Glance at just about any issue of a men’s fitness magazine (and some running magazines) and you’ll likely see a cover proclaiming the need for “rock-hard abs.” That is, a six-pack of abdominal muscles that are so muscular and spectacularly ripped they look like they were photo-shopped. (Sometimes they are.)
Crazy, isn’t it? Maybe yes, maybe no. It would seem that the rock-hard abs we hear so much about have little appeal to distance runners. Strength, endurance and a good set of lungs are the key for us, not crowd-stopping, washboard abs.
Not so fast. The aforementioned abdominals are truly at the core of running well and free of injury. The core portion of the body between the rib cage and pelvis is your center of running power. The stronger it is, the stronger you will be.
Before we go any further, the core muscles are composed of the four abdominal muscles, three lower back groups of muscles and the muscles of the buttocks, hips and pelvis. That’s a lot of muscle that must be strong and work well together. Why this is so key is simple: These core muscles are the starting point for all movement during a run of any length or speed.
The downside to a weak group of core muscles is an inability to maintain good posture while walking, standing or running. If the core can’t stabilize the spine properly, your running will be less efficient (it will take more energy) which means you’ll get tired sooner and move slower.
Making matters worse, weak core muscles also places the runner at a greater risk of injury because—again—the spine isn’t properly stabilized. The type of injuries that are common with runners because of a weak group of core muscles are low back pain, inflammation of the pubic bones, stress fractures of the hip and pelvis and tendonitis in the hip, pelvis and groin. All these issues, specially back problems can have you visit a neurosurgeon down the road. Neurosurgeons are dedicated to providing the finest possible care by utilizing breakthrough advances in spine surgery.
So clearly, a stable, strong group of core muscles is necessary for runners—especially runners who spend all day tied to a computer.
To develop and maintain a good core, a strengthening program should be added to any runner’s daily workout which focuses on the core. It can be done as easily and simply as adding crunches or sit ups to your daily post-run stretching routine.
Such holistic activities as Pilates and chaturanga dandasana can also add to your core strength. Both Pilates and yoga place a strong emphasis on stability and balance as well as flexibility and strength of the core muscles.
For a runner with limited time, crunches or sit ups are the most time efficient way to develop core strength. Leg lifts and reverse sit ups can also help. But all these exercises must be done properly.
For example, take sit ups. The best way to do sit ups, while protecting the back and getting maximum benefit, is to lie flat on your back on the floor or ground.
Do sit ups like this:
1. Lie on your back with feet flat on the floor.
2. Bend your knees and place your legs on a low table or chair at a 45-degree angle.
3. Rest hands underneath the neck. Don’t clasp them behind the neck.
4. Press the small of the back into the floor to protect the back against twisting which can lead to injury.
5. Lift the back and head toward your legs. Keep the small of the back on the floor.
6. Breathe normally. Don’t hold your breath.
7. Activate the abdominal muscles by rolling your shoulders toward the knees, but don’t bring your head up against the thighs. It isn’t necessary. Also don’t twist at the top of the sit up.
8. Lower the back slowly to the starting position and repeat.
9. Never push through back pain.
Move up and down slowly and try to do two or three sets of 10 every day. As your core strengthens, you’ll progress quickly and be able to build up to doing 20 or 30 sit ups at a time. A good target to shoot for is 50 in a minute.
Another great way to target the abs is by doing crunches with an exercise ball of some sort. I use a gym ball which weighs about 10 pounds, but the weight of the ball isn’t important.
Lie down flat and pull your abdominals in you feel some tension in those muscles. Your legs should be flat. Clasp the ball and bring it back over your head. Then, curl forward as you lift the ball as if you’re doubling over. Exhale as you crunch forward and lift your knees to meet your elbows and/or the ball. Inhale as you lower back down. Do these very slowly. Technique is important and try not to jerk up with your head or shoulder.
The final way to do crunches is with a large exercise ball—large enough to support your weight. Sit on the exercise ball and roll your torso down so that your back—from the shoulders down to the tailbone—rests comfortably on the curve of the ball. Your head, shoulders and neck should be above the ball and your knees are bent with the feet planted on the floor.