Fewer and fewer athletes are strength training year round due to performance and time constraints, and we agree with that approach.
But because of the demands of training and events, most athletes experience a detraining effect from gym workouts. The repetitive movements can affect posture and create overuse injuries and faulty movement patterns, resulting in discomfort and impaired performance. This is what a mid-season core tune-up aims to prevent and/or correct.
It's all about the core
The core is the primary area affected by overuse patterns and lack of use. A strong core, referring to the trunk minus the appendages, is important for everyone but especially for athletes because proper balance and stability depend on it.
How many of you come out of the off-season lean and well-postured from proper conditioning, only to develop rounded shoulders and a potbelly in the mid- to late-season? Or how about tightness in your lower back, knee problems or other aches and pains during the year? A weak core can cause these problems and impair your performance.
The good news is, simply training the core two or three times a week for 20-30 minutes a day can prevent and offset the effects of detraining and the negative results these movements have on our posture, flexibility and overall performance.
This will be the first in a series of articles to help endurance athletes address this phenomenon. Beginning this month, we will walk you through a few exercises -- either incorporate them all or start with the ones that seem most appropriate for your current level of conditioning.
Benefits of strength training
Let's quickly review the benefits of strength training:
As described in the recently-released DVD The Next Level Strength Training for Endurance Athletes, each season should include three separate phases.
- A flexibility/stability phase to build a foundation for training to come, lasting 8-10 weeks which, depending on your season, generally comes in late November early December.
- A strength/power conditioning phase, lasting 10-12 weeks.
- And a maintenance phase in which competition, sport-specific training and recovery will be the focus, lasting 20-weeks.
Since June is just about mid-season for many of you, let's look at some exercises that will benefit you now.
Transverse Abdominis activation
This exercise focuses on the deep abdominal wall muscle, the Transverse Abdominis (TVA). The TVA is important because of its role in increasing intra-abdominal pressure and stabilizes your back during a flexed position, i.e. the (bike) aero position.
Of additional importance is the multifidis, the muscle that stabilizes movement during pedaling, running and swimming. Because the TVA affects several other muscles, including pelvic, if the TVA isn't working properly then overall performance will be compromised. The inability to activate these muscles is dangerous to athletes because it forces the spine to bear the majority of the load, rather than the appropriate muscles.
|Figure 1a||Figure 1b|
To perform this movement, assume a kneeling position with hands under shoulders and knees under the hips -- don't look up or arch or round your spine. Take a deep breath and allow the stomach to drop toward the floor (Figure 1a) -- this heightens awareness of TVA activation and as you exhale draw the belly button towards the spine (Figure 1b); hold for five to 10 seconds. Breathe normally, but don't allow the belly button to drop, then release and start again.
Repeat for two or three minutes, two or three times a day. Once you are capable of performing this from a kneeling position, begin practicing the movement while standing and performing lifts.
Another way to strengthen the TVA, as well as the core musculature, hips, glutes, and shoulder girdle, is with the plank.
To perform this exercise, lie on the floor face down with arms bent at 90 degrees with your palms inside one another forming a triangle beneath your chest and face. Raise your body off the floor keeping the elbows under the shoulders and keep your hips square to the floor.
Maintain a neutral-spine position, drawing the belly button in, and activating the glutes by squeezing them together while off the floor.
Hold for 20-30 seconds, while keeping your body parallel to the floor; don't allow your back to arch or sag. Rest for 10 seconds and repeat for two or three minutes, two or three times a day. Gradually increase the degree of difficulty by increasing the "hold" time, or by raising one leg or arm to further activate your core muscles.
Both exercises should be done two or three times per week, increasing difficulty only when you are able to complete the specified hold time without compromising form.
These exercises are a great place to start, especially if your core is significantly de-conditioned. Master these movements for the specified sets and repetitions and then move on to the next progression.
In July we'll continue with foundational core activation and awareness exercises by examining the Extensor chain and its importance to muscle balance and performance. These exercises will address glute, hamstring and low back musculature. Until then, train smart and stay safe.