Thursday, May 29, 2014

Core Strengthening - A key to better trail running.

I am sure everyone knows strength training is an important addition to every runners training regimen.  It is especially important to trail runners and absolutely critical for ultrarunners.  Just about anyone can go out and run a flat 5K or 10K without your “core” giving out.  I have written articles on how you can run an ultra if you only run three times a week and do no other training.  This is true, you can, and I have done just that for years.  The key word here is “Can.” You will not do your best and your runs will be more difficult, but it can be done.

I am running a race this summer with over 33,000 feet of elevation gain.  I have resolved to start strength training, specifically leg and core strengthening.  There is little or no chance I could complete the race if I don’t.  I joined the new Lifetime Fitness facility literally 1000 yards from my house (2 miles by road) and started training just before Christmas.  I have worked out two or three times each week up until last week when I took it easy while tapering for the Mountain Mist 50K on January 25.  I was amazed at how much stronger my legs felt and how much stronger I ran after only three weeks of working out.  The run felt much better than in any ultra I have run recently.  I did have a major problem with cramps the last 10 miles but that was because I was just not drinking enough and became dehydrated.

You may be wondering why core strength is so important to a runner.    Here is a quote from Ultrarunning Magazine.  “Your core muscles function to support the hips and spine in correct alignment from front to back, side to side, and up and down. Trunk muscle groups include hips abductors, adductors, and flexors; gluteals, various abdominals, the psoas, pectoralis, and lower and upper back muscles. The core groups have key roles in a fluid running stride. They stabilize the center of your body, allowing for efficient generation of force by the legs, arms, and torso. They also provide balance so you can maintain your center of gravity (located just behind and below your belly button) when running on uneven or hilly terrain. With strong core muscles, your spine is kept in a neutral position (s-shaped), lowering pressure on discs in the back and even helping to relieve back pain if you have had that problem in the past.”  Yes, maintaining a good posture while running really is important in all forms of distance running.  Your running is more relaxed and more efficient thus using less energy per hour of running.  The longer the run the more important this all becomes especially when you consider an average 50K takes most runners 5 to 7 hours to complete.  The average 100 mile race takes 25 to as much as 48 hours to complete.  Your core had better be strong for that!

Fatigue during those long runs will usually results in poor form.  It is not just your legs that go; it’s also your arms, shoulders, hips and back.  I can’t tell you how many times I have returned to the car after a long run and barely had enough strength to remove my hydration pack.  Having a strong core will make you a better runner no matter what you run.  One downside of trail running is falling.  If your core is strong you also have a better chance to regain your balance when you stumble and avoid a fall.  Another benefit of a strong core combined with strong legs, especially the quads, is having the ability to “power up hills” like the Yellow/White Connector at Oak Mountain.  A strong core forms the platform from which your arms and legs work to help you run more efficiently.

So how do you strengthen your core?  One of the simplest and core exercises is a sit-up.  Another is the “back extension” or, as I refer to it, a reverse sit-up.   Here is how Shawn McDonald, who wrote the Ultrarunning article mentioned above, recommends that you strengthen your core muscles.  He suggests 2 or 3 core workouts a week, each lasting 20 to 30 minutes.  “The core work can be combined with a short, easy run or short bout of aerobic cross-training, either of which should be performed before the core exercises to act as a warm-up. Then you should stretch your back, trunk, and limbs for about ten minutes prior to the start of the core work. Be sure to perform the core exercises with proper form, in a controlled manner and cadence. Finish the core workout with about ten minutes of additional stretching as a cool down.”
Here is the workout routine suggested by Shawn.

Below are examples of a “Plank” - “Back Plank” - “crunch” and “Side Bridge”


Back Plank


Side Bridge
According to, sprints are one of the best core workouts for runners.  They recommend 100 meter intervals.  For distance runners, 200 meters is great.  I rarely run intervals these days but this the best way I know of to improve speed at any distance.  A very effective way to run 200 meter sprints is go to your local track and pick a logical starting point.  I always like to start at the end of the straightaway.  Sprint as hard as you can for 200 meters then slow to an easy jog.  Continue jogging to your start point and sprint another 200 meters.  Continue sprinting and jogging until you have completed 10 sprints.  After the last sprint continue running as an easy pace for another mile or so to cool down.  Ten sprints is a tough workout and if you really run as hard as you can for ten 200 meter sprints and the next day every muscle in the upper half of your body isn’t sore I will buy you a cup of Coffee*.  (For anyone that regularly runs intervals this offer is not valid.)