How To Strengthen Your Core To Improve Your Running Performance and Avoid Injury

lungewithtwist

 

 

 

 

Hello Runners,

I can distinctly remember my chipper and well-intended (although at times not seeming that way) physical therapist, Laura, leading our group of 5-8 every Wednesday evening. “Remember to come up one vertebra at a time, great job!” she would instruct and encourage us as we would inevitably, at some point during our Pilates workout, perform, or attempt to perform, a roll up. Some of my classmates would perform this exercise with somewhat relative ease. That was not the case for me. I could raise up to a certain point, the sticking point I seemed to encounter each week, and then “cheat” as I had to use other muscles to get past my sticking point. It was my weak core that was holding me back. The reality that my core was weak, was why I willingly tortured myself each week for several months. The rest of the each week’s Pilates class did get much better for me.

How could this be? Not many years ago my brother and I would religiously spend 2-3 hours at the gym, pushing each other through our brutal muscle-building routines. We performed plenty of weighted crunches, back extensions, and knee lifts. I’d had a decent “six pack.” How was my core so weak now?

This neglect of properly strengthening the muscles of the core that really mattered was the reason I landed in a physical therapy (PT) clinic. Earlier in the year I’d qualified and registered for the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, I would not be running it this time. Instead, I’d developed a painful and frustrating injury that would keep me from running for nine months.

I’d gone to another PT clinic, but opted for Laura’s torture, instead of the “quick fix” injections in my feet. I need to address the root cause of my injury and not just put a bandaid on the symptoms. So for months I would subject myself to two PT sessions with Laura (sometimes her co-torturer Wendy (another physical therapist) would gang up on me as well) to put me through a series of exercises to address my muscle weaknesses/imbalances and flexibility issues, using various setups and devices, including a Pilates reformer. Pure hell at times.

But over time it began to work and I was able to run again. Most importantly it made me aware that I needed to change my training to stay injury free and be successful in running. I am forever grateful to both Laura and Wendy.

Over the past few weeks I have provided recommendations for strengthening the glutes, outer hips, and muscles that support function of the ankle. Technically, these would all be considered core muscles. However, in this post I will focus on strengthening of muscles that many consider the “core,” specifically those muscles that support the pelvis, sacrum, and spine.

Muscles of the “Core”

We hear the term “core” a lot and we hear that it’s important to have a strong core. For our purposes in this post, I am going to discuss the “core” as being those muscles that support the pelvis, spine, and sacrum. Although most of us are familiar with muscles such as the rectus abdominus and erector spinae that get targeted when we use abdominal and lower back machines at the gym, these are more superficial muscles and the muscles that we want to primarily target are the deeper stabilizer muscles, such as the transverse abdominus and internal obliques. Our primary focus is not to have a nice “six pack”, such as if we focus on strengthening the rectus abdominus with crunches and abdominal weight machines. Instead, we want to focus on contracting the muscles that support our pelvis, sacrum and spine for longer periods of time with primarily our body weight.

What Exercises Should We Do?

So, what exercises will be most effective? Should we do a bunch of crunches or sit ups and back extensions? The answer is no. In fact, these exercises can be detrimental because they involve flexion of the spine.

Instead, here are some recommended exercises that should be performed at least three days per week, I typically perform these 5-6 days per week:

Prone plank

  • Position yourself as you would for a standard pushup
  • Raise to the top position and hold for 15-60 seconds, or until fatigue, while breathing normally
  • To increase the difficulty of this exercise rest on your forearms, instead of your hands, and position your arms so that you can interlace your fingers
  • While performing this exercise make sure not to round your lower back or allow it to sag

Side Plank

  • Position yourself so that you are lying on one side of your body
  • Now raise up by resting on the forearm of the side that you are lying on
  • Keep the other arm next to the body and keep the legs and the rest of the body straight. While breathing normally hold in this position for 15-60 seconds, or until fatigue
  • To increase the difficulty of this exercise extend the top arm so the fingers are pointing upward
  • Repeat on the other side

Supine plank

  • Position yourself so that you are supine (resting on your back) on the ground
  • Now raise up on your forearm and elbows, keeping the rest of your body straight
  • Try to keep your neck relaxed
  • While breathing normally, hold this position for 10-40 seconds, or until fatigue

supineplank

 

 

 

 

Reverse table

A variation of supine plank is the reverse table yoga pose. I interchange these exercises and you might consider doing the same.

  • From the side plank position with your left arm extended overhead, rotate 90 degrees to the left, and drop your left hand to the floor underneath you
  • Your two hands are now positioned palms down directly underneath your shoulders with the fingers pointing towards your feet, and your belly is open to the ceiling
  • Bend your knees 90 degrees, and position your feet flat on the floor directly underneath your knees
  • Draw your hips upward so that your body forms a straight line parallel to the floor from the knees to the shoulders
  • Hold your head in the position that is most comfortable
  • Concentrate on keeping your hips high as you hold this position
  • Breathe normally and hold until the pose becomes too uncomfortable to maintain

reversetablepose

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quadruped

  • Position yourself so that you are on all fours (on hands and knees in table top position), with the hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips
  • Keep the back straight
  • Raise one arm and the opposite leg, extending the arm straight out in front and the leg straight out behind until both are parallel with the ground
  • Keep the head and neck in neutral (normal) alignment
  • Exhale while lifting arm and opposite leg, and pause briefly when the arm and leg are parallel with the ground
  • Inhale while slowly lowering both to the ground
  • Repeat with the opposite arm and leg
  • Continue until you have performed 5-15 repetitions for each side

QuadrupedAlternatingExtension

 

 

 

 

These exercises should be performed in addition to the previous exercises I recommended for the glutes and outer hips, as well as eccentric calf raises. Discontinue any exercises that cause pain.

Performing These Exercises Alone Is Not Enough

Just like I discussed with muscles of the glutes and outer hips, it’s important not only to strengthen them, but to properly engage them while we run and in our daily life. The exercises that I mentioned are great for building core strength initially. Once we have a good level of core strength it is then helpful to use our core strength for dynamic movement, such as activating the core when we perform an exercise like a walking lunge, or performing a walking lunge and then twisting to the side. While we are seated we should be conscious of engaging our core muscles to have better more active posture when we sit and not allow the core muscles to just slack off and be slumped in our chair. Also, it can be helpful (and initially challenging) to use a stability ball for a chair, instead of your regular desk chair.

Oh By The Way, How Do You Perform a Pilates Roll Up?

If you are interested in trying a Pilates Roll see below. This can be a good assessment of core strength that you can perform periodically. I still do this exercise on occasion.

How To Do a Roll Up

  1.  Lie on your back on the floor with your legs straight. Let your belly drop down toward the floor and make sure your shoulders are relaxed and away from your ears.
  2. Take a few deep breaths as you check your alignment and tune into your body. When you are ready, leave your scapula anchored in your back and your ribs down as you bring your arms straight up over your head and back so that your fingertips are pointing to the wall behind you. This will be your beginning position. This first move is the Pilates arms over.
  3. Inhale: Leave your scapula down as you bring your arms up overhead. As your arms pass your ears, let the chin drop and the head and upper spine join the motion to curl up.
  4. Exhale: Continue in one smooth motion to curl your body in an “up and over” motion toward your toes. This is the “moment of truth” for many. Pull in your abs in and deepen the curve of your spine as you exhale. That’s what gets you up (not momentum).
  5. Reach for your toes keeping the head tucked, the abdominals deep, and the back rounded. Ideally, the legs are kept straight throughout this exercise with energy reaching out through the heels. However, a modification would be to allow the legs to bend, especially as you come up and reach toward the toes.
  6. Inhale: Bring the breath fully into your pelvis and back as you pull the lower abs in, reach your tailbone under, and begin to unfurl—vertebra by vertebra—down to the floor. The inhale initiates this motion until you are about half way down. Be sure to keep the legs on the floor and don’t let them fly up as you roll down. Check that your shoulders are relaxed and not creeping up.
  7. Exhale: Continue to set one vertebra after another down on the floor. Keep your upper body curve as you roll down slowly and with control. The arms are still outstretched and following the natural motion of the shoulders as you roll down. Once your shoulders come to the floor, the arms go with the head as you continue to roll down to the mat.

Full-Body-Roll-Up_Exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

This exercise may seem similar to a sit up. However, one important difference is that the motion is slower and more controlled to avoid using momentum compared with a regular sit up. Also, I’m not recommending that you perform a bunch of roll ups. It’s good exercise to do on occasion to assess where you are at with your core strength.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.

Your friend and coach,

Brian

References

https://www.verywellfit.com/how-to-do-pilates-roll-up-2704679

runtastic.com

gethealthyu.com

bodybalancephysicaltherapy.com

 

 

 

 

 

Marathon Training 2019 Day 7: Mobility, Stability, And Strengthening Exercises Step 1

MLK“If I cannot do great things. I can do small things in a great way.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, I did a brisk walk with my dog, Zadar, to recover from yesterday’s “long” run. Walking can be a great form of cross-training, especially after a long run.  As Coach Jay Johnson in his book “Simple Marathon Training” states, the walk the day after a long run is crucial for recovery.  The walk facilitates the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to muscle fibers damaged from the long run on the previous day.  This is also a great opportunity to spend with your family and your dog, if you have one.  You can also do an easy bike ride or hike.  This recovery workout should be done in a flat area or one with gently rolling hills so that you can cover approximately 3 hours in an hour.  I recommend that this walk be at least 30 minutes and depending on your level of training and fitness 30 minutes may be ideal.  I would recommend doing no more than 60 minutes because tomorrow will be another run day and we want to be as fresh as possible for that run.

I also did mobility and strengthening exercises, as well as foam rolling. See the tips below for a video of the strengthening exercises.

Recommendation: Today, I recommend that your cross-train for 30 minutes. I highly recommend walking at a brisk pace, this mode can be the most beneficial in aiding in recovery.  Specifically, a brisk walk can facilitate getting oxygen-rich blood to damaged muscle fibers from yesterday’s long run. Also, a brisk walk can be done with other family members and the family dog(s). You also bike, swim, or use elliptical machine at the gym, or other great recovery modes would be a hike or cross-country skiing. I strongly recommend that whichever mode you choose, perform it in a flat area or area with gently rolling hills. Remember that the purpose of today’s workout is recovery, so don’t overdo it because tomorrow is another run. After your cross-training, I recommend performing the exercises above and performing a cool-down.

Tip of the Day: Mobility, stability, and strengthening exercises are a critical component of your training plan and need to be performed on a consistent basis. I strongly recommend that you perform these exercises after your runs and cross-training workouts. The exercises in the video (step 1) below should be performed for at least 4-6 weeks before moving onto the next progression of somewhat more challenging exercises (step 2). These exercises will help improve your core and hip strengthening, important for stabilizing your hips and pelvis while you run, as well as providing power. They will also help improve your range of motion, especially in the hip area. In addition, toe yoga will help you improve control with your big toe, which can help with stability. While performing these exercises, be sure to breathe normally.

Video for mobility, stability and strengthening exercises:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4gqkxQEXj0&feature=em-share_video_user

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.

Enjoy your recovery day!

Your friend and coach,

Brian

 

Reference:

Simple Marathon Training, Jay Johnson, PFB Publishing: Denver, CO, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips on Running Form

When I’m going for an easy or recovery run I like to watch the running form of other runners. Although my own running form is not perfect and is something that I continue to work on improving, I often see ways in which running form could be improved in the runners I observe. So I wanted to share some tips on running form that could be beneficial to improve running efficiency and help minimize fatigue and injury.

1. Running tall – When you run your abdominal muscles, especially the transverse abdominus, should not be on vacation. These muscles should help you in maintaining proper posture and alignment while you run. When you run your abdominal muscles and stomach should be pulled in (your can check this by putting your index finger on your umbilicus or belly button).

Exercises that can help strengthen the abdominal muscles to help maintain proper posture and alignment include prone planks (up position of a regular pushup resting on your hands or forearms), side planks, and supine planks (start by lying on your back and then raise up on your elbows) See the beginning of this video. These exercises are designated as part of the pedestal routine. Hold each position until fatigue (probably 20-90 seconds).

Advanced: While still remaining tall, add a slight forward lean from the ankles.  This will create a falling forward motion using gravity to pull you forward.  I categorize this as advanced because it can be difficult to maintain the forward lean from the ankles only.  The lean should not be from the waist.

2. Relaxed shoulders – The shoulders should not be hunched up when you run, nor should they be rounded forward. When running trying to keep your shoulder blades pinched together.

Exercises that can help include Y, T, and I in which you lie on your stomach and raise your arms a couple of inches off the floor with thumbs pointing up as your body forms either a Y, T, or I. Make sure that you keep your neck in neutral or normal alignment.

3. Appropriately using the arms – When running the arms should be bent at the elbow at approximately a 90-degree angle with the hands lightly cupped and the thumb gently resting on the index finger. The arms should swing so that the hands brush the top of the hips or the pockets of your shorts (if they have pockets) at the bottom of the arm swing and the hands should be in line with the nipples at the top of the arm swing. Be sure that your hands don’t cross the midline of your body or you will experience twisting of the hips, which can lead to injury.  Also, you should focus on the backswing of the arms, instead of focusing on swinging forward.

4. Short strides with a cadence of approximately 180 steps/minute – Your feet should land under the center of mass of your body. If your foot lands too far forward you will heel strike, which creates a significant amount of force and stress on the ankle, knee, and hip joints, thus increasing the chance of injury. Landing on the forefoot can cause stress fractures in the metatarsals. Meanwhile, landing on the midfoot is beneficial because there are several layers of tissue for cushioning as the foot impacts the ground. Taking short strides with a high cadence will help promote landing on the midfoot.

5. Heel and knee lift – There are a lot of runners that I see who shuffle their feet or who have minimal heel and knee lift. These runners could benefit by activating more muscles, especially the knee extensor, glutes, and hamstring muscles to increase running efficiency and speed.  You should exert force (push down) with the front leg and foot from where the knee is at it’s highest point to when it impacts the ground.  This will create an elastic rebound as the foot hits the ground and will cause the heel to raise up towards the glutes.  This will also cause the knee to be lifted as this leg comes forward.  This elastic rebound reduces the demand on muscles and protects the legs from shock.

These are some of the areas that I evaluate when I perform stride analyses for runners that I coach. In many cases, I can tell visually if adjustments need to be made. I also use videotaping to identify additional areas that could be adjusted to improve running form. I would recommend a stride analysis with a physical therapist, biomechanist or experienced coach to help make your stride more efficient and help minimize the risk of injury. Also, the results of a stride analysis and additional assessments may indicate that there are muscles that need to be strengthened, or muscles whose flexibility needs to be increased to improve running form.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions that you have. I would love to hear form you!

See you on the road or trial.

Brian

General Guidelines for an Off-Season Program to Help Transition into the 2014 Season

I have addressed some of the components of an off-season maintenance program in two previous articles, specifically cross-training and strength training. In this article I will tie together all of the important components of an off-season training program and provide guidelines for each. Although cross-training is one important way for us to maintain aerobic fitness during the off-season, we don’t want to neglect running, if possible, depending on the weather or access to a treadmill.

Guidelines for running during the off-season:

• Run 2-3 days per week

• Most runs should be at a comfortable, conversational pace

• Include a longer run once every 2-3 weeks, distance depends on goal events, fitness level, running history, any current injuries

• May progress to short intervals, such as strides, hill sprints, Fartlek (speedplay) runs

• Include proper warm-up (maybe include some basics for warm-ups)

Strength training guidelines:

• Should be done after any cross-training or running workout

• Focus on exercises to improve activation of abdominal, hip abductor, hip flexors and extensors (gluteus maximus and hamstrings) lower back, and scapular stabilizers

• Performed 2-3 days per week on non-consecutive days

• Use body weight resistance or low resistance

• Typically involve a progression, which can include adding an instability component, such as performing exercises on a pillow, or increasing the range of motion of the exercise

• Exercises are typically performed to fatigue and not a specific number of repetitions

• Rest period can be 30-60 seconds between exercises, or you can perform the exercises in a circuit, and just move from one exercise to the next with little or no rest

Cross-training guidelines:

• Performed 2-3 days per week

• I would recommend using a variety of cross-training modes to incorporate a variety of muscles

• Ideally, choose at least some cross-training modes, which incorporate motion in different planes than running, such as side-to-side or transverse plane motion, as opposed to forwards and backwards motion

• Intensity should be light to moderate, with incorporation of short intervals every 2-3 weeks with full recovery

Additional components:

• Foam rolling:

• Roll on tight, overused muscles until a tender/sore spot is found

• Apply pressure to tender/sore spots  and hold for 30 seconds

• Perform 5-7 days per week

• Stretching:

• Should include calf, hamstring, glutes, hip flexors, IT band, lower back, chest

• Hold stretches for 30-60 seconds

• Perform 1-4 repetitions for each stretch

• Perform after foam rolling, as the last component of a workout

If you don’t own or have access to a  foam roller I highly recommend getting access to a foam roller. Foam rolling can be beneficial in improving flexibility and reducing soreness in tight, overused muscles. An example of tight, overused muscles common to runners and triathletes are the hip flexor (thigh) muscles. To improve flexibility and lengthen these muscles roll on the hip flexors until you find the most tender/sore areas and apply pressure with the foam roller for 30 seconds (see picture below). If performed on a regular basis, this can result in increased range of motion when bringing the back foot up towards the glutes. This will increase the power with each stride, increasing speed.

http://www.menshealth.co.uk/cm/menshealthuk/images/Lw/quadriceps.jpg

Final note: A maintenance program should be designed to accomplish a few goals, which will help transition us into successfully building aerobic fitness for the next running season. The goals of a maintenance program are to maintain and start rebuilding endurance, and to address muscle imbalances and flexibility issues to improve running form (biomechanics), so that we are more efficient runners with less chance of developing running-related injuries, and possibly start incorporating some short intervals to improve running economy (similar to efficiency) and biomechanics.

Please contact me if you have any questions. I would love to hear from you!

See you on the road or trail.

Brian

General Guidelines for Preparing for Race Goal

Recently I was finishing up one of my long runs and started stretching. As I was stretching I overheard someone speaking with a friend of his about doing a marathon in the fall. I’m not into eavesdropping, but my ears perked up when he mentioned doing a marathon. She asked him what type of training program he was going to follow. His response was that he was basically going to “wing it”. Now there is a recipe for disaster!

So in this week’s blog I want to talk about the need for a plan to get to your running goals. Basically, you can’t just “wing it” if you want to be at your best on race day and avoid injuries.

Last time I mentioned setting realistic goals. This is your first step. Then you have to figure out how you are going to get there. Below are things you need to consider. For many of these I have just given some basic guidelines, which I will provide more detail on later either on this website or if you attend my workshops or if I work with you as a coach.

1. Proper shoes – If you are new to running or haven’t run in a while, I highly recommend getting fitted at a reputable running store. Make sure that the person who does your fitting is knowledgeable. You may want to ask running friends about this or you can ask the manager and/or owner of the store about shoe fitting. They should put you on a treadmill and videotape your stride as you run on the treadmill. They should be looking at how your foot strikes. They should also be finding out the type of arch you have (high, normal, flat). They should be measuring your foot length and width. When you do the fitting make sure you are wearing socks that you would run in. Also if you wear orthotics make sure you try on shoes with these. The salesperson should have you try on at least three pairs and at least two different brands. Walk around in these shoes and if possible see if you can run with them either on a treadmill in the store or better yet outside. It can be difficult to determine how comfortable the shoes will be while you are at the store, so make sure you find out about the store’s return policy. Also I would recommend getting a second pair, if not on that day, soon after. If you are really happy with that model pick up a second pair. Or you may want to go with another brand that you tried on which is similar. The problem with running shoes is that models don’t stay around for long. Running shoe manufacturers are constantly changing and discontinuing models. Sometimes the changes are beneficial; sometimes they are not.

2. Proper nutrition – Typically the recommendation for adults is approximately 55% of calories from carbohydrates, with almost all of these as complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), approximately 25-30% of calories as fats, with less than 10% of calories from saturated fats, and 10-15% of calories from proteins. For runners and other endurance athletes the percentage of total calories which are carbohydrate should be even greater, such as 60% or more. That means less calories from fat. My recommendation is to spread out your calorie intake throughout the day so that you are eating about every 2-3 hours. Also drink plenty of water. My recommendation is to divide your body weight in pounds by 2 and number is the amount of water in ounces you should take in each day, as a minimum.

3. Periodized plan – To get to your goal you will need to have a periodized program. If your goal is to complete a half marathon and you are just getting into running you are not going to just go out and run 13 miles. You have to build up to this in the proper way. Typically, your training should be divided into phases that will target certain aspects of your cardiovascular and energy systems, as well as muscles, to best get you to your goal and avoid injury.

4. Strength training and flexibility – Injuries are very common among runners. Approximately 70-80 percent of runners incur at least one injury each year that causes them to stop running for a significant period of time. Wow! Many of these injuries are due to muscle weaknesses/imbalances and poor flexibility. Therefore, for all runners there needs to be exercises done to address muscle weaknesses/imbalances and in addition, stretches need to be performed improve flexibility at the hip, knee, ankle, and shoulder joints to maximize performance and reduce injury risk. Core strengthening, of muscles including the hips, abdominals, and lower back is very important for runners.

5. Cross-training – To get better at running you need to run. But running alone can take its toll on the body. So it is important to incorporate cross-training once or twice a week. This would include biking, swimming, inline skating, etc. This will help to maintain your fitness level, but work some of your other muscles. It may be necessary to result solely on cross-training if you develop an injury that prevents you from running.

6. Support – We all need a support system, whether it is from family, friends, running clubs, etc. or more likely a combination of these. Preparation for your first half or full marathon is not easy and workouts sometimes don’t go as planned. Plus, we all have other commitments in life. Therefore, having a support network can play a vital role in our success in attaining our running goals.

7. A schedule – Based on our busy lives we have to determine how much time and what times we have available to devote to training. Typically, I schedule my workouts just like I would a dentist or doctor appointment. That way I can commit that time for my workout. So I highly recommend that you sit down and map out what days and what times you are going to have available to train.

8. Pacing – This can be difficult to do, but it is very important in races, so that you don’t fatigue too early.

9. A coach – I know I’m biased with this one. However, I strongly recommend a coach. They have been through this process of planning to achieve goals in races and can help you get to your goals, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I know there are lots of online programs that you can get for free; however, keep in mind that these are very generic. The person who came up with these programs doesn’t know you. They have no idea what your fitness level and goals are, and certainly won’t know your schedule or any muscle weaknesses and areas where you lack flexibility. Only a coach who can work one-on-one with you will be able to determine these and design a customized program that will be best for you.

Stay tuned for more information which pertains to those points. I will be starting a series of blogs which includes strengthening exercises and stretches.

Until next time… see you on the road (or trail)