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!

Big Book of Marathon Training Review and Giveaway

Hope you all had a great weekend!  My 12 miler turned into 15 Saturday morning, and then I got my first brick workout in on Sunday- 14 mile ride and a 3.5 mile run.  I’m happy to rest my legs today, and might get an easy swim in.  Thanks for all the support and advice on how to train for a tri in three weeks!

Moving on to some running-related reading, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to review the Big Book of Marathon and Half Marathon Training, and to share a copy with two of you!

This book was written by three of Runner’s World’s editors who are also highly accomplished athletes: Jennifer Van Allen, Bart Yasso, and Amby Burfoot.

In addition to covering everything from nutrition and training basics to injury prevention, they offer six full and half marathon training plans.  The pages are peppered with real life marathon stories and tips.

The Big Book of Marathon and Half Marathon Training is well-organized and easy to read, yet it also includes the science behind running, and answers many “how” and “why” questions in layperson’s terms. It really is a “big” book, with something for everyone.  I know I will be referencing this book for years to come.

Here’s a sample of the great questions they tackle:

  • At what point do runners plateau, and is it inevitable?
  • How do you find your tempo pace and what does it teach your body?
  • What is the ideal stride to prevent injury?
  • Is it ever safe to lose weight while training?
  • When is it best to consume fast vs. slow carbs?

While much of the information was familiar, I also had many “oh-how-interesting” moments, such as the fact that one of the benefits of staying well hydrated is that it keeps your joints fluid and helps flush out damaged cells that can lead to inflammation.  Who knew?

Would you like a copy for yourself?  The authors have generously offered to giveaway two books!

To enter:

  • Simply leave a comment telling me why you want to read this book

Optional additional entries: (leave separate comments for each)

  • Let me know if you follow me on Twitter
  • Tweet about this giveaway- here’s one option:                                                           Win a copy of RW’s Big Book of Marathon Training @mommyrunfaster
  • Extra entry if you are training for your first full or half marathon

Good luck!  If you’re new here, I’d love to connect more with you!  You can also find me on Facebook and Pinterest.

This giveaway will run through Sunday, July 1, 2012 at midnight (CST).  Winners will be chosen through and announced on Monday, July 2, 2012.  Giveaway open to US residents only.  Runner’s World provided me with a copy of the book to review.  I was not compensated for this review, and all opinions are my own.

When to call it quits?

I ended the Runner’s world running streak this week.  I’m not injured, but I felt my body accumulating a fatigue that I did not want to tolerate for another few weeks, so I decided to take a complete rest day to give me legs a chance to recover.  I made it over two weeks, which is a first for me-  I’m impressed with those of you who are still going!

Whew, it’s hot out there!

I was back at it yesterday, with an early morning soaking wet run- (you don’t have to work hard in the hot, humid Texas summers to come back with clothes you can literally wring out.)

I really wanted to complete the challenge, but my body said stop. So I did.  I don’t want to over-do it. Have you heard of over-training syndrome? It’s a real concern, and it can take more than a day or two to recover from.

Some over-training warning signs from your body…

  • Feeling exhausted, even after getting enough sleep
  • Heavy legs before, during and after runs
  • Emotional highs and lows
  • Appetite changes
  • Lack of motivation for usual workouts
  • Easy workouts consistently feel harder than usual

By paying attention to your bodies signals and backing off early, you can avoid injury and physical or mental burnout.

Have you ever experienced signs of over-training?

Any running plans for the weekend? I’m meeting up with a relatively new running group for nine miles Saturday morning, and brunch afterward to celebrate my running buddy May’s birthday.  And of course, Sunday is Father’s Day!  Otherwise, it’s a quiet weekend for a change.  I’m looking forward to it!

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?

Spinning for runners- part one

Since getting certified to teach RPM spinning, I’ve gotten a few requests for a post on spinning and the things I have learned.  So I’ll start with my spinning story:

I started spinning consistently after my marathon last spring.  My shin was a little achy, and I jumped back into long runs too soon, resulting in an ‘almost’ stress fracture (it was never confirmed) and a conservative two months off running.  In the healing process, I experimented with a number of spinning classes and quickly learned how much variety there is!

Initially, I was not impressed and was really missing the endorphin rush and good sweat from a nice run.  But I eventually found instructors who really pushed me, and I began to work harder.  I got to a point where I was consistently leaving class dripping wet and found my fitness improving (strength and pace).

RPM is one particular brand of cycling classes, although some of my favorite classes were free cycling… it really comes down to the instructor in most cases!

What I appreciate about RPM classes is that they emphasize interval training– hitting your peaks, then recovering so you can work hard again.  When you’re working, you should REALLY be working… it’s only 45 minutes long, so the idea is to max out in those 45 minutes.  Interval training has been shown to be the best way to get fitter.  And if you’re looking to burn calories, it revs your system and you continue burning calories for hours afterward.

After I returned to running, I found that I had not lost as much running fitness as I anticipated.  I ran my first 5k on two weeks of training and felt much better than I expected to (finished in 21:47). I continued going to spinning classes twice a week.

Spinning can effectively strengthen the entire muscles of the leg, serving as a great compliment to running, especially if you live in a flat area (like me) and don’t get a lot of hill workouts in, or rarely take the time to strength train your legs.  I credit spinning for powering me up the hills in Austin’s half marathon when I only trained on flat roads. I know that spinning has made me a more well-rounded athlete and a stronger runner.

Spinning can also replace one (or two ) easy runs per week and allow you to train harder without overtaxing your body with extra running miles.  Run Less, Run Faster encourages spinning as the cross-training of choice for this reason, and I’ve found that spinning helps me keep my mileage lower while my body still benefits from extra cardiovascular training.

I’ll continue this post on Monday with additional spinning tips that I’ve picked up along the way.  Head over to Jill’s for more Fitness Friday posts!

Do you spin or cross train?

Have you seen benefits in your running fitness from cross training?


Is running bad for your joints?

Did anyone watch the Biggest Loser marathon Tuesday night? The doctor pulled a few hurting contestants toward the end to avoid further “injuring joints.”  That was obviously the right thing to do (I was wincing for them!) but it also fuels the general consensus that running a marathon can damage your joints.  I’ve been told this by well-meaning family and friends, but is there any truth in it? Here are two articles that have helped me form a response.

The NY Times posted an article in 2009 called, “Physical Ed: Can Running Actually Help Your Knees?”   It discussed one study that followed marathon runners before and after a marathon, and scanned their knees again ten years later. Here’s what they found:

“The results were striking. “No major new internal damage in the knee joints of marathon runners was found after a 10-year interval,” the researchers reported. Only one of the participants had a knee that was truly a mess, and he’d quit running before the marathon …. His exam prompted the researchers to wonder whether he would have been better off persisting as a runner, because, as they speculate, “continuous exercise is protective, rather than destructive” to knees. [Emphasis mine.]

In order to avoid injuries, the author wrote:

“…one of the best deterrents against a first (or subsequent) knee injury is targeted strength training. “The hip stabilizers, quads, hamstrings and core must all be strong enough. As soon as there is weakness, some other muscle or joint must take over, and that’s when injuries happen.”  You can read the full story here.

Another article, titled “Can you wear out your joints?” writes:

Clearly, running stresses the weight-bearing joints. In fact, up to 5 to 7 times your weight is supported by your knees while jogging. Although the research is mixed, long-term runners are not clearly more likely to wear out their weight-bearing joints than people who are sedentary.

For example, a large study of runners published in 1998 found that over a nine-year period, members of a running club ages 50 and older had no higher incidence of OA than an otherwise similar group of non-runners. A more recent study came to a similar conclusion. Runners averaging 3.5 miles of roadwork each day had 25% less musculoskeletal pain than those averaging just 2 miles each week.” [Emphasis mine.]

Here’s the summary:  Yes, running is a high-impact sport in which the body takes a lot of pounding.  However, running does not appear to damage joints.  In fact, it can actually be beneficial to your bone health and joints IF you’re smart about your training, incorporate weight training, and allow your body to adapt to each new level of stress.

Back to the Biggest Loser Marathon…I believe a marathon can be done pain-free, when the appropriate training is completed. But is five months enough time to prep a sedentary body for that kind of stress?  My personal conclusion is that the contestants have trained too quickly for the marathon and are battling over-use injuries, (which, by the way, can occur in any sport.)

Do you run into this assumption? How do you respond? What are your thoughts on the BL marathon?