Saturday, June 29, 2013

Core exercises, planks and running

Admit it, runners, you hate most exercises that do not actually involve running. When you have to choose between running and every other type of movement, you usually let running win. Stretching, maybe you do a little bit, an afterthought -- more precaution than preoccupation. And yoga? You're either intimidated or couldn't be bothered to find the time.

(I fully realize many among you are well rounded athletes -- yes, you are better people than the rest of us. Let us wallow in your awesomeness!)

Hard cores. Working on mine. (Photo: Island Vittles/Flickr)

I fit neatly into the category of exclusive runner for years, easy. Most of my running career has been focused on pure running. I reasoned that if I were to pour six to eight hours a week in training, might as well hit the roads than to 'waste' time on other activities. I know now I'm pretty pig headed in that approach, so I've decided to fix it as I ramp up the training this summer.

Don't get me wrong, in those early years, I got relatively fast -- even qualified for Boston -- based on quality training. Back in 2008 and 2009, when I was doing that training, I was incorporating more strength training on the side.

The conventional (and tested) wisdom was that if you are extremely limited for time, and you want to run fast, you can't ignore that actually running -- fast, hard, long, with recovery -- is your ticket to faster marathon times.

True, but to a point. All the running experts agree that a strong core, flexibility and strength training can extend your performance, and I agree.

Problem is how can you get that extra exercises without adding hours and hours to your weekly training schedule. I've seen countless two-page spreads in Runner's World, or entire sections of my various training books. So complicated.

A strong core -- which includes strengthening your abdominals, hip, lower back and butt -- can go a long way to fix a lot of imbalances as your core is the trunk that your motors (legs) rely on as you push on as an endurance athlete.

Core training, write Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas in Advanced Marathoning, "can eliminate .. imbalances, thereby preventing injuries and reducing the degree to which your form deteriorates as you fatigue during the marathon." Weak abs, they say, allow the pelvis to rotate forward, more stretch on hamstrings which decreases stride length. It may not hit you in a short race, but over a marathon, weak form and imbalances can cause your body to start to break down.

Flexibility is also something our overworked and tight muscles need. If you've ever had a tight calf that you just had to stretch out midrun, you identify. A smart routine of pre- or post-running stretches can go a long way.

And weight training can help strengten other parts of your body -- for example, think of your upper body muscles and what role they have when you're striding out, think about your arms pumping with your every stride.

So my summer training makeover, here how I've finally incorporated this into my daily training

Set aside 15-30 minutes after every run, before you hit the shower. Most exercises don't need gym equipment. A yoga mat is helpful but you can use a big towel and a pair of dumbbells are great for upper body workouts.

Planks: So many variations are available, and they're freaking hard if you have a weak core. Simply just holding a forearm plank for more than a minute is a challenge to beginners. Keeping form and adding leg lifts and side planks can feel as hard as a few tempo kilometres, believe me i've sweat holding a forearm plank. And if you need some impetus, try doing a plank every day. See video below

I like this video below, shows some of the easy to remember planks that will go a long way to getting your core strong.

Planks can be more interesting than this. Flickr/Zolk

Crunches: There are various types. I find the ones that work the abs without straining your back or neck (like traditional situps) are easier to do and better for multiple reps.

Stretch poses: Yes, some yoga poses (warrior, downward dog) are very helpful. Yes, I can't believe I'm doing them.

Work with weights: With a pair of dumbbells, you can incorporate some upper body work.

I've been at it for awhile now, and I'm feeling the stability, especially during more challenging runs like tempo or pace efforts I've done recently.

NEXT: Shaking it up and eating more like an athlete.

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