Reader To Reader: Cross-Training for Core Strength

What sort of cross-training is best for boosting core strength? Here's what you thought


Posted: 17 December 2006
by Jane Hoskyn


With spring marathon training well underway, the cross-training question is heavy on our minds. Do we really have to do it – and if so, what kind and how much? Is it enough to trot up the escalator once a week, or, horrors, do we have to hit the gym?

"It's time to face the cryptic 'cross-training' references on my marathon schedule. What should I do? There's so much choice! Whenever I run more than about 14 miles my upper body gets tired, so I know I need to develop my core strength, but what's the best way? My new year's resolution might be to go swimming twice a week. Is that enough to strengthen my top half, or should I brave the gym?"
Mightyfish

Your best answers...

  • If your upper body is getting tired, perhaps your running posture is wrong. Either way, pilates will help. You do need an instructor, though, to ensure you're doing it correctly. Swimming is also good for the strength of some upper-body muscles, but it emphasises some at the expense of others. Some swimmers therefore have very bad postural problems. A good pilates class will attend to important little muscles you didn't know you had. – Skinny Old Geezer
  • If you like gym classes, pilates and body balance would be appropriate. If you'd rather do resistance work, there are a lot of exercises you can do at home without any special equipment, and a lot more that you can do if you invest in a gym ball and some dumb-bells. But the best form of running-specific core training is probably to put on a pair of fell-shoes and gallop up and down some muddy tussocky slopes. – Velociraptor
  • I'm not keen on the gym and never been co-ordinated enough for aerobics classes. However, friends persuaded me to try body pump earlier this year and I love it. It's a great way to weight train: you hardly know you're doing it, as it's such fun. I certainly feel it's benefited my running, posture and overall body shape. – Twitchie
  • The cyling circles rave on about power yoga, though I haven't tried it. If so many cross-discipline atheletes buy into it then it must be worth a try. Not sure why I haven't... well OK, it might be because it looks like hard work! – Craig Llewellyn
  • Try circuits once a week and do some abs exercises and squats twice during the week. You'll soon notice the diffrence to your core strength. – Loon Dod
  • Crunches, some with a twist at the top of the crunch and high reps, help core stability. You could throw in some press-ups – when doing them try to keep your whole body absolutely straight, so your arms should be the only thing moving. I don't think you need to do anything fancy, and I don't think there are any short-cuts. Just stick to the basics! – andrew sumpter
  • "Explosive" anaerobic circuit training and plyometric work really help with overall fitness, lung capacity and recovery times. – Donald Reid
  • I would recommend getting a fitball. You can pretty much exercise any muscle group. They're cheap to buy (Argos/Decathlon/eBay), you can find heaps of exercises by simply Googling – and you don't have to go to a gym. But you have to be disciplined to stick at it. – Nick L
  • Do you work in an office? Try sitting on a swiss ball instead of your normal chair. It will improve your core strength and posture. Also, I used to have a core of steel when I was a ballet dancer, so a ballet class may be worth a try. Pilates is the real basics of ballet posture and movement. – Racheyray
  • Tai chi gradually improves posture, and is very relaxing too. You'll find yourself moving very gracefully in your normal day-to-day activities. – Nixy
  • Rowing. But take a cushion unless your backside is sufficiently padded to start with. – Snapstinget
  • I learned the hard way that it's essential to do cross training to maintain running capability. I ran a lot from 1985-2000, 40+ miles per week and races once a month. All I did was run, run and run (oh, and a little cycling). I'd get niggly injuries, but would generally run through them. By 2000 I was in a very bad way, with back and leg problems that just wouldn't go away. Eventually I stopped running altogether – something every runner dreads. In 2003 I discovered the gym, and I've been going now for three years, 2-3 times per week: cardio 60 mins and resistance 30-45 mins. This year I started running again, three times a week, and I haven't triggered my old injuries. I'm convinced that if I'd been doing some strength work all those years, I wouldn't have had to stop running. – nhojsllih
  • This month's Mens Health has a free book about training at home. It's worth a read, and at £3.50 it's cheaper than joining a gym! As for cross-training, the great NZ coach Arthur Lydiard said: "no amount of cycling, swimming, weights etc will make you a better runner. Only running further and faster will make you a better runner." – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh-beetle


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It's time to face up to the cryptic 'cross training' references on my marathon schedule. But what should I do... there's so much choice!

Whenever I run over about 14 miles, my upper body gets tired, so I know I need to develop my core strength - but what's the best way of doing this? Anyone got a favourite cross-training method?

My new year's resolution might be to go swimming twice a week - is that likely to strengthen my top half enough? Or should I brave the gym...?
Posted: 09/12/2006 at 09:24

See if there is a good Pilates class in your area, excellent for core strengthening.
Posted: 09/12/2006 at 09:29

Walking is basically the only cross-training I do, unless you count bending down to put my shoes on in the morning. A little while ago I joined a gym, full of great intentions to boost my upper-body strength with bench-presses and suchlike, but I've only been back once. All I can be bothered to do is run, and I can only do that outdoors. Anything else is so boring, because I have no attention span whatsoever.

That said, I've often wondered about dancing, and every year's Strictly Come Dancing gets me thinking about it again. (Vote Dawson!) Dancing is great for flexibility, and I betcha it's good for core muscles too. Lots of posture/muscular discipline needed.

When I go back to freelancing in the new year, I'm determined to find a decent local dance class. (Walthamstow... any tips??) I'm really short, so jive or salsa might be good. I'm far too short to tango, unless you partner me with a Ken doll.


Posted: 10/12/2006 at 14:11

I'd second the Pilates. If your upper body is getting tired, perhaps your running posture is wrong. Either way Pilates will help. You do need an instructor, though, to ensure you are doing it correctly.

Swimming is good for the strength of some upper body muscles, but emphasises some at the expense of others. Some swimmers therefore have very bad postural problems.

A good Pilates class will attend to important little muscles you didn't know you had.
Posted: 10/12/2006 at 15:00

Mightyfish, well done on identifying a specific cross-training objective for yourself :o)

As SOG says, swimming isn't a very reliable way of training the core muscles that need to be strong for running. If you like gym classes, Pilates and Body Balance would be appropriate. If you would rather do resistance work, there are a lot of exercises you can do at home without any special equipment, and a lot more that you can do if you invest in a gym ball and some dumb-bells.

The best form of running-specific core training is probably to put on a pair of fell-shoes and gallop up and down some muddy tussocky slopes ;o)
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 09:30

Cycling got my fitness up enough to be able to run without feeling near to death. Now running improves my cycling. Core strength is a big issue with cycling. Haven't tried it but the cyling circles rave on about power yoga. Not sure of the differences between power yoga and pilates but suspect it's similar. If so many cross discipline atheletes by into it then it must be worth a try. Not sure why I haven't... well OK it might be because it looks like hard work... but surely that's a good thing right?
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 09:57

Try Circuits once a week and do some Abbs exercises and squats another twice during the week. you will soon notice the diffrence to core strength.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 10:08

I agree with Loon Dod. I do weights at home twice a week. Part of my workout involves squats and ab crunches. I keep the reps high. Definately improves my core strength.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 11:33

I'm not keen on the gym and never been co-ordinated enough for aerobic classes. However, friends persuaded me to try Bodypump earlier this year and I love it. It's a great way of weight training and you hardly know you're doing it as it's such fun. I certainly feel its benefited my running, posture and overall bodyshape.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 13:48

I'd agree with Craig Llewellyn 2 - Crunches, some with a twist at the top of the crunch and high reps help core stability. And you could also throw in some press ups - when doing the press up try to keep your whole body absolutely straight so your arms should be the only thing moving.

I don't think you need to do anything fancy, and I don't think there are any shortcuts. Just stick to the basis!
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 14:12

lots of pilates were actually in the pay of the english monarchy, because their attacks on spanish cargo ships carrying treasure back from the new world were seriously detrimental to the spanish economy and therefore its military capability
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 14:26

My favourite cross-training activity is definitely a spinning class. I'll be keeping up one of these plus two weight-training sessions (mainly upper body and loads of crunchy type exercises) per week during marathon training.

Of all the weekly exercise I do, spinning is definitely what I look forward to most. Mr Motivator at the front egging you on, and sweating bucket-loads. Lovely!
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 14:29

For core work -- try a Pilates and /or a Yoga class. They are excellent for abdomen / lower back strength and stability and yes, it does really help especially with the long distance runs.

Also, 'explosive' anaerobic circuit training and plyometric work really help with overall fitness, lung capacity and recovery times -- and in the midst of the winter keeps one inside for one / two days a week.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 16:06

One for your workout. For crunches try this (you can also throw in some little twists at the top).

Before you start: Try to keep the small of your back flat on the floor. Suck your tummy button to the floor. Project your chin forward. Feet flatish on the floor and legs slightly bent. Breathe out on the way up.

Crunch or lift but don't fully release when you release/return (stay a little off the floor)as it will keep some tension on the abs. You don't need to fully lift like we used to in the old days (with feet stuck under the gym wallbars)as this can injure your back. Just up to about halfway is fine.

Go straight through A, B and C without stopping.

A. 8 x crunches (lift and return) normal time lift, release etc

B. 8 x 2 part crunches, lift halfway, lift fullway, return. Timing would be lift, lift, down and down.

C. Lift to the halfway position then pulse 32 mini crunches at double time.

Take a little breather.

Repeat x 3. On the last repeat don't take a breather and go straight into the plank.

Plank: Rollover onto your toes and elbows like a pushup position. Make sure your back is straight and time yourself until collapse.

Enjoy :)

Posted: 11/12/2006 at 16:46

I would recommend getting a Fitball - you can pretty much exercise any muscle group, and despite my intial skepticism, I think they are fab!

Theyre cheap to buy (Argos/Decathlon/eBay), you can find heaps of exercises by simply googling, and dont have to goto a gym.

They can take up a bit of room though, and you have to be disciplined to stick at it.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 16:57

My marathon training consisted of a mix of treadmill running and outdoor running interspersed with a spinning class (like PhilPub it's what I look forward to most in the week) and also a pilates class. I found I could fit an easy run in with a pilates class afterwards and so was able to run 5 X per week and spin one day and have one day off.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 17:29

I'd second Nick L's suggestion, one of those swiss ball thingies is definitely a good idea. Some come with an exercise video/ dvd, but you can get some benefit just by sitting on the thing and watching telly, or whatever (the fact it is a ball forces you to use your core muscles just to stay still). Think how virtuous you will be able to feel whilst exercising/ relaxing simultaneously. Dancing/ aerobics classes are also really good. Finally, I used to really enjoy tai chi, which gradually improves posture, and is very relaxing too (you find yourself moving very gracefully in your normal day to day activities).
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 18:42

Candy Ollier is quite right. Bloodthirsty scoundrels they were too. It's also worth pointing out that it is inadvisable to run with a parrot on one's shoulder.

I find dumbells/ab crunches best for core strength. That and looting Spanish vessels and going 'arrrr'.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 20:46

Hello All!
Thanks for the tips! All of them are intriguing - and some sound scarier than others!

Am pondering swimming as I live quite near a pool, and I'm pants at it - so it would be nice to improve.

Me and wheels are not a good combo - so cycling is probably not an option! Although stationary bike/spinning may be a possibility....

Loon - no offence, but I reckon circuits = hell, so no thanks!! Glad it works for you though!

Velociraptor - I am still recovering from my last cross country/fell race.... the longest 6 miles of my life!! Definitely worked my whole body though, so you're on to something there.

Nixy et al., I love the idea of becoming graceful in my everyday life - that's not core training, that's a miracle! Maybe I will give Pilates/fitball a go!

And Candy & Dampsocks....I will ensure that the bo'sun looks after the parrot before I engage in any activities...
looting or otherwise....

;-)

Happy Monday everyone!

M
x

Posted: 11/12/2006 at 21:19

Do you work in an office? Try sitting on a swiss ball instead of your normal chair. It will improve your core strength and posture. I nearly always leave work with a back/shoulder ache whatever I do with my chair so it helps with that too. Also there is the added incentive of staying on the ball as rolling around on the floor because you reached too far for the stapler doesn't do much for your office cred.
Also I use to be a ballet dancer and I had a core of steel back then so maybe try a ballet class (pilates is the real basics of ballet posture and movement).
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 21:48

I'd advise going to pilates or a similar core/abs fitness class. I've been going since August and feel so much better for having really toned up my body and improved my stretching and flexibility.

I used to do circuit training but found that this was too detrimental for serious running training, so opted for the low-impact exercises instead.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 21:57

I recommend some weight training. You don't have to kill yourself, simply aim to keep the whole body toned. Since starting weight trainig myself, I find my running is more contlolled and I find it easier to Keep good form.
Posted: 11/12/2006 at 22:32

Your upper body is getting tired when you run? Surely it's your upper body that needs strengthening as well?

It's a myth that you have to go to a gym to get strong. You can get strong at home with just bodyweight exercise.

I would actually say swimming yould be a good choice. Surely swimming with a decent style engages the core muscles? As well as, obviously, working the upper body.

First things first, as someone else said, get someone who knows what they're doing to check your running pattern for any obvious deficiencies.

Then for upper body/ core strength you could do things like crab walks/ bear crawls/ v-up's/ planks (should be able to get details on all of these via google). The plank in particular I think works the core muscles to the sides (serratus?) and may be very useful for running stability.

I've not tried pilates, but getting a good book on yoga and doing some poses at home may prove to be very beneficial.

I'd certainly give the high-rep crunches a miss. boring and you may end up shagging your back up.
Posted: 12/12/2006 at 10:21

crab walks/ bear crawls/ v-up's/ planks...
..... all sound ominously like torture to me!! Why do they give them such scary sounding names?!

The coach at my club is happy enough with my running style - it's just a fatigue thing that hits when I do long distances - not a problem when I do under 15 miles or so, but I really noticed it when I did my last marathon. I've spent the last two years working in an office and developed progressively pants posture - the physio had to iron me out over the summer!

The Swiss-ball suggestions sound good - and I spend so much time at a computer it might be a good thing for me and help with the back/posture issues.

I'm investigating local Pilates classes - once I know my timetable for next term, I'm going to enrol. And I might see if I can get some more swimming lessons too. I only learned last spring and I still have that lovely 'drowning seal' style of crawl... and we won't talk about breaststroke...

I think I need the structure of pre-arranged classes to make myself do it. I'm very disciplined with the running, but (as you can tell!) not with the other fitness stuff. I'm in awe of you lot - doing all this stuff at home!

Hmm, food for thought.
Posted: 12/12/2006 at 11:02

Be wary of breastroke, as it is very likely to have given me an ankle/ tendon problem, as other forumites highlight the the 'unnatural kicking' style for runners. I now only ungainly frontcrawl and the problem seems to have gone away.
Posted: 12/12/2006 at 11:30

Rowing. But take a cushion unless your backside is sufficiently padded to start with.
Posted: 12/12/2006 at 19:39

I learned the hard way that it is essential to do cross training to maintain running capability. I ran a lot thru the period 1985 - 2000. I was racing once per month at various distances up to half marathon, I was running 40+ miles per week. I joined a running club in 96 and trained harder, improving my race times considerably. London Marathons in 96 and 97. Off road long distance runs with club friends, cross country races thru the winter.
You get the picture I am sure! Anyway, all I did was run, run and run (oh and a little cycling). No other type of training at all.
I would get what I considered to be niggly injuries from time to time and generally i would 'run thru' these. By 2000 I was in a very bad way, with back and leg problems that just would not go away. Eventually I stopped running altogether, something every runner dreads.
In 2003 I discovered the Gym. A nice small health club with a very mixed membership. I have been going now for 3 years. 2-3 times per week. I use the CV machines for about 60 mins and the resistance machines for around 30-45 mins. This has helped me to build up strength in my upper body as well as improve my CV system.
This year I have re-started running and am pleased to say that I have not triggered my old injuries. I run 3 times per week, 2 x 50 mins and 1 x 70 mins.
I am convinced that I should have been doing some strength work all those years that I was running, then I probably would not have had to stop running altogether. Gym work is now part of my exercise regime. I enjoy it, maybe not as much as running, but I enjoy it all the same.
John
Posted: 14/12/2006 at 08:19

Hullo John,
Glad you are getting over your injury - must be so frustrating though! I will take your advice though, and investigate the gym. I am very lucky and live practically next-door to a leisure centre, and since I'm a student - it is only peanuts to use it (admittedly, I'm running short of peanuts at the mo... but that's a whole other issue!).

I have made a modicum of progress - in that I have purchased a delightfully ugly coloured gym ball to use at home. I had physio over the summer for a back problem (my old job entailed too much sitting in the office frantically typing) who used one a lot - so I have a head start with the exercises. I'd forgotten how hard they are though!

Gym or swimming is now on the schedule for after the Christmas break. I'm strangely looking forward to it, as I know it will help my running.
Posted: 14/12/2006 at 09:13

Hi

I started a Pilates class earlier this year and thought it was really helpful for running / posture etc. I couldn't keep going though because of babysitting issues, and now I would have to forego my club run each week to go.

Has anyone tried doing pilates or yoga at home from a DVD as a complete beginner? Is this safe? Any good recommendations?

Vicky
Posted: 14/12/2006 at 11:11

Limping....

I own 2 Pilates DVDs. The MTV Pilates one is pretty good, and every "exercise" is explained at a variety of levels so you dont "grow out of it" too quickly.

Personally, I think that as long as you've been to Pilates classes and had some personal teaching, doing it at home is ok. I wouldnt encourage anyone who's never done it before to do that, as they might be doing something wrong, and hurt themselves. But I dont see why you shouldnt give it a go in the comfort (and convenience!) of your living room!
Posted: 14/12/2006 at 11:34

I enquired at my gym about Pilates classes and they're starting a new one in January - unfortuantly at the time I work.....
Most of the useful classes seem to be in the evenings and doing shift work means I can never make them.

I do a bit of cross training usually on Tuesdays - just some elliptical work of up to an hour (sometimes abs and suchlike although running seems to help with that a bit). Started doing more lunges etc after runs too as my usual basic stretches aren't probably helping a lot in the long run.

If I tried Yoga at home, I'd be in A&E a few minutes later I bet!

Posted: 17/12/2006 at 15:03

This months Mens Health Magazine has a free book about training at home its worth a read and at £3.50 cheaper than joining a Gym

As for cross training Arthur Lydiard the great NZ coach said and I quote as accurately as I can remember "no amount of cycling swimming weights etc will make you a better runner....only running further and faster will make you a better runner"
Posted: 17/12/2006 at 15:55

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