3 Best Core Exercises for Runners

Do you religiously perform situps because you understand that a solid core is important for running? Well, you are half correct, but may be wasting your time repetitively folding yourself in half.

While core strength is certainly not neglected in most runners’ weekly workout routines, the critical role this muscle set plays in running is often underestimated, and typical exercises to strengthen the core do not translate well to running. Core strength and midline stability is absolutely critical in running. Your core provides support for your upper body, which for the most part is a heavy passenger along for a ride. Good midline stability prevents wasting energy from a bobbing torso. It also prevents twisting which would otherwise result in further loss of efficient forward motion.

While form breakdown can start from any of a number of areas, I most often see form breaks at the waist. Too many runners are either bent forward at the waist or twist their upper body while they run. Though you may think either of these motions is part of proper running form, they are not. Leaning forward is necessary to produce and maintain forward momentum in running, but the lean should come from the ankles, not the waist. The entire body from the ankles though the top of the head should form one rigid straight line. Bending at the waist puts an unnecessary and non-beneficial force on the lower back and requires the landing leg to shoot far out in front to catch your extended falling carcass.

Twisting around the waist, and swinging shoulders and arms from side to side, is often thought to help produce forward momentum. In reality, the arms should only move as much as is necessary to counterbalance the motion of the legs. If you watch elite marathon runners, you will see that they barely move their arms at all, and they are running at an unbelievable 5:00/mile pace. All that twisting is just wasted energy.

Proper form dictates that the core should be under slight tension, holding the body in a straight line from ankles to hips to shoulders. However, even just knowing this fact makes it difficult to maintain such form, especially when running at fast paces or for marathon or ultra distances. Surely you have seen a finisher at a marathon hobbling across the line folded in half like a napkin. Not exactly the hallmark of a great runner. You need to work on core strength to maintain that form throughout a long or difficult run.

So if the goal in running is to keep our midline straight, why do we spend so much time training it to bend in half? Why has the sit-up or crunch gained hall-of-fame status as our core exercise of choice? Clearly if we want our core to be straight and strong while running, we are best served by training it to stay straight, right?

Here are three exercises that are very effective at increasing core strength and stability for runners, specifically aimed at a straight and strong midline.

1. Planks
The plank is probably already a staple in your exercise routine. It has become a standard core exercise because of its simplicity and effectiveness, hiding incredible torture in an otherwise elegant pose. In the basic plank, you lie face down on your toes and elbows, holding your midline straight and tight. Your body should form one line from your ankles to the top of your head. No bending in the middle and resist the urge to drop your head as a method to deal with the ever-increasing discomfort. Think about holding your stomach and glutes firm. Don’t just survive the position, make sure you are doing the work. Side planks are also important to include as they focus on your obliques (the muscles on the side of your stomach). Here again make sure to keep your body straight from heels to head.

There are some other plank forms that you should add to your routine to up the intensity. While in the plank position, alternate reaching one hand out in front of you and touching a spot forward on the floor, then return. Another form is to alternate lifting one arm and the opposite leg in the air for a few seconds. Finally, you can alternate pulling one knee forward to the outside of your hip, like you crawling.

The key with the plank is obviously holding the position for as long as possible. Work up to at least 3 minutes of total time in the plank, even if you need to take short rests along the way. Side planks should be at least 75% of the time spent in front plank. This is an exercise you can do just about every day, so make it part of your routine.

2. Hollow Rock
While the plank is an excellent static hold exercise, it does not really mimic the dynamic forces we experience while running. As we are moving, our core is being slightly pushed fore and aft and must respond to this with stabilizing effort. The hollow rock better mimics this experience and prepares us to deal with it while running. Lie on your back on the floor with arms straight over your head, elbows by your ears, feet pointed. Lift your head and feet about 6-12 inches off the ground, holding a hollow position in your stomach. Now rock from feet to shoulders on the floor, focusing on keeping your core tight, neither straightening nor bending at the waist. You should maintain the same hollow position throughout the movement. Stomach is tight along with quads and shoulders.

It may be difficult to do many reps at first, but progress will come quickly. Here again it’s fine to take some short breaks during the exercise. Build up to 50 reps. Perform this exercise three times a week and you will definitely see improvements in core strength and stability.

3. Overhead Squats and Lunges
To further challenge the core and midline stability we need to get vertical and to add weight. Since we expect to be running for an hour or a great many hours, we do need to include some intensity. The overhead squat and overhead lunge further challenge the core to remain straight and tight while under load and moving.

Note that this is an advanced exercise that requires not only a strong core but also a solid squat. If you do not already perform weighted squats as part of your regular strength routine, then DO NOT attempt this exercise. Even if you do have a solid squat with good form, it is smart to start with extremely low weight. I use a PVC pipe to get warmed up and check my form before moving on to a bare olympic bar. You can also use dumbbells. Performing squats or walking lunges with weight overhead will challenge your core and legs, requiring constant tension and adjustment.

This video is more extensive than the others as form and mobility is critical. Take the time to learn the movement and progress slowly. If you can master this exercise, you will be very well prepared for running long.

Your progression should work up to three sets of 12-15 with low weight before increasing weight at all. This is not an exercise to get macho with and throw around a heavy load. Save that for your back squat. Perform this exercise once a week.

The order of these exercises is important as they get progressively harder. You need to have a solid plank before you are able to perform an effective hollow rock. And the overhead squat requires core strength from stomach through quads and also back. To that end, I don’t recommend you toss all these into your weekly routine right away. If you are not religiously performing core exercises multiple times a week, you should spend some quality time with the plank before progressing to the hollow rock. And the overhead squat should come only after you have built up a strong core and a weighted back squat with excellent form.

5 Fun & Effective Treadmill Workouts

Treadmill Running

So the blizzard killed your run training this week. And if you are like me, going without the necessary weekly runs makes you a bit cranky. There is always the treadmill, but that doesn’t offer nearly the satisfaction, free air,

visual stimulus, or freedom of an outdoor run. But don’t despair. I’ve pulled together 5 killer treadmill workouts that are not only very effective, but are fun and easy to do on the treadmill. After you have done these workouts, you might find them so beneficial that you sprinkle them into your regular rotation.

We have focused these workouts on mixing up the pacing and timing to keep them from being boring, and adding in some workouts that may be difficult to really do on the unpredictable

outdoors. Each one will help with your speed, lactate threshold, and recovery rate. I start with easier workouts and get harder.

Note that whenever you are running on a treadmill, you should set the incline at 1-2% to more accurately simulate running outside. The treadmill belt is helping you a bit with turnover, and you don’t need to deal with uneven surfaces or wind. Also be aware that not all treadmills show accurate pace.

1. Carfrae Repeats

The first treadmill workout comes from Ironman Champion Mirinda Carfrae. She knows a bit about training for long efforts, so this “short” workout should serve ultrarunners quite well.

10×3:00 repeats all-out effort, with 3:00 rest between

Note that although the effort should be “all-out”, you still want each repeat to be at about the same pace. This will help you practice good pacing for races, and also prevent you from being at a job on the last reps, which won’t be much of a workout. The rest should be walking or jogging so you can get nearly full recovery without your legs seizing up. Overall, this workout is about total effort and increasing lactate threshold.

2. Speed Triples

While the Carfrae Repeats focused on effort, this workout sticks with a specific pace.

3×3:00 repeats at slightly faster than 5k pace, rest 1:00 between. 5 minute jog recovery. Repeat 2-4 times.

In this workout, use a pace slightly faster than your 5k race pace and stick with it throughout the workout. You only get a one minute recovery between repeats, but then enjoy full five minute recovery between sets so you can start again at full effort. Repeat this 2-4 times, or until you can’t hold the pace.

3. Hill Intervals

One of the benefits of the treadmill is the ability to dial-in hill angle and length at-will. This workout takes advantage of that to build both hill running strength and efficiency.

3×1:00 @ 5% incline, 2:00 rest between. Repeat set a total of 3 times with 5 min jog between sets.

The incline here will make take the effort fairly high, though the rest period will get you a solid recovery. If you don’t run a lot of hills, it may take some time to dial-in the appropriate pace. Overall, the pace should be strenuous because you’ll get good recovery between repeats and sets.

4. Ladder

This workout seems easy at the start, but will wear you down by the end.

Run about 10k pace for 2:00, 3:00, 4:00, 5:00, 4:00, 3:00, 2:00 with equal jog recovery.

This workout should feel like you are running fast, but not going all-out. The recovery will allows your legs to regain full strength so you can put in a hard effort again. The decreasing times on the back-side of the ladder are a welcome finish.

5. Tabata

This is my personal favorite treadmill workout, and I do it at least twice a month regardless of the weather. Just be prepared for the people around you to cast some funny looks.

The Tabata training method was developed by Izumi Tabata in Japan based on research he conducted and published in the  journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. He found that athletes training at very high intensity for short bursts improved in both aerobic capacity (VO2max) and anaerobic capacity; those that just did moderate intensity training had some (lower) improvement in aerobic capacity and no anaerobic improvement.

8 reps of 0:20 work, 0:10 rest. Incline at 12%. Pace at 5k or better.

Yes, that is the complete workout. Four minutes of hell. It may not look like much written out, but give it a try. And no, you don’t need to run another 4 miles after this. If you have done this honestly, you’ll need a good recovery. I’ll typically take a 20 minute recovery and then do a short set of squats and some core work, but no other running.

Warm-up

It is important before doing any of these workouts to warm-up appropriately. You should run at least a mile and then do some pick-ups or strides to make sure you are ready for the speed. Generally, the shorter the workout, the longer warm-up you should take.

Bonus

A couple nice bonuses with treadmill workouts. Because the belt is actually helping you with leg turnover, you can use the treadmill to work on your leg speed. Crank up that pace for short bursts to get your legs moving fast. It may be a little awkward at first, but with practice it will become easier. Lastly, the treadmill is an easy place to work on increasing your cadence at any pace. Without the distractions of the outside, the ability to set a pace, and the ease of counting your footfalls, you can work up to the target 180 steps per minute (90 per foot) that is the understood ideal turnover. Work on getting the pace up to about 190-200 per minute so that on race day it is easier to maintain 180.

Improving Running Speed – The Secret of Cadence

Within all of the swirling talk of minimalist shoes, barefoot running, and Chi, there has been a constant that seems to have flown under the radar. One common thread in all of the latest running theories is the importance of a high running cadence. It just might be that no matter what shoes you wear or how you train or what you eat, simply increasing your cadence could provide the greatest immediate benefits in both increased performance and decreased injury rate.

I was first introduced to the magic of high cadence while studying the Pose running method. Pose suggests that a cadence of 180 steps per minute is ideal because it allows you to benefit from the natural elasticity in your tendons. Think of your feet as being basketballs. When a basketball hits the ground, it stays for a specific amount of time before rebounding back up. When you run with a low cadence, you are basically holding your foot on the ground when it naturally wants to “bounce” off and rise again. In order to get your foot off the ground, you then need to push off the ground. This cadence is also recommended by Chi Running and a number of other running schools.fast running cadence form

Running coach Jack Daniels first talked about the importance of cadence after studying the elite runners at the 1984 Olympics. He found that all of the elite runners had a cadence of at least 180. Gebrselassie has been identified as running as high as 240 steps at the end of a 10k! In addition to the benefits of elasticity, a quick cadence provides some other benefits.

In order to reach that turnover speed, you need to shorten your stride, thus reducing the over-striding and heel striking that exemplifies poor form. These quick, soft steps also decreases the forces on the body, reducing injury rates. Finally, quick turnover increases forward momentum. Just think about the logic of trying to run fast by putting your foot out in front of you and absorbing the energy into your legs. It simply doesn’t make sense. An article at iRunFar called Improving Running Economy goes into more detail on the physics and benefits.

So if we assume that a fast cadence is ideal, how do we get there? I have found a few good resources to help you increase cadence. The first is a short and simple article by the shoe company Altra that describes a loose protocol to increase cadence. Runner’s World also recently posted an article on improving cadence that goes into a bit more detail. But the best resource I have found, and the one that I have used with good success myself, is a series of videos and exercises at CrossfitEndurance. The videos below give a weekly progression to help you learn the 180 cadence. There is tons more information and running drills on the CFE running page.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5
Week 6

A useful tool for any of these exercises is a metronome or candence app for your phone or an inexpensive digital metronome.

Certainly it can be difficult to increase your turnover, especially if you have a slow, over-striding style. However, the benefits of this one simple change can be incredible. The higher cadence will actually take less effort, improve your forward momentum, decrease injuries, and increase speed. And if you are a trail runner, you already understand the importance of taking shorter steps on technical terrain. The exercises required to make this improvement require only minimal time during each workout, are low effort, and can even be done while you watch TV. Clearly benefits like this, at low cost, are worth exploring for yourself.

Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Start the discussion below!

Running Injury Rehab Guides

Are you suffering from a running injury? Or do you have some lingering pain that affects your running? Or you must at least know a runner that is dealing with an injury. According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, nearly 70% of runners will become injured (ref).plantar fasciitis

The smart folks at E3 Training Solutions have published a list of Basic Rehab Guides for Common Running Injuries. It covers everything from IT band to plantar fasciitis to shin splints to knee pain. What I love most about these guides is that they take a more holistic approach to truly rehabilitating the area. They are not just concerned with getting the pain to stop, but with making the physical changes necessary to prevent, or at least greatly decrease, the chances of the injury recurring.

Each guide includes stretches, mobility exercises, and strength exercises. Most of the steps include a video so you can see exactly how to do the exercise. Very little equipment is necessary for most of the guides, though you may need a lacrosse ball, medicine ball, or exercise band.

Bookmark that guide and please share this article with your running friends; most of them probably need this information right now! Be a good friend and help them out.

And please follow UltraSmartRunner using the links at the top right.

Is Ibuprofen Safe for Runners?

I’ve heard many runners over the years talk about using ibuprofen and other NSAIDs before, during, and immediately after races and hard workouts. The theory is that the drug will do its job at masking the pain, allowing the runner to push a bit harder. Runners also use it post-race to help deal with the pain of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and even decrease inflamation. So, is it effective? And if so, at what cost?

A recent study by Dr. David Nieman shows surprising results, specifically for the ultrarunning community. Nieman specifically studied competitors in the 100-mile Wester States Endurance Run, and tracked the large number of athletes that were using ibuprofen. In a nutshell, he found that ibuprofen was not only completely ineffective on a number of measures, it was also potentially harmful. But there is a surprising ending.

Dr. Nieman’s study showed that ibuprofen users and non-users experienced the same amount of muscle damage and soreness. Plus, the ibuprofen actually caused an increase in inflammation from colon bacteria leakage into the the bloodstream! Test subjects between the ibuprofen and non-ibuprofen groups showed no difference in performance and no difference in perceived exertion. And the bad news doesn’t stop there. A different study of Ironman triathletes found that ibuprofen caused an increased risk of hyponatremia, a lack of salt in the blood which leads to cramping and more serious health issues (if you consider death serious) because of the drugs affect on the liver.

So if you are taking ibuprofen or other NSAIDs in the hopes of staving off DOMS or improving your performance, the proof just isn’t there. But there is some good news.

Dr. Nieman has been studying plant extracts that can provide a decreased incidence of DOMS and are not harmful. Falvinoids that are found in fruits and vegetables are showing great promise in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Blueberries, cherries, green teas, and juice cocktails all contain large concentrations of flavinoids. So if you are seeking an effective and safe way to decrease DOMS and inflammation, it seems mother nature provides the best solution.

To read the complete article, see Ibuprofen and Running