This morning I had a long run planned. Well, things didn’t go exactly as planned. First, my running buddy was sidelined due to an injury and took the prudent measure to sit out the run rather than risk it getting worse (smart move, which many people often don’t make). Second, it was 18°F here in Portland, Oregon this morning. Granted, it’s been a cold and windy week here in the Pacific Northwest, but this was a new low for the chilled factor. I have all of the right gear and also utilized a video on layering from Jeff Browning who lives in a much colder part of Oregon; but, after four days of running in the bitter cold, I needed a break. All of my Montana heritage was spent this week, so I decided to focus on something different: core.
The dreaded core workout is one I (and I don’t think I’m alone here) too often skip. Honestly, I hate strength work of any kind. A few years ago, I tried to do P90X, just because I was in desperate need of an ass-kicker to get in shape. For me personally, extreme workouts like that are not enjoyable and, most importantly, not at all sustainable. I was feeling pretty good after a couple months, but every time I turned on the television and Blu-Ray player to start a P90X workout, my heart sank and I was in hell for the next 50-minutes. It’s been hard to shake those bad memories of strength training. When I got back into running and more cardio oriented activities, like cycling and soccer, I thought those days of strength grunting were in the rear view mirror.
Then I heard a common theme among many runners. I wanted to ignore it. I wanted to live in denial that if I just put more miles into my weekly mileage it would supplement the exercises they were describing. The more I pushed it away, the louder the words “Core work” seemed to echo in my earbuds, passing between the lips of nearly every trail running interview I heard. It wasn’t until I listened to an interview with Aaron Alexander of Optimal Movement on the No Meat Athlete podcast that I began to realize some benefits I could be missing out on. Aaron compares leg movement to a tether ball. I’m paraphrasing here, and I encourage you to click through and listen to yourself, but when you hit a tether ball on the playground you need the rope and the pole to which the ball is attached to remain taut. When you think about the mechanics of your legs efficiently moving, you don’t want a jiggly mid-section and droopy hips. That dynamic duo is what I struggled with for a very long time, and let me tell you, once I introduced about an hour of core a week, I noticed the difference. Not many trainers will tell you to get cut up like a body builder or P90X instructor if your primary goal is distance running. Think toning and tightening things up a little bit.
Personally, I’ve found a balance of about 30 minutes of dedicated core work a week, along with 30 minutes of basic yoga or stretching, go a long ways toward helping my entire body benefit from running. I’ve seen my mile-per-minute times climb in the last few months. Not to say speed should be the primary goal, but it’s nice when you realize you are moving a bit faster and feeling a little lighter out on the trail or road.
Here’s a few basic core I’ve found work for me. As I mentioned, I also incorporate yoga, but that warrants an entirely separate post. Notice you won’t find any crunches or modified sit-ups. Why? Because I hate them and they only hurt my back and make me want to skip core work. Remember, ultimately you are your own boss, and if there is a core exercise you absolutely loathe, it’s probably best to skip it, as there are plenty out there that will still allow you variety in your workout. If you love crunches, more power to you, but you won’t find them on this list.
Try to dedicate two days a week where you do a 15-minute circuit of these exercises. I try to do one on a slow or shorter mileage day and the other on a rest day. If you have any conditions or past injuries, consult your doctor or certified specialist before attempting any of these. These might hurt a bit at first, but they should not be excruciating, and if they are, stop and consult a certified trainer or physician who can tailor exercises that may work better with your body. Remember, this is what works for me, and we are all different, so if it doesn’t work for you, don’t get discouraged. Think of these as suggestions, not guidelines.
Pretty simple, but you’ll be surprised how much these will burn. Lay flat on your back, raise both legs a few inches off the ground, than alternate raising one leg a few inches higher while keeping the other stationary. If you are just starting out, it’s fine to leave your legs on the floor and alternate that way. Again, this looks simple, but it’s an ass-kicker. Focus on range of motion and core engagement, not speed. You will most certainly feel this in your abdominal and mid-section.
This is a good move to throw in between more intense reps. Get your back as straight as you can. Push yourself off the floor, using your hands and your toes. Straighten out again and then come down on your elbows, straightening your back again and holding yourself up by your forearms and toes (as pictured above). You should feel this all over your thighs and mid-section. It’s a great one to catch your breath with, but still gives you a bit of kick.
This is another burner. Sit up with your knees bent and clasp your hands together, so that they form kind of a fist or ball. When ready to start, lift your feet off the ground and then gently twist from left to right, engaging your hips, and lightly touching the floor on each side of you. Try to keep your feet up and take this exercise very slow at first. Focus on form and don’t EVER worry about speed. This is an ass kicker and is supposed to hurt, so take it slow and try to last the full 30 seconds. There’s a YouTube video of Kobe Bryant doing this insanely fast, but just remember, you’re not Kobe Bryant.
This is another good respite from the more intense reps. Lay on your side and then push up on whichever elbow is on the floor. Try to keep your hips as straight as you can. Put rest your other arm on whichever hip is facing the ceiling. Hold for 15 seconds on each side. You might not be completely straight your first few tries, but you’ll get there.
Lay flat on your back, with your arms laying flat, palms to the floor, running lengthwise down your body. Slowly lift your legs and point them towards the ceiling, then gently, lift your butt off the ground and back down, lowering your legs slowly back to the ground. Repeat. It’s easy to bounce and rush this motion, but try to do this as smooth as you can. Remember, this is not a race, and the slower you go and the more you focus on form, the easier these exercises become over time.
Windshield Wipers (variation Bent Knee Twist)
This is another easier one. Lay flat on your back and raise your legs in the air. Slowly, move them from one side of your body to the other, just as a windshield wiper would. Engage the hips. For a variation, bend your knees, but keep the motion the same.
I usually end my 15 minute core session with this exercise, as well as sprinkle it between the more difficult ones. Simply lay flat on your back, put your legs together, and lift them to a 45 degree angle slowly, then bring them back down. Repeat.
That’s it. Again, take all of these slow and easy in the beginning. These should enhance your running, not hinder it, so if these are causing you a great deal of stress or pain, don’t do them. You are your own best coach. Good luck and hopefully I’ll have a yoga and stretching post up in the weeks to come that also aides in recovery from your running and core exercises.