Building A Trail-Worthy Body, Part 1

Over the past two or three years, I have learned one valuable lesson that stands above the many I continue to learn as an evolving athlete: when I increase the strength of my core muscles, I inversely decrease the chances of turning my ankle while trail running. Due to repeated trauma in both ankles, I am extremely prone to rolling my ankle. After a lot of physical therapy, I always thought that doing lots of foot-and-ankle exercises was the best way to prevent turning my ankle and it has helped to some extent.

Then, a couple of years ago, I enrolled in a twice-a-week strength-and-agility class that, among other benefits, has drastically improved the strength of my core muscles. I also expanded my training regime to include a weekly, one-hour stretch or yoga session. The following summer was the most successful year I had experienced in running since my college days. I experienced podium finishes and PRs like I hadn’t seen in years. Most importantly, I didn’t turn my ankle once. After some self-examination and reading, I began to understand the connection between the strength of my core muscles and my increased ability to move with dexterity over the terrain of the trails.

While you might not have the same issues as I do, there’s a good chance that you’ve got some ‘issue’ that has or has the potential to inhibit your running. As we immerse ourselves in the off-season and embrace the volume and schedule of our upcoming race season, it seems like the perfect time to consider various forms of cross training and how they might help sort out the deficits which can impede us, and give us newfound strength and efficiency.

This is the first article in a two-part series [here’s Part 2] that will examine a few types of cross training available to us runners. This month we will look at exercises for core strength and flexibility to improve pelvic and spinal alignment. In the balance of this article, you will find descriptions, video, and photos of several exercises. As with all articles in this column, we endeavored to tailor this article and these exercises for beginner to intermediate trail runners. Use all this as a guide. Consider consulting a physical therapist or a professional trainer who can help you develop modifications or adaptations relevant to your body’s current strength and flexibility needs.

Exercises to Help Develop Core Strength

When we say “core,” we refer to the muscles of the of the trunk that support the spine and hips. The stability and alignment of the spine and pelvis is one of the most important elements to remaining injury-free. iRunFar columnist and physical therapist Joe Uhan has written multiple times over the years about the roles of core stability, what can happen if it’s lacking, and some ways to address certain instability issues.

I am prone, as many runners are, to anterior pelvic tilt, a condition I lovingly call duck butt. If you don’t suffer from anterior pelvic tilt, you may have the opposing problem, posterior pelvic tilt. Or, you may have an asymmetry of muscle tightness between one side of the body or the other. Think of your pelvis as a bowl of water that is connected to a pulley system above and below it. Those pulleys have to stay perfectly balanced in order to keep that bowl of water from spilling. The pulleys are representative of the muscles that stabilize the hips and spine. When the muscles around the core become unbalanced and one muscle or group of muscles overpowers (with tightness, generally) the strength of another muscle(s), it causes one edge of the bowl to drop and spill water. In anterior pelvic tilt, the front of the bowl drops and the water spills forward. (It is the opposite for posterior pelvic tilt, to state the obvious.) Anterior pelvic tilt, for example, can cause discomfort and pain as it places extra stretch on the hamstrings and compresses joints in the pelvis and lower back. Strengthening the core muscles helps keep the bowl flat and prevents water from spilling in either direction, preserving healthy alignment of the spine and hips.

The following five-minute workout is a great way to improve overall strength of the core muscles. I believe it has helped me neutralize my anterior pelvic tilt. The workout is composed of 10 exercises, each of which you perform for 30 seconds. Give this workout a shot up to three times a week. Below you’ll find the exercises explained in text and demonstrated via video.

Plank
Start in push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your gaze fixed about six inches ahead of your hands. Think of a little ball of energy right behind the belly button. Tighten every muscle from the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and abs to feed that ball of energy. Picture it getting brighter as you feed it with energy. The goal is to create and hold a straight plank with your body, from your head to your feet. As you get stronger, you can replace your hands with your elbows to increase the challenge.

Bicycles
Lie on your back with your fingertips at the base of your skull. Keeping the head and neck in line a much as you can, raise the shoulder blades off the ground. Doing this requires you to engage your core muscles. Endeavor to maintain the natural alignment of your upper spine in doing this, rather than curling your head up very much.

Bring the left knee toward your head while extending the right foot, hovering it about two inches above the ground. Twist the trunk so the right elbow reaches toward the left knee. Hold for two seconds before repeating the same actions on the other side. I like to repeat the cadence, “Switch, two, three. Switch, two, three.”

Mountain Climbers
Start in push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your gaze fixed about six inches ahead of your hands. Without allowing the butt to rise into the air, bring one knee toward the chest before returning it to its starting position. Alternate the knees back and forth using a steady cadence.

Flutter Kicks
Lying on the back, tuck the hands under the butt with your palms facing the ground and contract the core muscles until the lower back is flat on the ground. Raise both feet about four to six inches off the ground. Flutter your straight legs up and down in the zone of four to 12 inches off the ground.

Plank Jack
Start in push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your gaze fixed about six inches ahead of your hands. Hop your feet to wider than hip distance, the jumping-jack motion with your feet, only in the horizontal plane. Hop your feet back together. Start using in the cadence of “Hop, two, three. Hop two, three.” As you get stronger, aim to increase the speed of your hops to increase the challenge.

Russian Twists
Sit with your feet on the ground and your knees pointing into the air. Clasp lightly behind your hamstrings and with a straight back, slowly lean back until you feel your core muscles contract.The angle between your torso and upper legs should be around 90 degrees. Keeping that angle, release the hold on your hamstrings and clasp the hands in front of your chest. Rotate your torso to the left and right as far as you comfortably can while keeping the spine supported with engaged core muscles. As you get stronger, lifting the feet off the ground will create a new challenge.

Side Plank
Start in push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your gaze fixed about six inches ahead of your hands. Shift all your weight into one arm, rotate the body, and lift the top arm so that your arms form a “T” and the feet are stacked on each other. Hold for 15 seconds, rotate back to plank position, and then repeat on the other side.

Boats
Sit with your feet on the ground and your knees pointing into the air. Clasp lightly behind your hamstrings and with a straight back, slowly lean back until you feel your core muscles contract. Holding that position, lift the feet off the ground, up to six inches. The angle between your torso and upper legs should be around 90 degrees. Release the hold on your hamstrings and extend your arms out to the sides in a “T” position while working to bring your lower legs in a straight line with your upper legs. Hold this position.

Bird-Dog
Begin in a crawling position, what’s called Table Pose in yoga. Raise your right arm until it’s parallel with the ground while simultaneously lifting your left leg to parallel with the ground. Return to the starting position and alternate sides. Hold each extended arm/leg position for a full count, “Switch, hold. Switch, hold.” As you get stronger, you can move to a push-up position and lift only one limb at a time. Finally, you can go to the full extension of this exercise by starting in push-up position and lifting the right arm and left leg at the same time before switching to the opposite arm and leg.

Scissor Crunches 
Lie on your back with your fingertips at the base of your skull. Keeping the head and neck in line, raise the shoulder blades off the ground. Doing this requires you to engage your core muscles. Endeavor to maintain the natural alignment of your upper spine in doing this, rather than curling your head up very much.

Keeping both legs straight, hover the left foot one to two inches off the ground while lifting the straight right leg to vertical. Hold there for one count before switching, making your cadence, “Hold, switch. Hold, switch.”

[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]

Thoughts on Developing and Maintaining Flexibility

When we talk about the concept of flexibility, we are generally referring to the body’s ability to move without impingement through the full range of motion of the body’s joints. These movements are largely enacted via the lengthening and contracting of the body’s soft tissues. Consider the spine as an example. The joints in the spine move in many different directions and this movement is aided by the core muscles.

Downward-Facing Dog Pose

Downward-Facing Dog Pose, a yoga pose. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Picture a rubber band. If you stretch it a little bit and then let go of it, it will spring back into shape but doesn’t have a lot of snap when it does. The more you stretch the rubber band, the harder it snaps back. Stretch it too far, however, and it loses its snap due to overstretching or breakage. Though a simplified example, your muscles function a bit like a rubber band. I used to beat myself up because I couldn’t touch my toes. After an hour’s yoga class, I could still only barely skim the tops of my feet with everything in the back 0f my body stretched maximally. Then I talked to a friend who had incredibly flexible hamstrings and she talked about how frustrated she was that she couldn’t make her hamstrings speedy because they were so flexible. I realized then that there must be a happy balance between flexible and fast, a middle ground where the muscles are pliable enough that they can stretch, but also short enough that they spring back to shape afterward. I am a fan of stretching, primarily because I can feel that running’s repetitive motions preferentially tighten some muscles more than others, bringing my spine and pelvis out of alignment, and I can also feel that the stretching I do helps restore that alignment.

There is a diverse array of flexibility-development exercises out there, and each version is a little different. You should seek out what is right for you and any flexibility deficits you have. Based on my experience, the body feels better stretching when it is warm. I attend flexibility and yoga classes that are in a heated room. If you opt to stretch at home, consider using a space heater to bring the room to a warm temperature, especially if you live in a cold climate, before you start. I also experience that one long stretch session each week does more for my body than multiple shorter stretch sessions. However, my spouse feels that, for his body, shorter, more regular sessions help him the most. Once again, to each his or her own. Find the formula that works for you, but definitely do it! Don’t forget to employ experts to help you if you aren’t sure what exercises will help the specific needs of your body.

Warrior II Pose

Warrior II Pose, a yoga pose. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Scheduling a regular class will get your stretch on the training schedule and allow an instructor to make small adjustments that will help with alignment. If you don’t want to go to a class or you are like me and always on the go, try the using an app. My favorite stretch app is called Down Dog. It is the most customizable yoga app out there. If you feel comfortable with the jargon of yoga and are confident in your ability to self-guide through a yoga class, this is the app for you. You can customize your workout for type, level, time, and what you want to work on. Hips and hamstrings a problem? Add that to the workout to emphasize those muscles groups. There are also many other stretching, yoga, and foam-rolling articles on iRunFar if you’d like to learn more. For example, check out these two articles on yoga for runners and this article about using a foam roller to develop mobility in your trunk.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have a core-strength routine? Or do you perform certain exercises to address weaknesses in the muscles of your core?
  • How about a flexibility routine, do you have one? If so, what do you do and with what frequency? What is it about your routine that you think helps you?
Rhielle Widders

is passionate about introducing her favorite sport to newcomers. She created and directed the Park City Trail Series, a four-race series designed to get people running on dirt, from 2010 to 2014. When she isn’t in Park City, Utah, where she lives, you will find her traveling to try out new dirt. Follow her on Instagram.

There are 8 comments

  1. Jeff

    I have a core routine based on P90x. It does help me since I have had multiple anke/Achilles injuries. Unfortunately I stepped in a horse-made hole that was cleverly hidden by a big puddle yesterday so I did twist my ankle but hopefully through my routine it will be less severe than it otherwise would have been

  2. John

    I don’t necessarily have a go-to core strength routine, but I try to stick with one set of exercises for a few months before making changes to introduce new exercises and mix things up. So, I appreciate this article because it’s giving me some ideas of exercises to start building into my routine looking ahead to next season. Thanks for sharing!

  3. John

    For me the best exercise to strengthen the core is the barbell squat. People don’t think of this as a core exercise but really there is nothing better to strengthen your core. In order to keep your back straight you activate all your core muscles to form a tight cyclinder to protect your spine as you support the weight of the barbell. The huge advantage of a barbell is you can keep increasing the weight to increase strength gains. The problem with bodyweight exercises is your body quickly adapts and strength gains do not keep on increasing. Doing this exercise kept me injury free for a full season of trail races last year.

  4. Justine

    Are you able to put a picture or two against Bicycles? I really can’t visualise it from the description but I’d like to be able to do all these.

    Thanks for the article.

  5. Marta

    Thanks for this interesting article, After many years of social running I’ve finally committed to ensuring I include strength exs in my routine and this article has confirmed my need to make sure that core exs are a part of it. I’m looking forward to seeing the benefits in a few month’s time. Thanks for the video too – a picture always helps :)

  6. Pam

    I infrequently do the ‘Dirty Dozen” core video. Mostly because I am terrible at incorporating anything non-running into my schedule, but I do really like the video itself. Definitely giving the above video a test today.

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