Strengthening your core is key to reducing injury risk and improving your fitness.
Throughout high school and college, I was the type of runner who wasn’t afraid of hard work. If my coach told me to run 18 miles in the brutal heat of the summer, I’d do it — no complaints. If he told me that I was running 12 quarters instead of the planned 10, I’d happily complete them. If he told me to jump in the pool after a run to do a few laps, I’d swim away.
As long as I knew a task would make me faster, I’d leap forward into it. In fact, I’d do just about any workout or exercise that I thought would help me improve.
Well, to be completely honest, I’d do just about any workout just as long as it wasn’t a core workout.
Back then, I hated core workouts. During my collegiate running camps in Mammoth, Calif., we’d often end the day with 20 minutes of core. Instead of just doing the exercises like everyone else, I would watch my coach’s face and give myself a break when he wasn’t looking at me. In high school, I’d go for weeks at a time without doing core workouts and then, out of guilt, I’d spend an afternoon brutalizing myself with a core workout, which only would make me insanely sore for a few days and did almost nothing to help my overall fitness.
I never took my core seriously. That is, I never took it seriously until several injuries that were directly related to my weak core recently sidelined me for several months.
Your core — not just your abs but your entire torso from your hips up to your armpits — is the backbone and key to your fitness.
As my current coach puts it, your core is kind of like the foundation of a building. “Would you construct a skyscraper with only a two-foot hole for your foundation?” he asked me.
“Uh, no.” I said.
“Then why would you create such a flimsy foundation for your body?” he replied.
With core-related injuries galore, I went looking for core strengthening exercises. I realized that one of the reasons I avoided core so much was that typical exercises — crunches, sit-ups, etc. — bothered my neck and were more painful than their benefits warranted.
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Luckily for me, those typical exercises don’t actually do much to strengthen your core. Instead, I turned to exercises that are done on unstable surfaces, such as those on a stabilization ball, a Bender Ball or TRX suspension equipment. If they are done correctly, these exercises will activate your entire core — your big muscles and your small stabilization muscles throughout your torso.
As my coach suspected, doing such exercises helped me rehabilitate my injuries and have allowed me to remain injury-free.
But core strength can do more than prevent injuries — it can also make you faster.
Indeed, Inside Triathlon’s Torbjørn Sindballe analyzed the Ironman athletes who competed in the 2009 world championships and found that “the runners with the strongest core and near perfect alignment were far superior to the rest of the field.”
So if you’ve been lagging on the core exercises, buck up! You may just find yourself with a new PR if you do so.
Courtney Baird is the former editor-in-chief of Inside Triathlon magazine. She ran Division 1 cross country and track and now competes in triathlons as an elite age-grouper.