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.

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