Core Strength

Zach Miller writes about what’s at the core of us as runners and humans.

By on April 22, 2016 | 13 comments

“A basic, essential, or enduring part,” those are the words that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses to define the word ‘core.’ The word itself isn’t long. A mere four letters from start to finish. And yet it’s a very important and meaningful one. In fact, I would argue that it’s the secret. The secret to what? Well, for starters, training. In the world of endurance sports, many folks seem to be searching for the secret. Secret foods, secret nutrition strategies, secret workouts, secret training plans, secret gear. The list goes on and on. I hate to burst your bubble, but they don’t exist… almost. The only real secret is core strength, and even that isn’t really a secret. It’s merely something that gets overlooked.

Core strength. You’ve probably heard it a million times. Planking, push-ups, plyometrics: do them until your abs are tight and your running form is flawless. It’s good for injury prevention and running efficiency. That kind of physical core strength is important. In fact, I really value it. I do it nearly every day. But if that’s your only idea of core strength, you’re missing out. You’re missing the secret.

So, what am I talking about? I’m talking about that “basic, central, or enduring part.” The piece of yourself that gives life to your running. The things you need to reach your potential. What is it that makes up this core? I would imagine that it’s different for each of us. I can’t tell you what it is for you, because I don’t know you. That’s the fun of it, though. Finding our core is part of the journey.

I have been running for many years, essentially since elementary school, but that doesn’t mean that I have always understood my core. Over the years, I have learned to recognize what it is and the important role that it plays in my training. What is it, you ask? Well, for me it’s a three-legged stool. Take away one of the legs and things get a bit wobbly. Eliminate two and it’s a Jenga game on the verge of collapse. Remove the third and everything comes crashing down. Each leg is different. Each leg is important.

The first leg is simple: it’s the mere fact that I love to run. I like the way it feels, where it takes me, and how it helps to keep me happy and healthy. Sure, there are some days that I don’t really feel like venturing out for a run, but emotions aside, I do it anyway. Even I know that as hard as it can be to take those first few strides, almost every run turns some shade of good after the first mile or two.

The second leg is something I learned from my college coach, Dave Warth. “Your strength is your strength,” he said to me one day. I agreed with him at the time, but looking back I now realize just how right he was. Put me on the track and you will learn very quickly that I’m no speed demon. I can’t run 100 meters to save my life. But, show me a mountain and tell me to figure out what’s on the other side and I’m your man! Dave recognized this. Okay, maybe we didn’t have big mountains in Rochester, New York, but he watched me run up Cobbs Hill a million times and cruise 10x1k workouts like it was my job. He also witnessed my stocky build and my resistance to injury. My second leg was evident as ever; Dave just helped me to see it.

My third leg has been with me for many years. Though it was preached to me in college, it was something that I had long before my days at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). It continues to this day and seems to age like a fine… cheese. (Make it cheddar!) Consistency. Consistency, consistency, consistency! Day in, day out, just show up and put in the work. Not every single day will feel good. Not every day will be sunny or warm or on a beautiful trail. Some might be on a treadmill, in a cruise-ship stairwell, or laps around the 30th Street Train Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Trust me, I’ve done them all. Were they all glorious? Of course not! But, they were all worth it. They were worth it because they kept the ball rolling.

It’s like the wood pile at Barr Camp. As much as I like hauling wood, I don’t always feel like stacking for hours on end in the middle of winter. Hence, I use my consistency trick to keep the porch stocked. Nearly every time I go outside to use the composting toilet, I stop by the wood pile and grab an armful of wood and take it up to the cabin. Bit by bit, the pile grows. It’s the same with training. Races aren’t won in a day. Sure, they are won on a day, but it’s the days, weeks, months, and even years of preparation leading up to that fateful day that enable victory. Race-day execution can be tough, but it’s even tougher without adequate preparation. For me, that preparation is deeply rooted in consistency, in showing up!

Now, of course, there is more to my training than just the legs of my stool. There is a seat, a set of supporting rungs, maybe even a cushion on top. But none of those do much good without the legs, the core. I can try to do the supporting speedwork, the long runs, and the downhill intervals, but it is unlikely that I will get the full benefit if they aren’t supported by strength, consistency, and a bit of fun! So before you conjure up a training plan, think about what makes up your core and make sure you keep it at the center.

Core strength is also important for life. Life is full of, well, stuff. Good stuff, bad stuff, hard stuff, easy stuff, fun stuff, sad stuff, and downright miserable stuff. The list goes on. The challenge is figuring out how to navigate all the stuff without getting lost. Like running, there isn’t a secret solution, but there is a method. The method, once again, is routed in core strength.

This time, however, the core isn’t so much a training principle as it is a belief or a set of values. For many of us our core started at a young age. It was instilled by our elders: Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, maybe even our teachers and coaches. Some of us stuck to it, valuing and adhering to it for many years. Others followed it for a while, strayed from it, and then came back. Most of us, however, probably kept some of it and then added, subtracted, and rearranged until we found what we thought to be best.

No matter the means by which you develop your core, the primary thing is that you find it and learn how to live by it. Does it need to be perfect? No. But it needs to be followed. It’s like a compass. When the forest is thick and the trail has been lost, it’s your core that points the way. It might not allow you to see the finish line, but it does help you to take the next step. And one step after another, you find your way. As you find your way, other things will impede your path or try to pull you from it. The important thing, however, is not that you never stray or avoid all obstacles. The thing of real value is applying your core to those moments of adversity.

After all, your core isn’t just for you. It’s also for those around you. The true purpose is to take your core and apply it to the world around you. Instead of hiding from anything that might be different or disagreeable, go out and explore the world. Take a risk. Figure out how to put your core into action. Use it to influence others and don’t be completely closed to the effect that others have on you. For a truly healthy core is like that of a piece of fruit. It has the potential to grow and develop. It still sticks to its roots. An apple won’t produce a pumpkin, but it might produce another apple that is a bit different from itself. So search yourself and your surroundings. Figure out what’s important and become the best person that you can be.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What is at the core of your running? What are the essential components of your running self?
  • And how about the rest of your being? What exists at the core of who you are as a person?
  • How has your core evolved through time? What parts of it have gone and come?
Zach Miller
is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.