Why You Need Great Abs
by John A. Kissane
They’re being sold by the thousands on late-night TV, those dubious-looking contraptions that guarantee sculpted, rock-hard abs in only minutes a day. And stop by almost any health food store and you’ll read claims that “a ripped, tight and muscular mid-section” can be yours just by popping a few pills each morning. Ridiculous pitches such as these just keep coming…and people just keep buying into them. No doubt about it, the care and feeding of the abdominals is big business.
This phenomenon seems to have minimal application to the distance running crowd. After all, big muscles are anathema to the goal of a fast 10K. And while strength and endurance are key, it’s pretty obvious that lugging around “six-pack abs” doesn’t jive with a better marathon. Knowledgeable runners know it’s the heart, lungs and legs that are important to going long and setting PRs. The rest of the body’s muscles, bones and organs are just along for the ride, right?
Well, think again, but go beyond the ever-popular abdominals. Runners—like all athletes—really should view the body as a functional unit composed of numerous sub-parts which work together and have roles to play in performing well and avoiding injury. And at the core of it all is…the core, defined as that portion of the body between the rib cage and the pelvis. It’s the body’s center of power and is deserving of serious attention. And if you aren’t careful it might demand your attention through injury.
Stable to the Core
The highly complex core region is the starting point for all movement and endures a substantial workload during running. Core muscles include the four abdominal groups (external oblique, internal oblique, rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis), the three lower back groups (psoas major, quadratus lumborum, spinalis) as well as the muscles of the buttocks, hips and pelvis. Most of the time everything functions amazingly well, but the effects of time and misuse can produce some painful consequences.
“The core is really the key part of the body in any sport,” says Mike Huff, coordinator of sports performance at Duke University. “It’s the center of power, and if you’re not strong in the middle you’re not going to be powerful. From a runner’s standpoint it’s more of a stability issue, being able to maintain good posture to maximize performance and also avoid injury.”
During the act of running, the pelvis and lumbar spine serve as the “pivot point” for the lever system that facilitates movement. While the feet and legs may appear to function more dramatically, the trunk is indeed performing in a profoundly important way.
“Running, of course, is primarily a linear activity, but there is a lot of rotation that occurs too,” says Vern Gambetta, Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, FL. “If you look at high-speed video of El Guerrouj or any top runner,” continues Gambetta, who has worked with Olympic-caliber runners, “you’re going to see rotation. The key is being able to control movement so it’s channeled in the right direction, so it’s efficient movement. And the longer the distance the more crucial the efficiency becomes.”
Thus, the main purpose of the core muscles for running is to stabilize the spine and make movement of the extremities as economical as possible, allowing the transfer of power with minimal dissipation of energy.
In sports that involve throwing, jumping or kicking, the ways the core functions to help move the body and transfer power are fairly obvious. With running the connection is perhaps less dynamic but just as important. The regular movements of the hips and shoulders are what propel the runner forward, while the mid-section ideally remains stable so that body position—your running form—is efficient and constant. The runner who lacks core stability, however, will experience excess movement in the mid-section, resulting in a breakdown of running form; loss of running form hastens fatigue and greatly reduces performance potential.
Health Hazards of Sagging Guts
Weak cores can also increase the risk of injury. “Many runners get injured because they have too much movement of the spine,” says Sandra Swami, personal fitness trainer at the highly acclaimed SweatShop fitness center in St. Paul, MN. “If you’re spending a lot of unnecessary energy moving the spine forward and back it doesn’t contribute to forward momentum at all,” continues Swami. “Not only does stabilization training assist in preventing injuries it improves performance, because it limits wasted energy.”
So a stable core is obviously a good thing for a distance runner. But stable muscles are not tight muscles. In fact the opposite is true. Core stability is achieved through muscles that are strong but also properly balanced and flexible enough so that the necessary joints can move through their full range of motion. And because everything in the core is connected, excessive tightness in any area can limit movement elsewhere and lead to injury. Tightness also results in poor posture, and poor posture brings on inefficiency.
Unfortunately, the combination of distance running and full days spent sitting at a desk leaves a person highly predisposed to tight muscles and an unstable core region. This mix also stacks the deck in favor of injury.
“It’s hard to attribute injuries absolutely to one problem,” says Gambetta. “But I think a lot of deceleration-type of injuries—patellar tendonitis, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis—often result from core instability and weakness.”
Beryl Bender Birch, Wellness Director with the New York Road Runners Club, says, “In the basic movement of walking, the hip flexors flex the hip and extend the hamstring. But in running this basic movement is amplified so much and repeated so frequently that the muscles get tighter and tighter and the whole core area just starts to shut down. When range of motion is reduced it becomes much more likely that you will tear something or develop an injury more gradually.”
And even if running didn’t cause tightness and muscular imbalance, those conditions can result from the typical day-to-day routine. “Our general lifestyle tends to result in poor posture, a response to time and sitting in improperly designed chairs,” says Swami. “The combination of poor posture, with the shoulders hunched forward and the hamstrings pulling the pelvis down, causes the lumbar spine region to flatten out. And the inward lumbar curve is there for a reason, to absorb shock.”
Although they are relatively rare, running injuries to the core region itself can open a Pandora’s box of problems (see sidebar on previous page).
Means of Support
So if running combined with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle holds so much potential for disaster, what is one to do? At least part of the answer is to begin a supplemental program, but this must be done with care.
Many distance runners partake of little or no supplemental strength training and relatively infrequent flexibility work, preferring to put nearly every moment of exercise time into running or other forms of cardiovascular activity. And those who do supplemental work often focus on further strengthening the legs because, well, it’s the legs that do the running. While it is true that some leg muscles may need strengthening to avoid imbalance, the area of the body that really deserves increased attention is the core.
A core stability training program can take on many forms. It may be approached as a component of strength training—the ever popular “crunches”—or within the context of a system such as Pilates or yoga. It is absolutely key to first find out where you stand—where you might be lacking in strength and/or flexibility. Doing this may require some help.
“It’s difficult for people not trained in fitness to determine whether they have a muscle imbalance, and if so what to do about it,” notes Swami. “So searching out the expertise of a fitness professional should be viewed as an investment in one’s health.” Fitness consultants are easily found but not all are familiar with stabilization training, so it is important to locate a professional who can assess strength and flexibility of different muscle groups and determine if there indeed is a core imbalance. “It shouldn’t take a zillion sessions with a fitness professional to learn a program,” Swami continues. “The most important exercises can be done at home, so it’s really a matter of getting some initial instruction before going on your own.”
One of the most popular means of working on core stability is through use of the so-called “stability ball,” which has been used for years by physical therapists as well as fitness trainers. A much more recent development is the “core board,” a small platform that tilts and turns with the body’s movements and offers a range of applications.
Pilates, which has gained much attention in recent years but in fact originated nearly a century ago, has a strong focus on stability and balance and is becoming increasingly popular with runners. “Pilates is basically the opposite of traditional strength training, which trains joints as movers,” says Swami, a certified Palates instructor. “In Pilates the emphasis is on looking at all of the forces that affect a joint and working on creating balance, which results in stabilization.” Swami also sees the mind-body focus of Pilates as potentially beneficial to runners. “A person who does Pilates can accomplish a great deal of understanding of the way their body works,” she notes, “and that can improve performance in running because it helps one understand the signals the body is sending.”
Even older is yoga, which originated as early as 5,000 years ago and is the original form of mind-body exercise. The yoga form with perhaps the greatest application to running is astanga yoga, which emphasizes a nearly continuous, flowing movement. But all types of yoga hold the potential for increasing flexibility, strength and balance.
“Yoga is designed to heal injuries, it’s a therapeutic system,” says Birch. “And I’m convinced that almost all sports injuries result from muscular imbalance, from some muscles getting tighter and tighter and other muscles not being used and getting weaker. Yoga increases range of motion and strength as well as concentration and awareness, and through the breathing you develop the cardiovascular muscles and actively provide isometric strengthening for the respiratory muscles. It’s a very sophisticated system and it works on all levels—physical, emotional, energetic.”
Incorporating core stability into your running and fitness program will require work. You’ll want to find out a few things about your present fitness (or lack thereof) and where you need work, then you’ll have to decide which approach to take. And most of the results will be intangible: how do you measure reduced risk of injury? How will you know whether a PR is due to improved core stability, strength and flexibility? But all signs, and the experience of gifted runners, indicate that this is something people who want to improve their running—and prolong their careers—should investigate.
“For a simple investment in terms of time, core training can pay huge dividends,” concludes Gambetta. “Just take ten minutes a day out of your run and do some core work. It’s a minimal investment for a maximal return.”