Last week I discussed the importance of core workouts for runners with a focus on crunches and similar supine (lying-down) movements. In this week’s post. This week I would like to expand on the importance of core work by talking about how a different set of core exercises can help to improve both strength and balance for running.
When trail running, uneven terrain is a given. Between the puddles, creeks, rocks and roots, you do a lot more jumping than when you go running in the road. A lot of seasoned road runners give the trails a try, find that they can’t take the spike in their heart rate at their first-ever trail race (that they mostly trained for in the road), and decide that trail running just isn’t for them and that they will never understand why anyone likes it at all.
(An in-depth explanation of why trail runners love the trails can be found here.)
Part of the problem is a lack of core strength. As competitive runners, we tend to prioritize a variety of running workouts but give short shrift to other workouts for the simple reason that they don’t involve running or a big-enough calorie burn. However, we put off strength training at our peril: runners with weak abs have less upper-body control and tend to flop around while running, leading to more wear-and-tear on the knees and ankles from torque and setting them up for injury.
Don’t be that runner. Even diehard road runners who aren’t interested in running a slower pace on trails, getting their shoes dirty, communing with trail-running wood nymphs or joining my vegan trail-runner drum circle (kidding!) will benefit from regular core work in terms of both running economy and balance.
Try doing these exercises at least once or twice a week to strengthen your core and improve your balance while running.
The trick with planks isn’t to do a lot of them; it’s to hold one for a long time and with good form. With planks, good form is when your entire body, from head to heels, forms a straight line. No letting your tummy sag or raise your booty too high, as both of these will take the work out of your abs. Form a straight line, clench the abs to maintain a straight line, and hold. That’s it. They’re harder than they look, though, so start by holding for 30 seconds and build over time to one minute (or two, if you want to be able to survive a typical Crossfit warm-up).
These are pretty self-explanatory, but there are several variations. The basic side plank involves lifting your body sideways, maintaining the same straight line as with a side plank, with either your forearm or your hand (as pictured here) on the floor.
Again, hold for 30 seconds if you’re a newbie. From there, you can either build to one minute or make it harder by lifting the top leg (see picture below) and engaging the abductor muscle to increase hip strength.
Standing bow (with Bosu)
One of the more challenging balance poses in an all-levels yoga class is standing bow, which involves standing on one leg as if to stretch the other quads, then leaning your upper body forward with the arm outstretched that is not holding on to your non-balancing leg.
Here, let me paint you a picture.
The point of this is to strengthen the thighs and the smaller muscles in your legs that don’t get as much attention but that improve your balance when you do take the time to strengthen them.
In brief, standing bow improves your stability. Just like with planks, it’s the holding that counts, so go into it slowly and carefully. When you’re ready to take it up a notch, try lifting the back leg so that it’s straight up in the air (I’m clearly not there yet) or use an unstable surface like a Bosu trainer (as I’m doing in the photo above).
One-legged squats (with Bosu)
Before going through physical therapy in the fall of 2008 as part of my recovery from runner’s knee, my physical therapist introduced me to a set of exercises that seemed like Hell on Earth at the time, the first of which was one-legged squats on a Bosu trainer. I hadn’t done any supervised strength training up to that point (just some occasional push-ups and crunches), and it was embarrassing to see just how little strength or balance I had when this exercise put my quads and core to the test.
Ten years later they’re still challenging, but I do them (not always on a Bosu).
If you’re not accustomed to squats, skip the Bosu trainer and do some regular squats with both feet on the ground before taking on squats as a stability exercise. If you’re ready to give these a try but aren’t used to unstable surfaces, just skip the Bosu and perform one-legged squats on the floor. As with any squat, make sure to lower down as if you are sitting down in a chair – that is to say, don’t let the knee doing the work jut forward of your toes, because that can damage the knee cartilage, doing more harm than good. And don’t bend to more than a 90-degree angle at the knee, because deeper knee bends are bad for the same reason.
With this exercise, less is more, so start by lowering down only by as much as you can raise back up on one leg.
Try all of these exercises once or twice a week for a month and then check back in on how difficult they still feel as well as how it feels when you run. Do you seem to be running faster with less effort? Do your knees and feet feel any better after longer runs? Do you feel like you’re ready to incorporate more strength and balance work into your routine or – dare I say it – give the trails another shot?
Let me know in the comments!