Plank, but on your side. Again, push up using your right forearm, with your left arm on your side. Get the head, back and legs perfectly in line and hold. Again 30-90 seconds is sufficient. Depending on how comfortable you are. The last 10 seconds should be a struggle, but no more. If you are struggling for much longer, you are over-doing it. If you are not struggling, you are under-doing it. Take a 30 second break and repeat for up to three reps. Switch sides using the left arm to push up and repeat.
Lie on your back with your hands behind your ears and your legs stretched out on the floor in front of you. Lift your shoulder blades. Try not to tuck your chin into your chest, you might strain your neck. Try to imagine you are trying to grip an apple in between your chin and chest. Bend your right knee up towards your chest and touch that knee with your left elbow. Repeat with left knee and right elbow. Continue with exercise as it resembles a cycling movement. Pick a number of repetitions which means the last two or three are a struggle. No more, no less.
Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and knees bent at a 90-degree angle, legs lifted off the floor. Again, keep that imaginary apple wedged between your chin and chest. Lift your head and shoulders up off the floor as you crunch your legs in towards your nose, lifting your bum off the ground as well. As above, choose a number which make the last two or three difficult.
A good time to perform these exercises is rest days and just two or three times a week will make a big difference. The beauty is that you don't need any equipment for these exercises, they can be performed easily at home or in the park and you are done and dusted within 20-30 minutes.
In all likelihood, the above exercises will not give you the same buzz that a heart-pumping run will. The buzz comes down the line, when you are slashing seconds and minutes off your best times. Most importantly of all, they will help you get to more start lines and more finish lines in one piece.