Sure, you can just run. But strength training can help you run faster and better, and stay free from injury. If you’re going to start anywhere with strength training, start not with your legs, but with your core. The system of muscles – not just your abs – at your core are essential to supporting your posture, which will help you run more efficiently and cut down on fatigue. A stable core also enables you to respond to changes in terrain underfoot with a minimum of energy expenditure.
We consulted with Whitney Liehr and Adam Daniels, both trainers at the Athletic Republic performance training center in Park City, for tips on how to boost core strength. While they come from different backgrounds – Whitney was a track athlete at Stanford, while Adam is a triathlete and coach – they both agree that six-pack abs aren’t a true indicator of core strength, and, furthermore, that crunches are the wrong way to achieve it.
One of their favorite exercises for achieving core strength is the humble plank. But there’s a lot more to the plank that you may have realized.
To begin with, in addition to the well-known basic front plank, you should be doing planks on each side and your back to develop balanced strength. Once you’re able to comfortably stay in each plank position for at least a minute, you can add to the degree of difficulty by adding movement and rotation, and moving outside your center of gravity.
Following is a progression of plank exercises that will quickly and easily improve your core strength. Note the form illustrated by the photos – as with any strength exercise, it won’t be much use if your form is sloppy. The advantage of these exercises is that they can be performed at any time, not necessarily after a run. (Just don’t do them before a long-distance run or a speed session.) Plus, because there’s no equipment involved, you don’t need a trip to the gym. You can just drop and do these anywhere.
Hold each position as long as possible. Breathe, and be mindful of form; doing these improperly is probably worse than not doing them at all. Basic form for the planks includes keeping your elbows lined up with your shoulders, and your head lined up with your spine in a neutral position. For side planks, make sure your shoulders, hips, and feet are aligned and your hips are perpendicular to the floor. If the back plank is too difficult to begin with, start by resting your shoulders on the floor and lifting your hips off the floor with your knees bent.
If you can, add a little more time each day to work up to 60 seconds.
Once you can comfortably hold 60 seconds of each basic plank, you’re ready to add a degree of difficulty. On all of these, keep the movement steady and controlled.
Again, once you can comfortably hold Level 2 planks for 60 seconds, you’re ready for even more advanced poses.
Whitney comments, “The variations on planks are infinite … you can take these and come up with your own exercises, if you like. The key is to use good, controlled form and, of course, to do them often.”