Core For Runners: Your Secret Superpower
What if the nagging hamstring injury that haunts you every running season wasn't actually the fault of that hamstring being weak or tight? What if that hamstring was triggered because you squeeze your abs so tight that you don't move your upper body, your foot lands in front of you, and that hamstring has to pull you along for your 5k instead of your whole leg driving you forwards?
WHAT you are feeling is your hamstring, but WHY you're feeling it might come down to your foundation: the core.
If you read the first two blogs in this running series, you already know about demand and capacity, and how they may lead to early-season and recurrent running injuries (if you haven't, make sure you check them out!). Here, we are adding STRATEGY to the mix. Strategy has everything to do with how your body is moving, your movement habits, and the compensations you use to keep yourself moving.
Your core makes up the foundation of all movement - take these two scenarios and think about which one is going to fair better: first, you line up behind a cannon that's on solid ground, light the fuse, and watch the cannonball fly through the air, alternately, you line up behind that same cannon, but this time it's sitting in a canoe with you, you light the fuse and.... well you can imagine what might happen. Your core is the ground or the canoe, your limbs are the cannon and cannonball, and the outcome is up to you. Like the foundation of a building, how you are stacked (your posture) will affect how stable the rest of the structure is (like our cannon in the canoe). In Canada, our foundations have to withstand expanding and contracting ground during the annual freeze and thaw, similarly, your foundation needs to be able to move and adapt while under load. You will move more than the foundation of your home, but the lesson here is that the human foundation is mobile, yet stable, and the core is the centre of the entire operation.
The core is so much more than just 6-pack abs and, in fact, a 6-pack is a poor indicator of good core function. Anatomically, the core includes the diaphragm (breathing muscle), the four layers of abdominal muscles, the pelvic floor, and spinal muscles. Think about the core like a canister with walls on all sides; if a pop can was made up of just the front of the can, it wouldn't hold much would it? While running, this TEAM works together to keep our body upright while our legs and arms propel us forward. These muscles create the stable ground to shoot our cannons (legs and arms), while constantly adjusting to store and release force like a giant, beautiful, elastic band. The core is one of the most amazing pieces of engineering in the human body, it turns on before any limb movement ever happens, and it works tirelessly to make our movements more efficient.
There are clues that, if we listen, tell the story of a core team that may not be working optimally for runners (and many other physical movements). Let's come back to the analogy about the foundation of a house: a very apparent clue about a foundation problem would be a crack or a leak that you can see, hear and touch, but that isn't the only sign that there is a problem with the foundation (and, in fact, it may NEVER be your sign). Foundation problems could present as a drafty window that you can't reseal, no matter how many times you replace it or recaulk the edges. They might present as a door that always sticks, or drywall that will never lay flat. The point is, no matter how many ways you try to fix those foundation problems at the SITE, usually the solution comes at the SOURCE: the foundation. When it comes to humans, problems may show up during a run (like the obvious crack in the foundation), but they may also sneak up over days or weeks (like the drafty window).
Here are some drafty windows we see in our runners, do any of them sound like you?
Pain between the shoulder blades
Lower back pain
Piriformis syndrome or sciatica
Leaking urine during or after a run
Trouble catching or coordinating your breath during a run
How do you know if you have a drafty window? It happens over and over again no matter what you try. Change footwear, surface, stop running and start again, have physiotherapy for that area. Now, it's important to note that not EVERY problem is a drafty window, but if things keep happening and don't resolve with treatment to that specific area, a foundation problem ought to ALWAYS be looked at.
So how do people end up with these foundation problems and drafty windows? Your core strategy might have changed because of an injury you had at some point during your life, it can be affected by your work or how much time you spend sitting, and for many women, it changes after you have kids. Occasionally, it's a fatigue factor and you try new strategies when you're pushing those extra few miles or taking up a new exercise program. The best way to understand what's going on is to look at what's happening in real-time with a thorough running and movement assessment, something that we do often at CONNECT. After a running assessment, we often dive into making short-term adjustments to demand while we increase capacity (strength) and optimize strategy in the long term.
It's the three-headed dragon of running success, and it's chasing you all the way to the finish line!
In the meantime, let's build on the practical strategies from our last two blog posts with techniques that you can use TODAY to improve your running and reduce injury risk. Without getting into too much detail, we can boil these strategies down to three words:
Lean, Breathe, and Rotate
Lean forward to stack your ribcage over your pelvis and stack the building on top of the foundation. Breathe into your belly to allow the core team to function together. Rotate to break up stiffness, absorb and release energy through your elastic core, and increase glute activation in order to propel yourself faster and farther!
Here are a few exercises to practice Lean, Breathe and Rotate before your next run. For each one, lean slightly forward, find a steady breath, and rotate from your shoulders to your hips (except the side steps!). Each exercise can be done for a minute before switching sides and repeated twice, or you can complete 8-15 reps before switching exercises. Mix this in in addition to the strengthening from the last blog, or on its own depending on your needs!
Walking Windmill Lunges
In a forward walking lunge, extend your arms and rotate your trunk towards the leg stepping forwards. Focus on trying to exhale throughout the lunge, inhaling between. Keep these slow and controlled until you find your rhythm.
Mountain Climbers to Outside and Across
Start in a high plank position, bring your knee up towards your elbow on the same side WITHOUT changing your spinal position. Exhale as you do this. When working across the body, allow your trunk to rotate as you bring your knee across without lifting your bum up or letting it fall down. Keep these slow and controlled until you find your rhythm.
Crossed Band Side Steps
Place band under feet, cross ends and hold in opposite hands. Come into 1/4 squat/knees bent. Inhale first. On the exhale take a small step out to the side and then a step in with the opposite foot. Keep shoulder blades down and back, and lean slightly forward.
Runner's Lunge Band Pull
Standing in a runner's lunge stance with the right leg in front. Lean shoulders forward coming from the hip. Take band tied in front in the left hand. Pull left arm back leading with elbow, rotating to the left. Come back to the front. Switch sides
Stephanie Sollazzo is a Registered Physiotherapist, wife, mother, yoga teacher, and self-professed lover of homemade Italian food (especially when her sons make the noodles). She is passionate about helping moms return to activity after pregnancy, and working with children of all ability levels. If you can't find Steph at CONNECT, the only place to look for her is on a beach. To book an appointment with Stephanie, click here