The Importance of Core Strength for Trail Running

If you have read any fitness article lately, I am sure you have seen the term “core” appear. We hear talk about core training and focusing on our core muscles and with good reason: our core muscles are to our bodies what a foundation is to a house, the basis of its strength. A strong core = strong trail running.

If you are upright, reading this blog, your core is hard at work keeping you stable with good posture and will flex with every movement you have to better your position. The core muscle group consists of roughly 30 muscles that link the upper body with the lower body. These include muscles in your abdominals, back, pelvic floor and hips; basically all of the muscles of your torso.

For the most part, these muscles are buried deep within your body and are not very visible with exception of the rectus abdominis — which we commonly refer to as “six-pack abs” — and the latissimus dorsi, another very visible muscle that gets to show itself off somewhat by its V-shaped appearance.

That is pretty much it as far as glamour goes with regards to your core muscles, but they are so important in your trail running… allow me to explain.

I recently competed in the Rock/Creek River Gorge 10.2 mile trail race. I had several former wrestling buddies compete as well. My wrestling friends and I did pretty well in the race, as 5 of us were in the top 30 and two of us in the top 10. The common link is our wrestling background? By nature wrestlers HAVE to have a very strong core. The daily rigorous training forces wrestlers to develop amazing core strength.

I will use my good friend Brandon Wright as a prime example. Brandon has spent the last 6 months practicing wrestling almost every day. He had just won the Southern Conference wrestling title for the second straight year and had wrestled in the NCAA Wrestling tournament the week before the River Gorge Race. He had run only half a dozen times in that six months and never more than 6 miles at one time, yet on race day he powered through the course in 1:32 in 26th place.

Why could he do this? His core is unbelievably strong. Anytime you hit a slippery surface or hit uneven terrain (think wet boulders in the infamous rock garden) your core muscles are working overtime to keep you stabilized.

Just the act of merely standing upright calls into play a dozen stabilizing muscles to keep your posture. If you were to throw in the sharp uphills and uneven, slippery surfaces you could see how your body’s core muscles get worked overtime during this race. As your foot slips your core springs into action by counter acting as sort of a human traction control device-your core does this automatically without any conscious thought on your part. Throughout your run if your core weakens you will be forced to recruit other muscles to compensate to get you through –this is where injuries occur.

Don’t get me wrong; the cardiovascular element of trail running is important, but so is core strength. I bet everybody has noticed how a lot of older people walk in a hunched over position due to really weak core muscles that do no allow them to straighten up. All muscles work in pairs with both providing tension to keep us upright.

Your core muscles do get used every time you workout no question, but I have found that a two day a week routine targeting the core muscles will help keep your middle solid and your body performing at its peak. The following are some exercises I include in my circuit training to help attain a strong foundation:

  • Hanging ab raises: Holding onto a pull up bar raise your knees up to your chest and hold it for a five count. Variations include lifting your knees to either side triggering your obliques, raising your legs straight out in front of you, or kicking your feet up above your head.
  • Plank: I love the plank position (push up position resting on your forearms). I can feel my core tighten as I assume plank position and hold that position for a minute or two. I always mix it up by lifting one leg at a time or by balancing on an exercise ball with my arms and lifting a leg at a time.
  • Superman: Lay flat facedown on a mat- Raise your chest and your knees off that mat and hold it as an isometric for a count of about 100. To vary it put your arms out in front like you actually flying. Squeeze your glutes and feel the burn.
  • Crunches: Knees up flat on your back and curl up and then back down a lot of times in a row. Variations include use of a medicine ball and twisting near the top to recruit the obliques.
  • Push ups: Regular push ups in perfectly straight position. Variations include doing the push ups on softballs or one softball at a time passing it to the other hand in between each rep. I also like to use dumbbells and lift one at a time on each rep to your chest or lift it to the sky rotating up on one arm. Mix it up
  • V-position: Hold your body like a V for a count of 100. Build up time spent in this isometric position.
  • Bear Crawl: What a great exercise to workout those core muscles. You basically walk on all fours using your hands as feet. To make it tougher pretend one leg is broken and walk on your hands and one leg while holding the other straight up in the air.

The bottom line is in trail running core strength is everything; learn something from wrestlers (and yoga people) and develop some core strength. Figure out a way to incorporate core strength work into your routine. The hills and slippery rocks will become easier… trust me.

Tom Sell is a former UTC wrestler 8th on the all time wins list. He also has won the masters division in the last 3 Rock Creek Events and is still waiting on Dana White to send him an invite to fight in the UFC Octagon…Questions:

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