Core strength: Can we skip the crunches?

A few months ago, I talked about the importance of a strong core for runners and how I learned the hard way several years ago with my first running injury.  Our core muscles are as important for running as they are for daily life activities, and can help keep us balanced, improve stability and decrease injury.

I recently came across a fascinating study testing which core exercises are the most efficient.  I do core exercises to cross it off my “stay injury free” to do list, but if there is a way to make it as efficient as possible, I want to know!

The study was conducted by Jinger Gottschall (and colleagues) at Penn State University.  The researchers compared isolation exercises to integration exercises to determine which ones elicited the greatest core activation.  You can find the abstract here.

They used surface electromyography to measure muscle activity of the core trunk muscles (abdominal and lumbar), as well as the glutes and deltoids which were engaged in the integration exercises.

Isolation exercises reviewed included traditional crunches, oblique twists and back extensions.

Isolation Exercises: Traditional crunch, oblique twist, and upper body extension.

These were compared to exercises that integrate muscles of the back and upper body, such as planks, hovers and four-point exercises.

So what were the results?

The integration exercises consistently outperformed the isolation exercises in terms of greater activation of muscles.  In integration exercises, the core muscles worked harder, and they more closely imitated the activity of core muscles in daily activities like walking, which makes them both more efficient and better for functional gains.

Here’s a basic example of each exercise.  It is best to wear sneakers when completing these exercises.  Do as I say, not as I do.  🙂 For a more complete explanation of each, click on the youtube links below.

TL: Plank with arm reach, TR: Mountain Climber Crossover, BL: Side plank, BR: Four point arm-leg reach

The specific integration exercises the authors measured included the hover or plank with a hand reach, cross over mountain climber,a side hover,  and a four-point arm and leg lift.

What should a core routine look like?

A combination of both isolation and integration exercises is ideal.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults include core exercises twice a week.

Planks and side planks are stationary and should be done for time (start by holding for 30 seconds).  For mountain climbers and four-point moves, bring your legs in and out.  Again, 30 seconds is a good starting point for each, then repeat 2-3 times.  Work your way up to holding the planks for 60 seconds or more.

Both kinds of exercise should be part of your regular routine, but if you hate crunches, skip them! Planks, hovers, and exercises based on all fours are best for improving strength, balance, mobility and endurance.

Are any of these integrative moves a regular part of your core routine?

8 tips for injury prevention

After running casually for nearly ten years, I was never injured until I trained for my first marathon a few years ago.  Since then, I’ve been able to maintain a higher weekly mileage, but not without its ups and downs.

I’m smarter and wiser now, but that doesn’t mean I always act on that knowledge.  My grumpy shin is a great example- something  I could have avoided, but I chose to ignore my body’s signs and push through a little discomfort rather than listening to my body.  Thankfully this one was only a two week set back.  I’ve been back out on the roads this week and and am feeling good.

Sometimes I find I need the constant reminders regarding injury prevention.  These are the guidelines that work best for me:

1)      The 10% Rule  – The single greatest cause of running injuries is over-training.  If you want to build mileage, it must be done slowly.  The general rule of thumb is no more than a 10% increase in overall weekly mileage.  It’s also important to build in cut-back weeks for rest and rebuilding. 

2)      Add speed work gradually: Our bodies interpret stress both through increased mileage and increased pace, so mileage should stay about the same when you first add speed work.  It’s best to start with one hard speed session every week or every other week.  As your muscles adapt to the increased work, you can add one speed session and one tempo session per week.  Always follow hard days of running with easy days of running or cross training.

Kids can sprint day after day with no problem- most adults aren’t so lucky!

3)      Get Stronger: I used to think that running was enough strength training for my legs and avoided squats and lunges.  This worked fine for years, but when I ventured into the marathon distance, my knees began to give me trouble, largely as a result of weak supporting muscles: quads, hips, and core.  After paying more attention to overall strength, the knee pain disappeared and has never returned.

—> Side note: pay attention to any moves that aggravate the injured area. Squats are not helpful until knee pain disappears. With my shin, it took me a week to realize that push ups and planks in my bare feet were putting pressure on my shin and making it worse.  As it was recovering, I modified those exercises by placing my lower legs up on a chair or bosu ball.

4)      Cross training is another great way to work new muscles and prevent over-use and burnout.  You can continue to build your cardiovascular endurance while giving your body a break from the pounding of running.  Cycling and swimming are my favorite cross training exercises, but the elliptical, rowing machine, power yoga or hiking is great too.  Many people can run 5-6 days a week with no problem, but I’ve found my body is happiest with 3-4 days of running and 2-3 days of spinning and weights.

Wiffle ball for cross training?

5)      Rest! Plan at least one rest day every week and take it! Recovery is key to coming back stronger and ready to jump into the next week’s training.  I like to use either Fridays as a rest day when I run long on Saturday, and follow it with a recovery run Sunday. (More on recovery runs in a special guest post next week!)

6)      Love your muscles: After a run or later in the day, take a few minutes to encourage recovery by stretching, and rolling your muscles.  The stick or foam roller are great tools for massaging tired muscles and increasing blood flow for less soreness and better recovery.  Pay special attention to any body parts that are achy or sore, and use ice, compression and elevation as a preventive measure before an injury sets in.

7)      Track your training: Use a journal or an online training tool like daily mile so you can see how your mileage changes over time.  You can also use this to track how long you’ve had your shoes so you can replace them every 300 miles or so before the lack of support causes an injury.

8)      No comparing! This is a hard one sometimes, but just because another friend (or blogger!) handles 60 miles or 2 solid speed sessions a week does not mean your body will be happy doing the same.  Know your body.  Pay attention to the signs of over-training and take an extra easy day or day off before your body forces you to.

Despite knowing all the rules, I tend to break them more often than I should.  It’s a battle to make myself roll out my muscles, and I push the 10% rule occasionally.

What tips would you add? Which rules are you most likely to break?

Hop over to Jill’s for more Fitness Friday posts!

A running break and my fall race calendar

First of all, if you missed Jessica’s heart-wrenching story about her friend’s sweet daughter Cassie battling Spinal Muscular Atrophy, I encourage you to check it out.  It’s powerful.

It’s been one week since the triathlon, and although I feel ready to ramp up running mileage,   I’m not sure my shin is with me. Although it felt fine during the race, I felt the muscle pull again this week on my run.

Rather than continuing to take a few days off, run, aggravate it, rest and repeat, I decided to take a solid two weeks with no running and focus on spinning and swimming to give my muscle strain adequate time to heal.

The timing worked out well as it was our gym’s Les Mills Launch on Saturday, and I was there for back-to-back RPM spin classes.  It helped fill the gap the long run otherwise would have.

Heading to spin class

Plus, there are no big races right around the corner and it can be miserable running in the Texas summer heat.  I know I need to take the time now to ensure it’s feeling 100% rather than being forced to take weeks or months off in the middle of a training cycle.

Do you think of your training in terms of cycles? We know the importance of cut back weeks in training, and I’ve read of a few athletes who also carve out an entire cut-back month each year to give their body a break.  July is turning out to be that month for me, and I think it’s a good thing.

In the meantime, I’m using this as an opportunity to focus on strength.  I signed up for Tina’s 8-week Boot Camp, something I typically don’t feel I can combine with high running mileage.  I’m ready to try something new.

Running breaks also motivate me to map out my upcoming race schedule, so here’s what I hope the fall will look like:

  • Possible August 5k race while visiting family in PA
  • September 5k at Fitbloggin
  • October 10 miler
  • October Houston half marathon
  • November Turkey Trot (5k)
  • December Run Girl half marathon

Do you plan cycles in your training to include a cut-back month?

What is the next race on your calendar?


Carb-loading, Veggie Stromboli and Cookie Dough Pudding

It’s a rainy week here.  The good news is that Texas is relatively cool. The bad news is that thunderstorms are supposed to continue through the weekend, and I am terrified about cycling in the rain at the triathlon.  Let’s hope it stops by then!

This week’s What I ate Wednesday is more like what we’ve been eating the last few days. July’s focus is on fun, food and fitness.

Fun: Over the weekend, a Chinese friend asked if I would help her learn how to bake bread and muffins.  We had a blast kneading the dough for french bread and mashing bananas for muffins.

Food: Monday night, I made pizza dough, which Lil helped me roll out for a Veggie-packed Stromboli:

Veggie StromboliIt’s super easy and delicious! We spread the rolled dough with mustard, add sauteed broccoli, onion and peppers, top it with mozzerella or feta cheese, and pinch edges together to make a roll.  Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes until dough is done, and serve topped with tomato sauce.

Veggie StromboliLocal avocados and tomatoes are everywhere, so we’ve been eating lots of fresh salsa and guacamole:

The Farmer’s Market is also overflowing with eggplant.  Last night’s dinner was Mediterranean pasta over spinach:

And my favorite dessert lately has been a variety of cookie dough puddings.

I’ve been experimenting with both chickpeas and tofu as a base, and I prefer the chickpeas.  The basic ingredients are the same as the Garbanzo Bean Brownies.

Cookie dough pudding  (print)

  • 1 can garbanzo beans (white beans make a smoother “pudding”)
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/4 c. almond or dairy milk
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 Tbsp nut butter
  • 1 Tbsp cocoa powder or 1/2 scoop chocolate protein powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 ripe banana (optional)
  • 1/2 c. dark chocolate chips

Blend everything together in a food processor.

If you prefer a tofu base, Gina has a good peanut butter cookie dough recipe.

Fitness: I’m tapering this week, but did get in a 1600m swim in the rain this morning.  My shin is feeling much better with my Tommie Copper calf sleeves (thanks to Ali’s giveaway that I won a few months ago!)

Pasta, bread, and stromboli… I’m certainly taking my race week carb-loading seriously! What seasonal foods are you enjoying this week?

Triathlon training (in three weeks)

Taper week is here! Toward the end of June, I signed up for my first triathlon, excited to cross it off my fitness bucket list.  The one that best fit my schedule was only three weeks out, leaving minimal time to train.

Here’s what my triathlon training looked like the last few weeks:

Week of June 18-24th

  • Monday: Spin class
  • Tuesday: 8 mile run (2 warm up, 3.1 in 21:43, 2 cool down), quick arm circuit + registered for the triathlon!
  • Wednesday: 2200 m swim, abs
  • Thursday: (am) 7 mile run (2.5 at 7:30 pace); (pm) spin class
  • Friday: OFF
  • Saturday: 15 mile run, 8:50 ave pace
  • Sunday: First brick- 14 mile cycling outdoors + 3.4 mile run

This was my strongest running week with 33.4 miles, which is appropriately timed a few weeks out.  And I got in my first brick workout… running after biking is surprisingly difficult!

Week of June 25- July 1st

  • Monday: 1000m swim, short weight circuit
  • Tuesday: 6.2 mile run (first noticed shin tenderness)
  • Wednesday: (am) 15 mile spin; (pm) 800m open water swim practice ——->
  • Thursday: Spin class + 3 arc trainer
  • Friday: OFF
  • Saturday: Brick- 1200m swim+ 2.5 run with hill repeats+ 2.5 arc trainer
  • Sunday: 80 minute spin class

This was the week I noticed some shin discomfort, and switched over to the arc trainer for a few mock “running” miles.

Week of July 2-8th

  • Monday: 5 arc trainer miles; 1000m swim
  • Tuesday: (am) weight circuit; (pm) 15 outdoor cycling on Holly’s amazing bike!
  • Wednesday: 6.5 test run— shin still tender 🙁
  • Thursday: spin class + arms and abs
  • Friday: OFF
  • Saturday: Spin class + 1000m swim
  • Sunday: weights circuit

I skipped my runs on Thursday and Saturday this week to give my shin extra time to recover.

I made my own training plan simply by adding in a few swims and some outdoor bike time each week. I didn’t spend a lot of time on any one discipline, but it feels sufficient for this distance. The sprint triathlon will consist of a 550m swim, 16 mile bike, and 3.2 mile run.

My plan for tapering this week is 1-2 easy swims, 2 easy bike rides, and some mock jogging on the arc trainer.  I’ll take Saturday (and possible Friday) off completely.

I have most of the race day details worked out, but am still working on a few things:

  • How do I keep my hair out of my face through a swim, bike and run? (braids? a hat?)
  • Planning out what to wear… (tri shorts and bathing suit vs. borrowed tri top)
  • Collecting and organizing everything I need (towel, swim goggles and cap, bike helmet, sunglasses, shoes and socks, race belt or clips, water bottle, watch? fuel?)
  • Practicing the flow of transitions

I’m definitely getting excited… and  I’m always looking for tips, if anyone has any final words of advice!

Biking, Baking and Black Bean salad

It’s time for another round of What I ate Wednesday!  This month, we’re tying in fitness, something I usually do anyway, so I’m excited.  Let’s get started!

Biking: This month holds a new fitness challenge for me… my first triathlon! Eleven days to go.  I feel so lucky that my local blogging buddy Holly is letting me borrow her road bike- it. is. amazing.  I’m too nervous to race clipped in, so I walked it two blocks to the bike shop yesterday to get the pedals switched.  And then I couldn’t wait to take it for my first spin last night!

Wow!  I had no idea what I was missing- that 15 mile ride was the most fun I’ve had on a bike in years.  Now I just have to get comfortable with a little more speed outdoors and work up the nerve to grab my water bottle while riding… it’s a bit different from indoor spinning!

Baking: I was inspired by the six very ripe bananas on our counter top to do some healthified baking this week.  Lil helped me restock her banana “cookies” and then we used yogurt and applesauce to make an amazing chocolate chip banana bread.  In the chaos of baking with a 2 year old, I forgot to add any sugar and it was still delicious! I’ll share the recipe this week.

Black Bean Salad

Nothing says summer like sweet corn and fresh salads!  We’re having a BBQ with friends this afternoon, and I plan to bring this salad with us:

Black Bean and Corn Salad (print recipe)


  • 2 c. cooked black beans, or 1 15 oz can, rinsed and drained
  • 2 c. fresh steamed or frozen sweet corn
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 yellow pepper, chopped
  • 2 scallions, sliced
  • 1 c. cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 avocado, diced (optional)
  • 1/4 c. fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper


Combine salad ingredients (through cilantro). In a small bowl, combine oil, lime juice, salt and pepper. Pour over salad and toss gently to mix.

Happy 4th of July! How are you spending the day?

Do you have a favorite summer salad?

Do you incorporate plyometrics?

Thanks to Kim, I have been diligently searching out new cross training opportunities each month for her New 2 U Cross Training Challenge.  It’s been so helpful to have that extra push to try new things.

There is an HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) class at my gym that I’ve wanted to try for months.  It was only offered Saturday mornings (typical long-run day), but this month a second class was added Wednesday evenings, so I finally went.

The class itself was much what I expected- rounds of intense cardio mixed with strength training.  There’s no doubt it was a great workout, better than an easy run would have been, but all the jumping and plyometrics on hardwood floors was a lot of pounding for a non-running day.

Runners can benefit from pylometrics, and I’d like to incorporate some of these exercises more often but it’s important to add them in gradually and carefully. I like these recommendations to use a grassy area and start with 10-20 minutes to ease in, rather than the hour-long HIIT class.

That being said, I know some runners who really enjoy HIIT, and it would definitely make you a stronger runner! And for non-runners, it’s an awesome all-around cardio and strength workout.

Here’s a glimpse of the class I attended

30 second bursts of cardio

  • jumping jacks
  • mountain climbers on the bosu ball
  • squat jumps on the bosu ball
  • side-to-side squat jumps
  • quick feet (switching feet over the bosu ball)
  • jump-rope
  • burpees
  • plank “jacks”

Strength moves

  • push ups on the (upside-down) bosu ball
  • overhead shoulder press with dumbbells
  • bicep curls
  • tricep kick-backs
  • wood-chopper (dumbbell overhead and down to the side as you squat)
  • spiderman push ups
  • planks

I thought my arms would be sore, but I felt it the most in my hips for the next two days, from all the side to side jumping.

Have you done an HIIT class or plyometrics?

Do you find plyometrics complement your running, or puts you at risk for injury?


Triathlons and baseball

Thanks to some of my triathlete friends (Corey, Holly, Jamie and others), I’m strongly considering a sprint triathlon.  Holly told me about several in the next few months, and the one that’s most appealing is at the end of June.  It’s a 300m pool swim, short 10 mile bike, and 3 mile run. Very doable.

I was still on the fence about signing up, but checked their website today to learn that registration is full.  Bummer! I guess I’ll keep looking… and honestly, maybe it’s a good thing! It was March when I last got into the pool, and possibly longer since I did an outdoor ride.  I’m sure spinning would count for something, but it’s not the same.

On a running note, remember the Astros 10k where I lucked out to place first in my age group? Besides the gift card (gone already on a much-needed new swim suit!), they also gave out free tickets to an Astros game, and age group winners were invited to participate in a short pre-race ceremony.  My husband loves baseball so we decided to turn it into a date night out on Wednesday evening.

Walking out on the field

I got there just in time, and ended up at the end of the line.  We all took pictures of the players, although I couldn’t tell you their names.

They displayed our times on the giant screens, and took the camera back and forth across our faces while we all waved and smiled.  That was about it!

Afterwards, I headed up to my seat.  I like baseball for a couple of hours, and then I’m done.  We made it to the 7th inning stretch.

And treated ourselves to some ball park food… a hot dog for Jared, ice cream for me.  🙂

Finally, I am featured on Fit Mom in Training today, go check it out! 🙂

Am I the only one who struggles to make it to the end of a baseball game?

And, what I’d really love to know, would you consider a triathlon?

Two peanut sauces and wiaw

Did you know it’s National Running day today? Get out for a run if you can!


I’m over one week in, and the running streak is going well.  It’s pushing my 30 mile weeks to 33, which is a reasonable 10% increase, and my legs have been handling it so far.  I also mentioned last week that I had to tape myself teaching spin over the weekend to submit for a final review on my certification.  I’m happy to say it’s done and in the mail…here’s hoping it’s good enough!


Switching gears, it’s time for another What I ate Wednesday with Peas and Crayons:

Yesterday was an extra snack-y day for me…ironically, I realized at the end of the day that snacking was the WIAW theme for June.  It was mostly “sensible.”  Here’s a peak:

[Breakfast: Yogurt, granola bar crumbs from failed bars, and banana; Lunch: Leftover black beans with feta, carrots and hummus; Dinner: Gado gado (veggies and egg with peanut sauce) over quinoa; Snacks: a few of L’s roll-ups; dried fig; watermelon; and an unpictured granola bar; Dessert: Gooey garbanzo brownies]

After sharing my peanut-lime noodle lunch a few weeks ago, I had several requests for a recipe.  So I’m answering with two of our go-to peanut sauce dinner recipes. As it heats up, these are great options for tasty, healthy vegetarian meals that don’t use the oven!

Peanut Lime Noodles

  • 1/2 c. peanut butter
  • 1/2 c. salsa, medium or hot
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • dash salt
  • 8 oz. soba, buckwheat noodles or angel hair pasta
  • diced cucumber, steamed broccoli, marinated tofu chunks, shredded carrot, steamed kale, etc.

For the peanut sauce, combine equal parts peanut butter and salsa.  Stir in lime juice, cumin and salt.  Cook the noodles according to package directions, and drain well.  Coat the noodles with the peanut dressing, then add tofu and veggies of your choice.

The peanut butter-salsa combination may sound odd, but it’s one of the easiest ways to make a peanut-lime sauce- and it’s really yummy!

The second recipe is a version of Indonesian Gado Gado, a vegetable salad covered with a peanut sauce .  You can add sliced hard-boiled eggs or grilled tofu for extra protein.  We like to eat ours over brown rice or quinoa.Simple Gado Gado

Simple Gado Gado   (Print recipe)

  • 1/2-1 c. vegetable broth or hot water
  • 1/3 c. creamy peanut butter
  • 2 Tbsp lime juice
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • hot sauce to taste
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 5-6 c. total : steamed broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots or green beans
  • 4-6 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
  • grilled tofu, optional
  • steamed brown rice

Combine the first 7 ingredients (peanut butter through salt) to make the peanut sauce.  Add enough broth or water to reach your desired consistency. Steam or prepare the vegetables of your choice, and boil eggs for 10 minutes.  Serve veggies over rice, top with sliced eggs and tofu, and pour peanut sauce over everything. Enjoy!

I made some changes to the recipe page: under the recipe tab, I added a “search recipe” option where you can bring up the recipe without viewing the entire accompanying post.

Okay, it’s time to figure out dinner… what are you having tonight? Are you planning to get a run in today?


Do you ignore your core?

Jack knife pile

My only experience with physical therapy was five years ago for knee pain from my first attempt at marathon training.  Part of my therapy sessions included the jack knife pile on a  medicine ball, which I hated! They were so hard, and I couldn’t figure out how that exercise could possibly be tied to my knee pain. But I respected my PT, and did what he said.

In retrospect, it wasn’t the running that did me in, it was the lack of balancing my running with any other strength exercise. Not least of which was my core.

I wish I had known then what I know now.  Not only does a strong core help to prevent injury, it can actually make us stronger runners.  Strengthening the core muscles can provide more stability, better balance and improved posture, all of which leads to greater endurance and a better running technique according to this article.  That means we can be more efficient while also decreasing our risk for injury.

Since learning my lesson the hard way, I have maintained some sort of core routine, usually 3 times a week.  Sometimes I only have time for a few rounds of sit ups and push ups, other days I include a wider range of exercises like those outlined here: planks, side planks oblique twists, back bridge, and supermans.  And occasionally, I make it to a class that incorporates core strength- Yoga, Body Pump, and finally this week, Pilates.

I haven’t been back to Pilates since before I was pregnant, so I’m counting my class this week as my May New 2 U Cross Training challenge with Kim.  The instructor was a substitute, and not as challenging as I had hoped, but I came away with a happier core. It’s still hard for me to not feel like I’m “wasting” an hour of exercise when I’m not sweating, but I know it pays off.

Pilates is also beneficial for runners.  Pilates is especially helpful if you have:

  • weak inner thighs
  • hips that drop or twist when you run
  • tight hamstrings, calves, hips or IT bands  (What runner doesn’t have tight hamstrings?!)

You can find other Fitness Friday posts at Jill’s link up!  Do you pay attention to your core? What does your core routine look like?