Friday, 17 February 2012

Core Strength and Run Performance

Hello readers!  Of "cores," it's that time again, welcome "back" (funny, I know)!  Before we get started, make sure you check out and like the NEW Health and Performance Facebook Page- I'll be using this page to post information on new run groups, race information, training tips, race pictures etc. 

Today I am looking into something that many endurance athletes ask me about- the importance of core exercise.  Does it really have a positive impact on performance, or is it a waste of time?  That's what I am taking a quick look at with today's blog.

The Research:

There are plenty of studies out there looking at the relationship between core training and running.  Many of these studies have a similar design- two groups of runners with small sample sizes doing a basic core routine along with a few running related outcome measures.  In my search, I came across this study published in 2009 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The study looked at a 6 week core routine consisting of 5 exercises conducted 4 times/week.  The outcome measures used in the study included:
  •  Star Excursion Balance Test (testing balance)
  • Ground Reaction Forces during different components of their gait cycle (i.e. is there more force during push off? more force during heel strike)?
  • 5000m Time Trial

After the 6 week program, the authors noted that there was improvement in the balance test.  However, this improvement was seen to the same statistical significance in both groups.

In addition, the core training did not have a significant impact on the ground reaction forces observed throughout the runners' gait cycle.

Yet- the most exciting part- when the 5000m TT results were considered, the core training group showed a statistically significant improvement when compared to the control group.  In fact, the core training group improved by an average of 47 seconds compared to 17 seconds for the control group. 

What does this mean?

It's pretty obvious: do some simple core work, and you'll go faster.  There are a number of studies out there trying to deduce why this change happens.  Is it because it has an impact on running economy such as this 2004 study examines?  We're not completely sure.

While it would be nice to actually know WHY something works, at the end of the day it is more important to know if it works.  This study shows that core training may not significantly alter your biomechanics, and it may not have a significant impact on your balance (if you are already a trained athlete), but it will likely make you faster. 

Which to do?

In the study, the 5 exercises they conducted included:
  1. Stability ball abdominal crunch
  2. Back extension on a stability ball
  3. Prone 1-arm, 1-leg raise
  4. Hip raise on a stability ball
  5. Russian twist on a stability ball
While these exercises are fine, they do have their risks.  Researchers have shown that the safest way to load the core (thus the low back) is when you are in a neutral position.  I'm sure many of you have heard this before, but if you lose that subtle curve in your low back, you are going to be putting unhealthy forces through your intervertabal discs (if you are leaning forward), or your facet joints and posterior elements (if you are leaning back).  You can definitely get away with some movement while doing your core work, but the safest course of action is to keep things rock solid in that neutral position.

3 great exercises proven to be effective, to complement each other well, and to be extremely safe are (click to see a video of the exercise):

  1. Bird Dog
  2. Front and Side Planks
  3. McGill Crunch (go 1:25 into the video)
There are more advanced exercises that keep the spine neutral, but master these before you move on.  Feel free to comment or e-mail me if you're looking for suggestions that are safe.  Also, watch the man behind these exercises explain why they are healthy and effective, and why some of your conventional choices may not be: Stu McGill


While the study I discussed IS only one study with a sample size of 20, what it does show is that by adding a simple core routine, you'll probably go faster.  Why does this happen?  I'm not sure, and the research isn't sure either.  But, at the end of the day, if speed is what you crave, then I wouldn't hesitate to add a regular core routine to your training schedule.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Toronto 10km Saga

Hello readers!  Usually I blog about the science behind health, fitness and training.  Today I am writing about a topic that is somewhat different, but important in that it seems to be having a significant impact on our running community.  

For the past 26 years, there has been a Toronto 10km.  For the past 14 years of the race, it has been under the name, "Sporting Life 10km" as Sporting Life has been the key sponsor.  This year, things have changed.  There are now two races: The Yonge Street 10km and The Sporting Life 10km.  So which to chose?  And why is there a split?  With this blog, I am going to try to explain both sides of the story from an unbiased perspective.  Keep in mind, I am not a journalist, just a curious recreational runner.    

The Facts

The initiating factor in the split stems from the two marathons that are held in Toronto: the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon and the Goodlife Toronto Marathon.  Originally both took place in the fall, but an agreement by both parties along with the city brought the Goodlife Toronto Marathon to the spring (early May).

This created conflict because the Toronto Waterfront Marathon is a Canadian Running Series (CRS) event as is the Yonge Street 10km (formerly Sporting Life 10km).  Part of the agreement was that while the Goodlife would move to early May, the CRS series would not hold another event within 2 weeks of the new Goodlife marathon date.  As a result, the 10km would have to be moved either to late April or later on in May. 

Sporting Life's Point of View

The main issue that Sporting Life publicly states is that they were not consulted with regards to this change of date.  

In an article published in the Toronto Star David Russel, co-owner of Sporting Life was quoted saying, "We were aghast that he would do that ... It was cavalier and put our race in jeopardy."

A statement on the Sporting Life 10km website echoes these sentiments. "Unfortunately, the agreement was made by CRS without the knowledge or agreement of either Sporting Life or Camp Oochigeas and without regard as to how this would impact fundraising for the charity."

In essence, Sporting Life felt blindsided by the move.  I can definitely understand these sentiments to some extent.  With 14 years of sponsorship and commitment to the CRS, feeling entitled to some control of the race does seem reasonable at first glance.  But, as you know, there are always two sides to a story... 

Canadian Running Series' Point of View

I had the pleasure of chatting with CRS director Alan Brookes online to clarify some of these issues.  I truly believe he gave me honest answers which revealed the underlying motivation for the split that stems far deeper than the marathons.  The split did not occur because of a simple date change, but from a constant struggle of differing opinions regarding the direction the race was headed long term.

Mr. Brookes made it clear to me during our conversation that the CRS is committed to producing events centered around a complete runners' experience along with encouraging elite runners to pursue excellence. 

In addition, there is also a strong charitable component to the CRS as Brookes told me that, "last year our races [and YOU runners!] raised over $6.5 million for 238 charities."

However, rather than pursuing running excellence in conjunction with strong ties to various charitable causes, Sporting Life wanted to make the race all about the charity with a lesser focus on the runners.  Essentially, their vision was a run for the cure. 

This is consistent with a statement on the new Sporting Life 10km website stating, "This year, for the first time, 100% of race net proceeds will benefit Camp Oochigeas."  

Why Does a 'Run for the Cure' Concern the CRS?

Does this mean that the CRS is anti-charity?  Not even close.  As you can see from the numbers above ($1.3 million raised at last year's 10km, $6.5 million last year total), the CRS not only values charity, but excels at contributing to these causes.  

Brookes told me, "My only concern with charity runs is that they can come and go - like Sunnybrook Run for Research or Baycrest 10K...we are all about the sport and putting on the very best events for the running community. We'll always be here for you."

So at the end of the day, Brookes sees the race as having a focus on running excellence and an exceptional race experience.  This will, in turn, lend to the lasting power of the event, and ultimately maximize the charitable donations.   

Other Motivations?

Is Sporting Life really doing this exclusively to fight for Camp Oochigeas?  Let me be clear, it is nothing short of incredible what the CRS and Sporting Life have done to contribute to this cause over the years.  If more corporations contributed this way, who knows how this could impact our society.  Yet, at the end of the day, Sporting Life is a business, and thus business oriented motivations are also at play.  

For instance, Brookes informed me that, "ourselves and New Balance wanted to move the packet pick up out of the Sporting Life store for more space, a mini-expo experience, and better race experience. Sporting Life didn't want that."

So CRS wanted a mini-expo for the runners, while Sporting Life wanted publicity for their store.  I really can't fault either side here (really, I think both sides have extremely valid motivations).  However, it just shows that (a) the CRS was fighting for the runners and (b) Sporting Life was fighting to optimize publicity for their business (why else would they be a sponsor?).

So is Sporting Life really all about the charity?  The work they do for the charity is amazing, nobody disputes that.  But, at the same time, working for a charity is great for is having the race kit pick up on site at the store.  

So Who Is Right?

After the split between the CRS and Sporting Life, there were a few things that transpired that are less then honourable.  However, the facts I revealed above show the motivation for the split, which really is all that matters in the end.

Sporting Life wants a great race all about charity that simultaneously works toward improving publicity for their company.  That makes sense to me; contribute to charity, have a great race, and improve your business at the same time.

Alan Brookes and the CRS, by contrast, wants to work toward an event centered around the runners and the race experience while still making significant contributions to charity.  That also makes sense to me; give a place for elite runners to compete, create a great race environment for all other runners, and still contribute to charities.

So who is right?  Well, at the end of day, it seems like both sides are pursuing noble causes.  However, it also is very obvious that both sides had very different goals, and when there is not enough overlap, then it only makes sense to part ways. 

My Biased Opinion

I am definitely not anti charity.  Are any of you?  I have volunteered at after-school reading programs for kids, Big Brothers of Canada, coached track teams, ran science programs, and the list goes on.  

However, I think Alan Brookes hit the nail on the head when he expressed his concern with the lasting potential of a 'run for the cure.'  If a charity finds a better way to make money, then the charity will take that route, and the race will be gone.  

I am happy to be part of a race that works toward a noble cause.  But to attract 15 000 people to a race annually, I believe more than a noble cause is required.  It needs to be fun and exciting.  I am excited to participate in an event where I can run 35:19 and still get beaten by over 7 minutes by two Canadian Olympic athletes.  How cool is that?  This runner's experience is what the CRS works hard to develop, and is why it will last (and thus, the benefits to charities will also last).  

Then again, there are lots of people out there who aren't running fans like myself.  Maybe their opinions would be much different!  

Which to Race?

So which race should you go with?  I don't really have an answer to about to make it simple, everybody just does both.