By Alex Lyons
Everybody loves core. Want to stay healthy? Train your core. Want to get faster? Do some core! Want to look like that dude from the Twilight movies who seems to have perpetually misplaced his shirt? Core, man. Lots of core.
The problem with the term “core”, however, is that it’s been thrown around so much we don’t actually know what it means, or what we are trying to accomplish when we do it. We just know that we should do it. A lot. But what is true of run training is also true of core training: done wrong, and without a plan, it is at best a waste of time and at worst a detriment to your health.
So what are we, as runners, actually trying to do when we do core? We’re trying to become better at running. Do not forget this. If someone gives you a core workout, but cannot explain how that particular workout makes you a better runner, you have a problem. We’re not trying to become really good at doing sit ups or balancing on an exercise ball. When this idea is kept in the forefront of the mind, it becomes easier to assess what exercises are efficient, and what exercises are wasting your time.
Ok then: how is this core business supposed to make you a better runner? Two ways.
- The first way is to make you more durable. If you get injured less, you can train more. If you can train more, you get better.
- The second way in which core makes you a better runner is improved mechanical efficiency. If you can move more efficiently, then you move faster. And yes, being more efficient means you are more durable. The two work in concert.
Most people understand these concepts. Where they go awry is in their pursuit of efficiency and durability. Most core training programs are about making the core stronger. Everyone has heard their core is weak and they need to toughen it up. It’s true. But they’re skipping a step.
See, your core is not just weak. It’s also stupid. Our nation is experiencing an epidemic of stupid cores. So what’s a stupid core? A person with a “stupid core” has developed postural dysfunction and movement patterns where muscles fire in the wrong spots at the wrong times. And the only way to retrain this stupid core is through some remedial lessons. This remedial training consists of relatively “easy” exercises which emphasize highly specific postural positions, done with high repetitions (50-100 per exercise). Notice I put easy in quotes. The exercises cannot be that muscularly demanding if you are going to crank out 50-100 per set. They are, however, extremely difficult neurologically. You’re going to be fighting a movement pattern that’s been ingrained in your head for years. It’s hard. And it’s frustrating. But it works.
An example of a remedial exercise that I perform regularly: the clam. Tons of people do this exercise. Almost all of them do it wrong. The key is maintaining a specific postural position while the exercise is being performed AND keeping the right muscle groups doing the work. So here’s what you do:
Lie on your side with your knees bent and your head on your arm. Make sure your head, hips and feet are aligned. Lift your side off the ground so that there is space between your side and the floor. Then tighten your glutes as if you were squeezing a quarter between them. Maintaining this position, lift your knee until it is level with your hip, then lower. Keep the glutes fired throughout. Repeat 100 times on each side. If you can’t make that many reps in one set, no problem. Just break it up. But get in 100 reps. Even if it takes 20 sets of 5*.
This is the clam done right. It retrains the glute medius, a crucial lateral stabilizer, to do the work, while preventing the TFL from picking up slack it’s not supposed to carry. In short, it teaches you how to move the right way. This is how the core gets smarter.
Once your core can read at the appropriate grade level, you’re ready to make it stronger. These are the strengthening exercises that most people know: things like planks, squats, lunges, etc. are all part of traditional core training that is oriented around strength. And they’re great stuff. But these exercises are far more beneficial when performed with a movement pattern that is functioning properly. So next time you train your core, do it the right way. Make it smart. Then make it strong.
*Instructions on how to perform the clam were taken from Jay Dicharry’s Anatomy of a Runner. This book is a great resource for further exploring intelligent core training.