IntroductionLong distancerunning has increased in popularity over the last decade with many more eventsbecoming available for the avid long distance runner alongside the increase inrunning clubs. With many runners getting the ‘running bug’ to go faster andlonger, runners will look to find other ways to increase their performance ontop of racking up anywhere from 45 – 120 miles a week in training and at thesame time, stay injury free as Beckinsale (2016, P94) suggests ‘There is nosport you could be too strong for. But weakness will cause injury andinefficiency’. Running stresses the body, triggering numerous muscles to movethe body forward. The core muscles are engaged while running and these muscles,including abdominals and gluteals, are important for providing stability to thespine so that damage is not amassed and the best production transfer andcontrol of force and motion is gained as Beckinsale (2016, p64) confirms ‘Oneof the best ways to develop running speed and endurance is to correct youralignment, specifically around your centre of gravity, in the hip area’. Corestrength and endurance has been shown to provide reduced risk of lower backinjury in runners but there has been very little research on the effects ofcore strength on running performance. So is the effectiveness of core stabilitymore of an injury preventer, rather than a performance improver due to thenature of the specific exercises available.
Main BodyThe core is agroup of muscles that attach to the pelvis and includes the abdominal muscles,the pelvic floor, spine, back, hip and deep hip muscles. When we run the corehas a role to play in absorbing the force of landing. It helps manage themovement between the upper and lower body and the left and right side of thebody. It is also accountable for the stability of the pelvis and spine and itabsorbs and releases energy to generate movement. Many runners believe that having a strong core is important formaintaining good running form and reducing the risk of injury. Because of this,they have combined some form of core strengthening exercises into theirtraining. The most common exercises used are floor-based exercises such as theplank, crunches and exercises performed on an unstable surface, such as a fitball. The usual approach to strengthening the core is to train the abdominalmuscles to prevent movement of the lumbar spine with the body in either a supine(lying on your back) or prone (lying on your stomach) position.
However, thisapproach has a few limitations as explained in more detail below.Traditionalcore training exercises work the core muscles in isolation which, in theory,allows you to focus on working the muscles more successfully. The problem withthis approach is that muscles never work in isolation in day to day movements. Everystep we take involves an intricate sequence of muscular activity of over twohundred muscles.
Unless the brain knows how to recruit which muscles in whichorder and at what intensity, movement will be hampered. Training muscles inisolation doesn’t teach them to integrate with the rest of the body, Barber& Rea (2013, P168) however do remind us that ‘When using a functional approach,we should not take this to mean that all core isolation exercises are invalidor serve no purpose’. To efficiently train a muscle for an activity like longdistance running we need to use full body movements, with the body in positionsthat place stress on the muscles we want to work.
This teaches the muscle to incorporateits strength with the rest of the body. Muscles willactivate when they feel a rapid stretch. If you want to jump in the air your firstmove will be to squat down quickly and then jump up as high as you can. Whenyou squat down you place a dynamic stretch or eccentric load through thegluteal and hamstring muscles which light up and then contract and shorten topropel you from the floor. You don’t knowingly activate the glutes, the eccentricloading does that for you. This happens throughout the whole body when we gorunning. For our core training to be beneficial we need to eccentrically load themuscles before we concentrically contract them. Old-style core exercises don’tmake use of this eccentric loading.
A neutralspine is the ‘normal’ position of the spine with the lumbar and cervical spinein good alignment. Sustaining this position when we run long distance is not plausibleor appropriate as with every step our pelvis rotates one way and our upper bodythe other way. It moves forward to allow our leg to extend behind and tilts sideways every time our foot makescontact with the floor. Core exercise that involves maintaining a neutral spineis coaching the body to hold a position that is biomechanically unmanageable tomaintain when we are running long distance. Movement at ajoint can occur in three different planes – the sagittal plane, the frontalplane and the transverse plane.
When we run, our pelvis and spine move in allthree ways and therefore we need to have the strength to control movement inall three as Beckinsale (2016, P64) confirms ‘A strong trunk is essential tomaintain balance’. Old-style core training exercises emphasis seriously on thesagittal plane with very few exercises working in the other planes. Core trainingexercises specific to long distance running should be trying to re-establishmovement where there is limited mobility and strengthen muscles to control additionalmovement where there is a reduced level of strength. The majority of coreexercises are still performed in a horizontal position. The benefits of any exerciseis dictated by the law of specific adaptation to enforce demand, which meansthe strength gained from an exercise is precise to the joint position, load, bodyposition, speed of movement, variety of the movement of that exercise.
Trainingthe core in a horizontal position puts the body in a totally different positionusing different joint angles with a different range of motion than longdistance running. Meaning, there is going to be very little, if any, benefit toa long distance runner performance if they are performing core stabilityexercise laying down. Runninginvolves taking around 85+ steps per 60 seconds which means one stride (fromright foot contacting the ground to left foot contacting the ground) takes about0.33 of a second. Given that the benefits of an exercise are particular to thespeed of movement used in the actual exercise, core training exercises shouldthen use dynamic movements rather than static holds or slow activities. Anexercise that involves holding a contraction for 30 seconds or more cannot successfullytrain the muscles to repeatedly contract and relax in 0.33 of a second.
When we run we concentrate onmovements not muscles. It is unmanageable to consciously activate a specificmuscle in a dynamic activity like long distance running. To gain real core strengthwe need our core to fire optimally without us having to wilfully think aboutit. To activate a muscle it needs to receive the correct stimulus. Thatstimulus is provided by cells that are located in our muscles, tendons,ligaments and joints throughout the whole body. They sense joint angle, musclelength and muscle tension and send this information to the brain. The brainthen decides what to do with that information; feed the brain the rightmessages and a muscle will perform.
Barber & Rea (2013, P161) support thisnotion from another stand put stating ‘Furthermore, the act of internally focusingon the trunk muscles during functional exercises or activities, oftenemphasised by exercise instructors (e.g. in gym-based exercise, exercise tomusic, Pilates), may actually reduce skill learning or skilled performance.This is because attention is being diverted away from the skilled task (performanceof the exercise or movement activity).ConclusionTheeffectiveness of core stability training for long distance is quite clear.Specific core stability exercises and training are required by a long distancerunner to support them in staying injury free and provide strength and poweraround the pelvis and hips alongside being able to absorb the impact from theground. Due to the nature of the exercises as discussed earlier, to replicatethe running motion in a core stability exercise is biomechanically impossible,the nearest replication would be that of any dynamic movements that placestress on the core while simulating the forward motion of running. Theselimitations would go to explain why, research has found that core stabilitytraining has no or minimal benefit on a long distance runners performance butis able to reduce their risk of injury and allow them to sustain long distancerunning pain free.
To conclude,core stability training is effective in enabling a long distance runner to stayrunning and training injury free more than a runner who participates in littleto no core stability training as Gaskill & Sharkey (2013, P250) reinforce ‘Strongand balanced muscles of the trunk allow for better transfer of power from largecore muscles to the extremities, thereby reducing the risk of injury’. However,its effectiveness in improving a long distance runners performance is minimalat best but ultimately, ineffective as Gaskill & Sharkey (2013, P185)confirm ‘The relationship of core fitness to performance in sport is less wellestablished’.