Have you ever been told that you should work on your core to be a faster or an injury resistant runner? How true are those statements? How does one acquire a strong core…through a bunch of crunches? Oh wait, those are old school; maybe planks with different variations? That is what you have seen in the popular press, isn’t it? Interestingly, in 2013 Dr. Bliven, a functional anatomy professor at my graduate school, A.T. Still University, published a paper on core stability training and stated that despite the popularity of core training for injury prevention and performance enhancement, minimal supporting evidence exists.
If minimal supporting evidence exists, why am I blogging about this subject? I subscribe to a newsletter from a physical therapist, who also designs virtual marathon training programs, as I do. He was discussing core strength making you a faster runner, as a sales pitch for his core training program. He goes on to say that a 2009 study by Sato and Mokha determined that after 6-weeks of core training, their study group improved their 5k time by 2.7%. I first read the Sato and Mokha study back in 2012 and know that in addition to the core workouts, the study group compared to the control group started out weighing more and running less miles a week and some were “recreationally active”, not necessarily runners. The study is flawed because in addition to the core exercises, the subjects increased their running mileage over the six weeks and the performance improvement could be the result of increased training adaptions from the increased mileage.
Now don’t get me wrong, core training is valuable. But understanding why you do it and what specifically to do is extremely powerful for compliance. Having a stable core can indirectly make you more injury resistant and increase your run performance, by allowing you to continue to train injury free and adapt to training and become a faster runner. There is not a cause and effect, but an association.
The lumbo-pelvic-hip complex including the lumbar and thoracic spine make up the “core” with 29 different muscles connecting to the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. These muscles are not only responsible for stabilization of the spine and pelvis, but aid in transfer of energy from large to small body parts during athletic endeavors, not just running. The list of these muscles that stabilize the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex is way too long (it includes our friend gluteus medius, by the way), so I want to focus on two muscles that work together, their closest friends (teamwork makes the dream work), and what exercises should be the focus of your core workouts.
Transversus abdominis and multifidus are the dream team of stabilization for the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. One on the front of the body and the other on the back of the body, they create a corset, along with the oblique muscles. Transversus abdominis is deep, under the rectus abdominis, falsely referred to as the “six pack”. If you didn’t know, it really is an “eight pack” and we all have it, just some of us have more fat tissue on top of it.
The multifidus spans the entire length of the spine, but is thickest in the lumbar region (low back), stabilizing intervertebral motion without compromising spinal movements or generating torque. Low back pain anyone? Only 80% of the population suffers from low back pain at one time or the other throughout the year. Strong evidence supports decreasing the reoccurrence of low back pain by rehabilitating (exercising) the multifidus (MacDonald et al., 2006). So once again, this Run With Gina blog post is good info for your non-running friends too. Pass it along!
I know what you are thinking…cut to the chase! What exercises have research shown to be most effective in specifically targeting the transversus abdominis, multifidus, obliques, and our friend gluteus medius? So here they are and if you aren’t familiar with the names, I suggest you look up links on YouTube; supine bridge, supine unilateral bridge, side bridge, plank, bird dog, stability ball roll out, and stability ball pike (Advanced -- must build up to pike). Not on this list: crunches!
Stay tuned for next week’s blog post on what exercise can be done for six weeks and has been proven (cause and effect) to improve 2.5 k run time by almost 4% in mid and long-distance runners…not recreationally active individuals, but actual runners!
Runner Image: Mikey Francisco
Bliven, K. C. H. & Anderson, B. E. (2013). Core stability training for injury prevention. American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, 5(16), 514-522.
MacDonald, D. A., Moseley, G. L., & Hodges, P. W. (2006). The lumbar multifidus: Does the evidence support clinical beliefs? Manual Therapy, 11, 254-263.
Sato, K., & Mokha, M. (2009). Does core strength training influence running kinetics, lower-extremity stability and 5000-M performance in runners? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 133-140.