Trails present a unique challenge to the body, but maintaining a strong body and core is a sure-fire way to improve your off-road performance. As part of theRun 1000 Miles Challenge, we asked Gemma Naylor the best way to boost your core as a runner.
Every trail run feels like an adventure, bringing something new with each horizon we see. Why then, despite all the extra joys that come with trail running, can it seem so much harder and fatiguing than road running?
Of course, all running is running, right? Well, not exactly. Running in general requires the body to be in an upright position with the spine lengthened. The body’s ability to maintain a strong posture relies on the muscular structures around the spine. This is known as core stability, and this doesn’t change regardless of the surfaces or gradients that we are running on.
Core stability for trail running
The real challenge lies in maintaining our core stability on less secure, slippery, or uneven surfaces. Many experts believe that our running posture is significantly impacted by the manner that we place our feet on the ground. This is obviously different and varies with each surface that we run on.
Each time our foot touches the earth, our body senses the terrain underfoot and adapts to maintain our balance. If you run on an even surface, your stride is completely predictable. This makes it much easier to maintain your best running posture, which in turn allows you to move your body in its most efficient way.
This is not the case with trail running. The ground is very likely to be much more uneven than a road, with the vast variety of surfaces encountered on an off-road run continuously challenging our balance. The trails frequently catch us off guard.
Constant changes to our footing impact our entire muscular chain. They require huge amounts of effort from our core as our proprioception constantly adapts. The more control and stability we have in our core, the easier and more efficiently we are able to adapt and the less prone we are to injury.
What exactly is the core and why is it important?
Even amongst fitness professionals, there are many opinions and several misconceptions about the core of the human body. Many magazines and social media posts suggest that a rippling six pack is representative of the absolute peak of physical fitness and obvious signs of core strength and stability, but this is not necessarily true.
The core is the centre of the body, and it functions to stabilise the trunk while the arms and legs move during activity. Thus, the core is important in saving the spine from being exposed to excessive load and helps transfer force from the lower body to the upper body and vice versa.
Ideally, as we run we want to create 360 degrees of stiffness around the spine, and we achieve this when all of the muscles in our shoulders, torso and hips work together in harmony. An optimal running stride requires a strong posture where the arms and legs can move efficiently.
Making it run-specific
Exercises that challenge your balance are great at improving your core stability. Often simple exercises are the most effective. You can try doing some of your regular training drills such as squats and deadlifts, but further challenge your balance by performing them on one leg. This will encourage your stabilising muscles to engage as your body adapts to the change in balance. Lunge to glute kick and knee drivers are also great for runners.
Other ways of improving your core stability are yoga and Pilates movements which intentionally incorporate breathing techniques. Many people find that just an awareness of the importance of core stability can help improve their running performance.
When you next start to feel tired, rather than trying to move your arms or legs more dynamically, try focussing on the centre of your body. Check your spine is in alignment, then think about engaging the deep muscles that protect it by subtly lifting your pelvic floor as you breathe out. It should make a real difference and prepare you for the trials and tribulations of the trails.
The best core exercises for runners
Start on all fours
As you exhale, extend your right leg straight out behind you as you reach your left arm straight forwards
Your right leg and left arm should now be in a straight line with your spine
As you inhale, bring the right leg and left arm back to your starting position
Repeat by extending the left leg and right arm
Repeat this exercise 10 times
Start in push up position
Extend your legs so they are straight behind you. Keep the head in line with the spine
Lower the forearms to the floor and interlace the fingers to create a triangular base
For an extra challenge, try lifting one leg at a time two inches off the floor
Hold for 30-60 seconds
Lie on your side
Extend the legs, stacked hips to ankles
As you exhale, lift the hips and knees from the floor
Hold for 30-60 seconds
Repeat on the other side
Take the plank one step further by alternating outstretching your legs and arms to improve your body's stability. Remember, straight lines!