Core work is all the rage these days. Core this, core that. “You gotta strengthen your core!” And if you do core work, you can pretty much ignore other strength exercises that focus more on arms and legs, right?
(Well, no, you really shouldn’t, as I’ve mentioned here and here. And if after reading those posts you recognize just how much you do need a total-body strength training routine in your life, head on over here for more on how I strength train most of the time.)
That all said, core strengthening exercises are important, for runners and all other humans, for the following reasons:
- All body movements originate in the spine! (A more in-depth scientific explanation can be found here.)
- A strong core results in a more stable gait with fewer excessive movements. (More on that here.) Excessive movements (like wild flapping of arms and swaying of the upper body) tire you out, detract from your running economy and set you up for potential injuries.
- A strong core makes it easier to negotiate uneven terrain on trails, gnarly roadways and construction zones (if you’re a run-anywhere kind of person like me), puddles and standing water that you sometimes encounter while running in the road, etc.
Core strengthening and different types of core work can be discussed until the cows come home or until the first human completes (possibly with assistance from an aircraft carrier or other large watercraft) the first-ever trip around the globe on foot. There are endless ways to strengthen your core and improve your running form and economy (some of which I’ll talk about in future posts), so in today’s post – the second in a four-part series on strength training for runners (check out the first post here) – I’m going to focus on the cornerstone of any good core workout – ab crunches.
Crunchity, crunch crunch crunch
To be clear, there’s more to your core than just your abs. It’s kinda like the difference between a square and a rectangle: abs are definitely included, but “core” also includes your back and pretty much all of your midsection. The chest and arms are close neighbors and also play a vital role in functional movements that play into good running form. We tend to focus on abs, I think, because they’re so central even within the core. And perhaps also because abs and core in general are perceived as more gender-neutral than exercises to strengthen arms and legs? Just speculating on that. Anyway…
If you’ve ever done sit-ups or crunches, then there’s no need to explain the benefits. When you first start doing them, you definitely feel the burn (i.e. your body saying you should do them more often). It might even feel like the front side of your body has been pulled taut – because it just might have been, what with the muscles shortening as they get stronger. Keep them up, and you’ll have a six-pack. Easy!
Well…sort-of. The key is to make a point of doing them.
So give these crunches a try – before or after a run (or even during, if you like to break up the miles or have a more challenging run with other exercises in the middle) and/or on your days off from running. In combination with a low-fat, whole-foods plant-based diet, you’ll have a six-pack and be running faster and with less effort in no time!
Because we’ve all got to start somewhere…
If you’re not in the habit of working your abs, start here. Try doing 30-50 crunches as shown in the first 30 seconds of this video (I prefer arms folded across the chest, but several options are shown), which is to say you don’t have to do a full sit-up. Over time, work your way up to 100 crunches a couple of times a week. Perhaps do these as a “reward” for completing 20 push-ups or a two-minute high plank?
The first time I ever did these was in a power yoga class – taught by an otherwise very petite woman who was 8 months pregnant at the time. (This was also the only time I ever saw a pregnant woman rock a chaturanga dandasana.)
Start by lying on the floor (yoga mat, grass, whatever) with your legs raised straight up (so your body forms a 90-degree angle) and soles of the feet parallel to the ground. Lower the left leg until it hovers a few inches above the ground, place your hands at either side of your head (or clasp the crown; just don’t grab your neck) and lift up into a crunch position. Do 10-15 of these with the left leg hovering above the ground and the right leg straight up in the air, then lie back down and raise the left leg back up to meet the right. Pause, then lower the right leg until it hovers a few inches above the ground, and do another 10-15 crunches. Lie back down, raise the right leg to meet the left, then lower both legs to the ground however you like. Now…breathe!
These are like the basic crunches, only fast. When you do these, hold your arms out straight on each side above the thighs, just like in the video, hovering a few inches above the floor. Now, crunch up fast and often, leaving your arms where they are the whole time (they might help to “lead” you forward off the ground or keep your balance during the fast movement). Try for 50 of these, keeping in mind that these are basic crunches and you have momentum doing some of the work for you. You’re gonna feel the burn, but think to yourself…”six pack!”
To do an oblique twist, start on your back with your knees bent like you’re going to do a basic crunch but then turn your upper body to one side as you lift up. Lower down and then repeat, turning to the opposite side. That’s it!
Try doing about 10 of these on each side to start. After a while, build to 2 sets of 10 with a 30-60 second rest in the middle.
A good core workout such as I’ve described here is one of infinitely many forms of cross-training that runners can use to improve their form and, ultimately, speed and race results. Just remember: increased strength equals better endurance.
So congrats on taking the first steps toward having rock-solid abs and better running form than ever!
Give this workout a try and then let me know how it went in the comments!