"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Walking the Plank?

I was browsing through my assortment of brekkie reading material (running mags, for the most part!) and came across an article on core training for runners. The argument was made that a lot of our common core exercises such as the plank or push-ups on a wobble board are probably doing nothing to help us improve performance.
Use a kettlebell & have abs like this? Oh, wait, first I need to shed the fat hiding my abs!

Well, this is interesting! If I don't have to do planks anymore, I'll be a happier girl! I read on.... studies have shown that core stability exercises given to active runners result in some improvements in muscle endurance (yes, I can hold the plank position longer), but no improvement to my running strength and power. Oh. That's deflating. It's not actually improving my performance. So why on earth am I doing it?

Why? Because I was told. Because we all "know" that you're supposed to do core exercises. So, can I really give them up?

Naturally, I needed to go to the source of some of the references to read the papers for myself. One of the first things I learned is that this notion of doing core stability exercises basically came from the rehab physio's bench. After an injury (or maybe even when coming back from an off season), developing some basic muscle endurance through the core may be "prescribed." Now it's just ended up prescribed to all of us. A bit like saying that because Billy's vision improved when he got glasses, we should all wear glasses. And never bother to check our vision again, but just keep wearing those same glasses forever.

Healthy, active runners are not the same as injured runners. Gee, that makes sense.

I checked out an interesting review by Willardson (2007; Core Stability Training for Healthy Athletes: A Different Paradigm for Fitness Professionals, Strength and Conditioning Journal, 29(6) 42-49). Improving strength and power comes from low intensity and high velocity movements of the muscles. When on a very unstable surface like a wobble board, there is a "stiffening strategy" that actually opposes the intended direction of movement. So you are just activating opposing muscles to the ones you're trying to power! Like putting the brakes on with the accelerator at the same time. This review of the literature included core exercises done with a lot of stability (e.g., a squat in a machine), with moderate instability (e.g., a squat with free weights), and with a lot of instability (e.g., a squat on a wobble-board).

When looking at the functional connectivity of the core (a huge group of muscles through the lumbar spine and pelvis, such as the internal obliques close in and the hip flexors like the psoas further out), these muscles work dynamically - never one in isolation. Which is why the case for using a wobble board instead of a static plank came up in the first place. But this literature I looked at is suggesting that we've gone from one ineffective thing (static planks) to another (throwing kettlebells around on wobble boards). As healthy runners, we might get better at our static planks or wobble-board kettlebells, but it's not helping our running performance.

But, before sending the kettlebell out to walk the plank... a theory was put out there in Willardson's review.... "ground-based free weight movements might be better for the development of core strength and power due to the force, velocity, and core stabilizing requirements that are similar to the demands of sports skills."

Our bodies move in three planes
The author of the running mag article I read that started this exploration provided a few examples of what he thought were appropriate exercises. One, for example, is along the lines of standing with one leg in front of the other, arms straight out and locked as if clutching an imaginary club, and swinging rapidly from side to side. That would seem to tick all the boxes...good ground stability, "free weight" movement (yes, you can do it with weight in hand), and velocity.

But still, we're runners, not baseball players, so is the core really an area that needs to be "powered up"? Will this kind of dynamic exercise improve my running performance? Given the limited time for training, am I better to be doing eccentric calf work and going for massage?

I'm not sure. Neither are the researchers, from what I read. But the core really is at the core...it's the dynamic connection between our arms/shoulders and our legs. When I lift a foot in running, the core and pelvis rotate in response and stabilise me so I don't tip over. When I land, the core helps absorb the energy and prepares for its release with the next step. There must, therefore, be some amount of strength and power in that area that is so central to the running machine. And I would think it even more critical when said running is done on unstable, twisty surfaces (technical trails) and/or at fast speeds. So I'm thinking I'll give up my static planks (which really were disappearing in favour of push-ups, anyway) and look at some of this dynamic movement stuff, keeping my feet firmly on the ground! But I might save money on the kettlebell and just use a bottle of beetroot juice ;)

With those thoughts in mind, I guess it was okay that I missed the planks this past week, but spent the time with the sports chiro and massage therapist. I had a few great results in training for Coast 2 Kosci. On Tuesday, I headed down to the track for the "long" events on offer. There was a mile event and a 10k. Well, on a track I prefer to say 10,000 metres. It sounds longer that way. Because it feels like it! Rather than run the 5k there and back, I opted to drive over and save my legs in attempting a PB.

The 2011 10k Masters State Champs, where I set my last PB. Really, it's me!
Going hard in the mile, I set an ambitious PB goal (6 minutes). I could tell in the first lap that it was not sustainable. But pushed on to see what would happen. I ended up 1 second behind my PB. Whilst I say, "That's okay, I'm not a sprinter" I know I'll keep pushing for something closer to 6 minutes!

Then, the 10k. The fellow next to me says how he took it easy in the mile in order to save himself for the 10k. Geez, that might have been a good idea.... I had my PB from the State Champs of 2011 written on my scrap of paper: 43.58. I set another ambitious goal: 42 minutes. That's 50 seconds per 200 metres for 25 laps. Straightforward.

Starting out, I tried to tuck in behind three blokes for protection from the wind. Laps one and two saw me lose 7 seconds right there, as their pace wasn't the pace I had to be doing. So I had to go out on my own. It took a few more laps, but then I got into my rhythm and just stuck to the plan. Even found a little energy to "kick" at the end (my version of a kick!), finishing in 42:12! A very big PB!
I love it when my world gets this simple.

Friday night saw me headed down to Nannup (I love Nannup, ever since the folk fest getaway weekend) for a 12 hour rogaine. I had managed to get a state champion rogainer to join me in a teaching session. The goal was to go "moderately hard." I feel like I've hit the limits of my navigation skills on rogaines and needed an expert to show me how to improve my map reading. So the rule was that I would get to stop us as needed to say "I don't get it - show me how this feature looks like this on the map."

We had a good start to our team - a serious navigator and a serious runner (the serious navigator also happens to be a pretty serious runner, too!). All we needed was a serious Muay Thai kickboxing expert (doesn't every team need one?). Fortunately, we found her! But the poor thing had never done "endurance" exercise like we ultra runners think of it. That is, she hadn't run/hiked more than 3 hours before. But she's a little powerhouse with a focus that would shatter glass. And she can fix a blister or change clothes faster than anyone I've seen, too!
Ready for the race briefing

So, with a plan to have a navigation lesson, whilst keeping a young rogaining novice alive, we set out at 10 AM Saturday with a hot day of bushwhacking ahead of us. And at 10 PM, after 51km, we finished as 1st place mixed team!

But after the track, a hill session, tempo work, and the 50k 12hr rogaine, it was all I could do to muster up a 6 minute pace for a 10k "recovery" run on Sunday! And hooray for the Monday rest day!

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