3 Tips to Improve Your Core Training
If you’ve been in the running world long enough, you’ve surely heard how important core training is for running efficiently and how it can help keep your injuries at bay. There isn’t a shortage of plank videos on YouTube geared towards helping runners, but the problem arises when runners think that by doing planks, they’re addressing all the core training necessary for running fast. Unfortunately, most runners believe that planking is the Holy Grail of core training, when actually; it is only a small piece in the core-training puzzle.
Words: Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP
Enter effective core training
In the fitness industry, the word core typically refers to everything but the limbs. This includes all the muscles that stabilise the spine (and yes, your 6-pack muscle too) and the muscles in your hips. The core muscles have several functions, but as a runner, think of your core muscles as a spine stabiliser, not as a flexor. Spine flexion occurs when you perform a sit-up or crunch and spine stabilization occurs when you perform a plank. And it doesn’t end there. By strategically choosing the most appropriate exercises, you can more effectively improve full body strength and core stability, which will help take down racing times, make you more resilient to getting injured and improve overall athleticism. These 3 tips will take your core training and full body strength to the next level.
1) Train with full body multi-joint movements
Deadlifts, squats, rows and single leg exercises among others, challenge the prime movers (think big muscles like the quadriceps and latissimus dorsi) to perform the exercise in question, but their effectiveness is a prime reflection on your ability to stabilise your trunk and your ability to move through the appropriate joints (shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and ankles). If you think about it, these multi-joint exercises can be viewed, as plank variations. Your ability to stabilise your trunk in what's called "neutral spine" (think not excessive lumbar curve) is the primary focus in a plank exercise, just as it is, in these multi joint exercises. Therefore, you're hitting two birds with one stone: you're improving the strength of your prime movers, while challenging core stability.
Exercise example: The Deadlift
This exercise works almost every muscle in your body. It’s terribly important for strengthening your gluteals, hamstrings and back muscles but also challenges your ability to create and maintain core stability.
Set up a barbell on the ground at mid-shin height. Stand behind the bar with your feet hip width apart. Bend your knees and hips and grab the bar just to the outside of your legs. Stick out your butt and draw your shoulder blades together. This will straighten your spine (think “neutral spine” as mentioned above) and slightly puff out your chest. Keep your weight primarily distributed from mid-foot to heel. Tighten your abdominals and back muscles to maintain your neutral spine position. Stand by simultaneously extending your knees and hips. Finish with the bar in front of your thighs while standing tall with your glutes squeezed. Carefully lower the bar in preparation for the next rep.
Perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with 2-minute breaks once a week.
2) Forget About Isolating Certain Muscles
When you run, your muscles work together as a system. Isolating certain muscles in your trunk and going for the proverbial burn
is not effective core training and has minimal athletic transference to running. Think about a runner who swivels their shoulders and hips while swinging their arms diagonally across their body. The function of the core when running is to stabilize the trunk and minimize this excessive movement. It’s not economical and a huge energy waster. So skip the crunches, sit-ups, oblique crunches, etc. and focus on training your core muscles as a unit.
Exercise example: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
This exercise will improve the strength of your legs and hips while challenging your core and pelvic stability (because you’re on one leg). Your hip muscles and their ability to stabilise your pelvis while creating powerful hip extension when running, play an important role in injury prevention. Weakness in this area has been linked to injuries in other areas of a runner’s body, such as the knee and hamstrings. The stronger your butt, the less likely you’ll get injured.
Stand a lunge length away from an exercise bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand like suitcases and reach one foot back and hook it on the edge of the bench. While keeping your balance, squat down, reaching your rear knee for the ground. Your front knee should approach 90-degrees. Runners tend to not squat deep enough on this exercise, so ensure you’re sitting as low as possible. Drive your front leg down to stand yourself back up.
Perform 2-3 sets performing 6-8 repetitions per side, once to twice a week.
3) Incorporate Asymmetrical Loading
Asymmetrical loading loads the body only on one side of the body. The offset load challenges the trunk muscles to maintain a strong stable spine throughout the duration of the exercise. This is what I like to refer to as “functional core training” because your trunk muscles have to react to the offset weight while carrying out the exercise of interest.
Exercise example: Renegade Row
This exercise is a combination of a front plank and a row. This is an advanced version of a plank in that you row a light dumbbell up toward your ribs while maintaining the flat body position required in a perfect front plank (just with your arms straight). This is core stability training at its finest as you must resist the urge to compensate when taking one point of contact off the ground.
Set up in the top of a pushup with your hands holding 2 dumbbells just beneath your shoulders. Set your feet to shoulder width apart and form a flat back with neutral spine. Brace your abdominals and squeeze your glutes. Without compensating, row one dumbbell upward, drawing your shoulder blade toward your spine. Keep your shoulder down while performing the row; don’t shrug. Squeeze your upper back muscles and remain braced throughout your trunk. Carefully lower the weight and alternate sides.
Perform 3 sets of 30-45-seconds, alternating sides, twice a week.
Planks are an excellent core exercise when performed correctly but are only a small piece of the puzzle. Incorporate full body multi joint exercises to not only improve your strength and provide variety in your training, but to also improve your core stability. Planks and their variations can also be performed, but don’t focus all your attention on them. Train smarter to optimise your gains, not harder.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP is a highly praised strength coach and freelance fitness writer, currently living in St. John’s, NL, Canada. Jon’s a retired distance runner who specialises in strength training runners. Check out more of his work at www.JKConditioning.com