Bottom line: Consider implementing the McGill Big 3 for your core training as a runner
Runners often ask what’s the best core exercise? I’ll start with my usual disclaimer that everyone is different, but if you are looking for a broadly generalizable routine, The McGill Big 3 is a great place to start, especially if you have a history of low back instability.
Background: the McGill Big 3 includes three exercises based on Professor Stuart McGill’s spine research. After studying probably more exercises than we can count, his research revealed three exercises that stood above the rest for core stabilization.
The three exercises are the McGill curl up, side plank and bird dog, which check three key boxes in core functional demands for runners
“What’s harder..Road marathon or trail ultramarathon?”
I’ll start by saying neither is “harder” than the other; both are more challenging in their own right. I will say that marathon is a more intense pain but that’s only one metric of “harder.”
The marathon inflicts the punishment of repetitive strain being on the road for 26.2 miles, basically using the same muscles in the same way for hours. Some mild hills can create some variety, but that can also make the course slower (we’re assuming that the goal is to compete the courses in your fastest possible time). If the hills get too big, they can punish your quads on the downhills. But regardless, you can expect your legs to be VERY sore after a full effort road marathon, especially if part of the course takes you to concrete. The intensity of the road race is also higher as most competitive runners are working toward the upper half of their aerobic energy system.
In the ultra, I was sore but not nearly as sore as after road marathons. To an extent, this shouldn’t be surprising because the ultra included bouts of walking during some uphills when I caught up to people on a single track and also when going through the later aid stations. Additionally, most ultras are contested mainly on soft surfaces, which inflicts less pounding. Add in the technical nature of many ultra courses and you have a recipe to spare your legs a bit…even though you have more ground to cover than on the road.
Some notes for a Zoom Q&A session where I was a guest of Run Tucson and The Workout Group
1. Why is adding some strength into your routine helpful for running?
Strength makes more adaptable as human beings. We are constantly exposed to stressors, some good, some not so good, and improving the physical as well as mental quality of strength provides a better internal ecosystem within our body to make appropriate adaptations to those stressors…the stress of pounding the pavement the skill of making corrections on the trail, reversing the pulls of office life, the natural biological processes that occur with aging (loss of muscle, loss of tissue elasticity) counteracting the catabolic (tissue wasting) processes that accompany moderate to high volume aerobic training
Historical evidence: the clusters of populations that have been successful over time have all had some basis in strength training practice. "Old school" Americans came from active lifestyle and many worked manual jobs at some point in their lives; many of the the African runners work in agriculture and have minimal access to motorized vehicles; Japanese runners enjoy very robust physical education programs in their youth
2. Are activation and stability exercises considered strength training?
Yes, but for most people in the same way that mashed potatoes and asparagus fit into a meal with a steak. They’re food but they are side dishes. You can still get an adequate meal by ordering off the appetizer and sides menus and that might be all you need at the time.(Or its like a Clif Bar or gel pack aren't the same as a complete meal but in the right time and place they’re more appropriate for the situation than a giant steak.) So yes activation fits under that broad umbrella category of strength but it’s important to appreciate their proper context and limit yourself at activation exercises when you can still benefit from taking it a step further into strength training.
Ultimately, activation and stabilization are prerequisites for quality movement. When we’re assessing the strength of an individual muscle, the scale runs from simply asking whether the muscle can actually activate all the way up to can it move our body against gravity and external resistance. Its all the same scale, just all part of a continuum.
For a lot of things where we are highly proficient, something in the realm of activation or stability might not be an adequate load or stimulus to improve strength. But for some areas where we might be less developed or proficient, such as lateral movements, simply activating or stabilizing against a modest load might be all the stimulus you need to be challenged. But in the end its all part of the same neurological processes
3. How should someone start adding strength into their routine?
Conduct a needs analysis – are you historically injured and maybe have done some strength associated with rehab but just never stuck with it? Are you historically healthy and just want make sure your bases are covered? The answers to these types of questions will help guide you to YOUR best starting point.
Set up your environment for success – we’re in a unique situation right now where involving the family in a fitness routine is a very positive development, both for enjoyment and accountability
Start with your running schedule and work backward from there
Easy victories – Don’t have to be on some elaborate plan, especially if you’re starting from basically scratch
4. If you could pinpoint 5 strength exercises that are the most helpful for runners, what would they be?
Strive to include an exercise from each of these categories. The specific exercises will be different for everyone, but these are the key movements to focus on. The examples provided are some of my preferences, but there are many options to choose from.
Pull - pull ups, rows
Push - overhead pressing, push ups
Hinge - single leg deadlift, glute bridge
Squat - split squat, goblet squat
Core - plank, Turkish getup
5. Can runners over-do it when it comes to strength training?
Absolutely! But the effects are typically subtle and the effect can be be delayed for several days or weeks
Biggest problem I see isn't overdoing it in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense. Most of the time when runners overdo it, the overdone program wouldn't be too much if they weren't also serious about running. Usually, the error is failing to protect quality run days from interference of lower body strength work.
The magic, the essence of any training approach isn’t what we decide to do or what the coach decides to do…its what we choose to NOT do…
6. Is there anything we should stay away from?
Compressing or cutting out the rest periods. Shortening the rest sounds like a good idea and feels natural for an endurance athlete.... "lets save time and be efficient" or "it really feels like I’m getting after it because my heart rate is up" or "I can't stand waiting around between exercises for a couple minutes." This thinking also drives many commercial models based on HIIT training or some form of circuit training. There can be value in these when presented a certain way, but the more we shorten the rests, the more we deviate from actual strength training. If you need more endurance, then look to your running program, don’t try to create something in the gym.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but these are just a few of my favorites. Please share your favorites in the comments if not covered in here. And feel free to share your own perspective on any that I did cover!
Reid Park – Definitely the most popular run spot in town. The main loop is the nearly three mile loop around the golf courses, which is marked every quarter mile and has the full three mile mark shortly past the “Start.” Definitely a good spot for all types of workouts, both measured as well as fartleks. Overall fairly flat, with a slight incline from mile 0.5 to 1.0 and 2.0 to 2.5-ish. Generally is well guarded from the wind compared to other flattish trails in town. No bathrooms right at the start of the main loop but plenty of bathrooms scattered throughout the park. Along with the main loop, there is an additional paved loop that continues around the baseball/zoo/park areas. You can also make a grass/dirt run through the middle of the park. During cross country season, there’s actually a marked course that you can follow. Finally, although the track is locked to the public outside of organized training groups, the 800m loop around the baseball field warning tracks is one of the best “tracks” you’ll find for workouts! Throughout the year you can find several races that utilize part of the path and the surrounding area.
Allan Phillips, PT, DPT is owner of Ventana Physiotherapy