The key to running far and fast – a strong core

Posted: November 21, 2009 in Training

As I have mentioned previously when I began training in earnest for my first marathon in 2006 the only thing that I knew about the sport is that I knew nothing at all.  I read everything that I came across and consulted with any expert I could find to determine how to build my weekly mileage and get ready for the 18-week training program that would get me through the 26 mile 385 yard distance.

I was very dilligent in my training, paid close attention to the mileage on my shoes, ate right and sure enough on November 19, 2006 I covered the distance and could look in the mirror and say the words that every first timer can’t wait to say, “I am a marathoner”.  It was not too long after the Philadelphia Marathon was over before I started to think about another challenge.  Would it be possible at the age of 40 for me to dramatically decrease my time from a 3:58:08 first time showing in Philadelphia to under 3:20:00 to qualify for the Boston Marathon?  That meant decreasing my marathon mile pace from 9:05 per mile to 7:38.

Mile 14 Pittsburgh Marathon - May 2009

Your running pace is not a very complicated mathematical equation – simply it is your stride length X the frequency of your stride.  If I was going to seriously make a run at Boston there were only a few variables that I could really attack with a training program.  Because I could not choose my genetic make-up and there was not much I could do to elongate my 5′ 8″ frame to lengthen my stride – it was going to come down to increased strength, increased flexibility and training to run fast.

Strength training for runners is now widely accepted as a key to success.  That was not always the case however and has taken quite a bit of time to debunk many of the myths surrounding the practice.  Runners would say that they did not want to strength train because it would add weight by way of increased muscle mass and they did not want to carry the “extra” pounds over the 5K, 10K, 13.1 mile or 26.2 mile distance.  Other factors were simply the belief that the only way to become a stronger runner was to run more.  Time spent in the gym was time that could not be spent out running – so strength training took a back seat to more miles. 

I will say this – without incorporating strength training into my training program it is an impossibility that I would have been able to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  Did I increase the frequency of my running as I began training for the 2009 Pittsburgh Marathon in an effort to post a new PR (Personal Record) and BQ (Boston Qualifier) – absolutely.  I ran more miles and ran them at a much faster pace to hit my time of 3:17:43 (7:31 pace).  But it was the strength training sessions 3X per week that allowed me to increase both the frequency and intensity of my workouts.

Joe and Kerensa - Fitness 19 Austin, TX

My personal trainer Kerensa (do not let the photo fool you – she is not nearly as nice as she looks!) can be credited with a great deal of the success in trimming more than 40 minutes off of my marathon PR.  Kerensa developed a training program that took into account my desire to increase lean muscle mass while building upper and lower body strength.  She also made it a priority to strengthen my core and that truly has made all the difference.  Your core is essential to improving your running efficiency.

Strengthening your core as well as your other large muscle groups – Quads, Chest, Arms, Back inceases your overall strength – but it does more than simply give you more power.  When muscles do not need to work as hard, they do not require as much oxygen or as much circulated blood.  This puts less demand on the heart and reduces the rate at which it beats.  This leads to a significant improvement in endurance.  The buzz-word nowadays for runners is “functional strength”.  Something that Kerensa has done a great job with in designing a training program that improves my overall strength and stability.

Remember that when you run your leg and opposite arm are working in unison.  Left leg forward – right arm back, right leg forward – left arm back.  At the center of this is your core which if strong and well maintained will be able to keep your posture erect, take weight and pressure from your spine and lower back, rotate your hips and be able to do so mile after mile – making you a much stronger more efficient runner regardless of distance.

Core Muscles

Each time that your muscles contract oxygen and nutrients in your blood are required.  Just as your legs require this “fuel” your arms also draw upon the heart to deliver oxygen and nutriengs as well as remove lactate (waste) so that they can continue to move with ease.  Again, it is all about the stride length and stride frequency to propel your body over distance.  The easier your body has to work to do so will enable you to cover that distance more efficiently and to do so for a longer period of time.

For me I strength train 3X per week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Since Mondays and Fridays are my rest days from running – it is only on Wednesdays where I pull “double-duty” and combine my strength training with running on the same day.  After a warm-up, which is key to not exercising a cold body part and risk injury (10 min. on a stationary bike or maybe a quick 5 minute jog on the treadmill) I will do 20 minutes dedicated to strengthening my core.  Kerensa has developed quite a few core exercises for me to keep them from becoming stale, and let’s be honest – 3 sets of 15 Leg raises to 90 degrees with a 10 lb. dumbell in betwen my feet is not necessarily “fun” at 6:30 a.m. – but it does work and I can honestly feel my core helping my stability and strength over my long training runs.  Cruches, V-Ups, side Abdominal stretches all are part of building and sustaining a strong core area and it is the part of my strength training sessions that now I actually look forward to – starting out when those areas were in need of a lot of attention, these were the most difficult of exercises for me.  In 4-6 weeks I could feel a tremendous difference – which from a training perspective is a very short period of time.

After this period, Kerensa will take me through a 30 minute workout with very little break moving from exercise to exercise and body part to body part.  In less than 1 hour from the time I walk into the gym to the time I leave – each key muscle group has been addressed.  Those three hours a week have made all the difference and I know will pay great dividends not only at Boston this year but certainly 13 days later at the Pittsburgh Marathon which I know will be more about the work I put into preparing for those two races than the effort on that particular day.

Runningplanet.com has some great examples of core exercises geared for runners below:

http://www.runningplanet.com/training/core-strength.html

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Comments
  1. Kate says:

    Great post on core workouts! I have been sticking to my resolution on doing strength work in 2010, and it’s been great to read about other people’s experiences. Thanks for the great info!

  2. joerunfordom says:

    Kate – thanks for the visit and comment! Stick to that resolution you will see really big gains in the speed and stamina department. Remember to work out the upper, lower abs but also pay attention to those side abdominals.

    Strength in those troublesome “side-abs” help keep your torso strong, in great posture and keep those legs turning over when you get fatigued.

    Best of luck in 2010 Kate! Best from Austin, – Joe

  3. colin mason says:

    I appreciate your post, ‘I believe’ your success will benefit me, 🙂 thanx. Bro!

  4. colin mason says:

    I’d really like to stay posted as to in’s / outs for a beginner runnner. . . .I’m 42 y.o. 5′-9″ weigh 172 lbs. timed myself w 2 mile soft track run, I ran it in about 16:00::00. Your the Pro! Whats the best way to improve. . . . .I work 40 plus hr week set time (m-f) morning to evening. as well I have other obligated time. what is your advice?

    • joerunfordom says:

      Hi Colin! First of all – goof for you! That’s a great base to work with just “getting started”. Shoot me an e-mail anytime at joe-runfordom@austin.rr.com – I’d be happy to talk with you about your current mileage base (miles per week on average) – how many days you’d like to train each week and really, how much “time” you can afford to put towards it. (Chances are it will increase as you see improved results!) – kind of the way this sport works …..

      A good mix of some tempo work, hill work and long runs done slowly over time as you get your mileage base up and you will see really tremendous improvements in a short period of time. The big “trap” we need to make sure you steer clear of is the “too much, too fast” which is the road to nagging injuries, time off to recover and steps back in your training progress. Shoot me a message and we can get crackin’ – I’m happy to help as I learned a lot of lessons the hard way, always nice to be able to pay it forward.

      Best to you Colin! Looking forward to hearing from you. (FYI to give you hope, I’m a full-time Operations person, 45-50 hours a week job with travel and a 7 week old at home …. you can find the time for your training, no doubt about it!)

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