I’m not always the most decisive when it comes to making certain decisions. For instance, it’s not uncommon for me to sit down to watch a movie on Netflix and spend so much time agonizing over which movie to watch – scrolling through the options, looking up reviews online, reading plot summaries – that I run out of time and end up watching a TV show instead. Decision paralysis has been studied, and as it turns out I’m not alone.
Being presented with many choices, while seemingly appealing, actually makes people more indecisive and less likely to reach any decision at all. When it comes to strength training for distance runners it’s easy to be overwhelmed by information online or in magazines, and people paralyzed by the lack of clear direction often end up settling on doing nothing instead.
When we work with the ZAP elite athletes and our adult running campers in the weight room one of the goals is to teach them the purpose of the exercises and break down the movements so they have a better understanding of how to perform their core and strength exercises. Having a more thorough understanding of the primary movements involved in runner specific core and strength training allows you to better perform and evaluate the sensibility of an exercise routine.
When it comes to runner specific strength training the primary focus should be on the stabilization and strengthening of the hips. There are other areas that may have specific relevance on an individual basis, but a focus on hip stability will make you a better, healthier runner.
When people think about core for runners the first thing that pops to mind is abdominal strength. This is important, but not in the way you may necessarily think. Strong abdominal muscles do help stabilize your trunk and aid in pelvic rotation, but the specific abdominal muscle we want to strengthen is one most people have never heard of. The transversus abdominis is the deepest of your abdominal muscles and essentially wraps around your torso to stabilize your hips and spine.
Learning how to activate this muscle while you are doing any core exercise is the most important part of improving hip and spinal stability. Stabilization of the spine is important for efficient communication between the nervous system and your extremities. If spinal stability is compromised your nervous system has a harder time communicating to your larger stabilizing muscles – sort of like a kink in a garden hose – and your running efficiency will suffer which can lead to both slower times and increased risk of injury.
Activating Deep Abs
In order to activate your transversus abdominis, Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners, suggests mimicking the abdominal activation of coughing where your belly button pulls in a bit toward the spine. This activation stabilizes both your pelvis and your spine and is an ideal position to start any core or strength exercise. Another way to think about it is to brace your core as if someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Before you start any core strengthening exercise be sure to turn this muscle on and keep it on throughout the duration of the exercise. This will help you avoid a lot of the mistakes people make when they are doing strength exercises, and ensure the exercises you are doing will improve your running and keep you healthy.
One thing that you will notice immediately if you keep your deep core engaged throughout a movement is that you have far less anterior rotation in your hips. In other words, the hips will remain more level from the front to the back rather than the relatively common problem where the front of the hips tip forward. Anteriorly rotated hips are on of the most common postural problems we see in distance runners. It can be the result of both tight hip flexors as well as a lack of spinal and pelvic stabilization. Quite often it is a combination of the two.
When your hips rotate forward while you are running you will notice an accentuated arch in the lower back, an indication that you are lacking spinal stability. When this happens your body has a hard time activating your larger stabilizing and propulsion muscles, and the most common victims are your gluteal muscles. If you’re a runner and you’ve been in to see a physical therapist in the last few years you’ve probably been told your glutes are weak or not firing properly. This is a very common problem, and can often be traced back to lack of spinal stability with the deep core muscles.
A running specific strength program should include abdominal exercises, but it must also include exercises that activate and strengthen the hip stabilizers as well. The primary hip stabilizer is your gluteus medius, which is responsible for stabilizing the hip joint upon impact during running. If your gluteus medius isn’t functioning properly you’ll notice your hips dipping from side to side or your knees knocking together on impact.
The lack of stabilization in the hip joint leads a whole host of other problems as the rest of the body compensates in an attempt to provide that stabilization. Hip stability and deep core activation is not the end all be all of strength training for runners, but it is the best place to start and is the most important component to staying healthy and moving efficiently.
Let the principle of activating your deep abdominals and maintaining spinal and pelvic stability throughout the exercise be your guiding light when it comes to navigating the sometimes murky waters of strength training. If you keep your core involved and your lower back in it’s natural position the strength gains will reinforce proper running mechanics. Importantly, a good exercise done poorly is a poor exercise; beyond being useless, it can be harmful because it reinforces poor muscle patterns that strengthen the dysfunction, making it that much harder to break those patterns going forward.
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*This Article Originally Appeared in the March 2017 Issue of Running Journal