There are many misconceptions about what most people refer to as “core training”. Have you ever witnessed someone at the gym wobbling uncontrollably while squatting on a balance board or BOSU ball? If you ask this well-meaning exercise enthusiast what she is doing, her answer will probably be “Well, I’m working my core, of course!”. In actuality, core stabilization refers to the second stage of exercise programming for low back pain. It is an essential aspect of rehabilitation for low back problems, and is crucial for preventing low back pain in the first place. Almost half of people who experience low back pain will experience a recurrence within six months - if appropriate training for core stability is neglected, the probability of another episode is high. Engaging in uncontrolled wobbling on an unstable surface will not lead to good core stability. The exerciser described above is not ready to engage in what we call “dynamic stabilization” – complex movements executed with excellent control on an unstable apparatus. This can actually create new injures. Dynamic stabilization should only take place once core stabilization goals have been achieved.
The biomechanics of running also require excellent core stability. Running is not just a “front and back” activity – hip and torso rotation is also heavily involved. In fact, a fair bit of the power we generate while running comes from this movement! Without sufficient rotational capacity, plus the ability to stabilize the pelvis and lower spine while rotation occurs, running technique is severely compromised. When it comes to long runs efficiency is paramount - our bodies will respond to a lack of “torsional” rotation by fatiguing quickly, or attempting to rotate joints which are not meant to move in that manner, such as the knees. A bad scenario ensues: injured knees, or season-killing low back pain. Here are some exercises that will strengthen your core functionally – the way that the muscles are actually used when you run. All exercises should be done daily – the research shows that daily core strengthening is most effective. 1. Standing Twist with Medicine Ball. Stand on a flat, stable surface with your feet shoulder width apart. Hug a 3-10 pound medicine ball in your arms, close to your body. Contract your abdominal muscles, and visualize pulling your belly button in toward the base of you spine. Slowly rotate to one side, hold for two seconds, then rotate to the other side. The key is to rotate the spine, pelvis, and ribcage as a unit – and this is only possible with fully engaged abdominal muscles. Do two sets of 20-30 repetitions. 2. Plank. Prop yourself up on your elbows and your toes (wear running shoes for this one). Lift your bum up toward the ceiling slightly, to keep your spine in a neutral position (avoid letting your low back sag). Hold for as long as you can – it is best to time yourself. Do your second set of Standing Twists, then a second plank. 3. Side Plank. Lie on your side, propped up on your elbow. From this position, straighten out your legs, so that you are propped up on your elbow and foot. Keep your body straight like a pencil. Time yourself, then switch sides. This exercise works the obliques and quadratus lumborum (QL) muscles, which act as “bookends” to control rotation of the torso. Repeat twice on each side. 4. Oblique Crunches on the Ball. You need a big exercise ball for this one. Sit on the ball, slightly forward centre, facing a wall. With your feet flat on the floor, anchor your toes to the wall. Bend your knees at a 90 degree angle. Cross your arms across your chest, or interlock your fingers behind your head (it is more challenging when your hands are behind your head). Slightly crunch your torso forward. From this position, lean back until you feel a nice tension in your abs. Hold for two seconds, then rotate to the left as you come up. Lower back down to centre, then rotate to the right. Do two sets of 8-20 reps. Without training the core, running technique and efficiency will invariably suffer. Running injury prevention is about more than knees and ankles.