Core Strength Training… Something We Love to Hate

Charles Simpson

Coach Charles

Core strength training… something we love to hate.  This is my attempt to justify the brutality. The following will argue the importance of cross training and suggest that the pushups, crunches, and leg lifts we do are not just sadism from cruel coaches, but actually have real benefits to runners. To our avid cross fitters, disregard this.

As runners we like to flaunt our chosen sport as the toughest of the tough. We wear “my sport is your sports punishment” tee shirts and stick 26.2 plaques on our bumpers so that even though we may drive a wimpy 95 horsepower minivan, that guy who cut us off on 495 in his Mustang (Gene) will know we can still run faster than him. We shut down major cities from NYC to Boston every year to show off our training in massive marathons, and chat it up at the water cooler about that super tiring 12 miler we did last Saturday.

But from our high pedestal we lose sight of the importance of cross training. We like to forget that while our sport may be a tennis player’s punishment, that tennis player can do a pull up. But by swallowing our pride and paying attention to athletes in lesser other sports, we can see the benefits of pushups, crunches, and back exercises in addition to long runs to become healthier, faster, and stronger endurance runners.

Let’s start by taking a look at perhaps the most prestigious endurance challenge in the world: the Ironman triathlon (a 2.4 mi swim, followed by a 112 mi bike, followed by a marathon of 26 mi running). The legend goes that the Ironman race began as a way to settle a debate between runners and swimmers over which athletes were more fit. The swimming and running events were combined into a single race with a compromise event of cycling in the middle to test each group of athletes’ overall strength.

So who won? Neither. The winner was a computer consultant (although in the Navy, so I suppose that counts as a tally for swimmers).

English: Chris McCormack (11), Frankfurt Ironm...

Chris McCormack, Frankfurt Ironman 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, many of the winners at the World Championship Ironman race in Kona, Hawaii are still not coming from a background of endurance swimming, biking, or running. The winners since 2006 have all come from backgrounds in other sports. Craig Alexander, the 2011, 2009, 2008, and 2007 winner was a soccer player.  The most recent winner, Pete Jacobs, was a life guard and surfer. The 2010 and 2007 winner, Chris McCormack, was a soccer and rugby player.

You’ll note that none of these are endurance events. All of them however, require aspects of strength that are crucial for endurance running. Soccer develops a good balance between speed/strength (fast twitch) and endurance (slow twitch) muscle fibers, and works muscle groups that keep us stable and efficient while we run. Surfing requires the same well developed stabilizers like hip flexors, core muscles, and glutes that keep us moving efficiently as we run. Rugby also requires a well developed core (and a high tolerance for pain), crucial for distance running. Even though soccer and rugby fields are each under 200 meters, the sports played on them prepare the foundation for strong, high performance endurance athletes.

Our lesson from Kona is the importance of cross training. Our long runs produce overdeveloped quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, while leaving other critical muscle groups like your abdominals relatively underdeveloped. This leads to injuries and prevents runners from performing optimally. So while you may not take up rugby this summer to improve your 10K time, crunches, back lifts, pushups, plyometrics, basketball, swimming, or any other methods of engaging muscle groups that are not usually fully worked by simply running in a straight line are just as important as the number of miles you’ve logged each week.

The tennis player Li Na at the 2007 M...

The tennis player Li Na, 2007

Take at least one day a week to focus on cross training, whether that means going to the gym after work, or taking out the tennis racquet on the weekend.

Choose a non-running exercise each week (e.g. crunches) and a realistic number of sets to do every day and make a routine of it.

And of course, thank Charles after he makes you do a lot of pushups.

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