Keeping Fit: Runners need other exercises, too

Wayne L. Westcott

Many runners spend all of their exercise time running, but some of that time would be better used for complementing physical conditioning. For example, improving core (midsection/lower back) strength and joint flexibility can help you achieve faster running times and reduce injury risk.

With respect to core strength, long-distance runners experience considerable amounts of repetitive stress in their lower back due to the landing force/shock absorption that is transmitted through their leg bones to their lumbar spine structures.

The lower back muscles are responsible for maintaining an erect and efficient running posture throughout each training session and race. The abdominal muscles also play a major role in effective running by assisting both postural alignment and breathing mechanics, especially air exhalation.

Core strength

If you have access to Nautilus equipment, the best exercises to strengthen the midsection muscles are the low back machine, abdominal machine and the rotary torso machine. If you train at home, I recommend the following exercises for conditioning the core muscles:

Basic trunk curl:Lie face-up with knees slightly bent and feet on floor. Slowly curl your upper back off the floor until your lower back is pressed firmly against the floor. Place your hands behind your head to keep your neck in a neutral (straight) position throughout each repetition. Perform 20 to 25 controlled trunk curls.

Basic trunk extension:Lie face down with your hands folded beneath your chin. Slowly curl your chest off the floor until your midsection is pressed firmly against the floor.

Joint flexibility

Many runners develop tight muscles, especially in the rear thighs and lower back. Tight hamstring muscles actually present two problems for runners: increased injury risk and increased work effort for the quadriceps muscles. Consider two highly effective stretching exercises that loosen up both the hamstring and lower back muscles:

Figure 4 stretch:Sit on the floor with your right leg straight and your left leg bent so that your left foot contacts your right inner thigh (resembling a 4 position). Gently reach your right arm forward and grasp your right leg, ankle or foot in a comfortably stretched position. Your right hamstring should feel taut but not painful. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, then repeat. Perform the same stretching sequence with your left arm and left leg.

Letter T stretch:Lie on the floor with both legs straight and your arms extended at right angles from your shoulders (resembling a letter T). Gently lift your right leg as high as possible and cross it over your body, attempting to touch your right foot to your left hand. Hold the stretched position for about 30 seconds. I recommend alternately stretching three times to the left and three times to the right for best results.

Wayne L. Westcott, PhD., teaches exercise science at Quincy College and consults for the South Shore YMCA. He has written 24 books on fitness and was formerly the assistant coach of Penn State University’s undefeated track and field team.