Want to run and stay injury-free? Then make sure you pencil in some of these exercises that will help build your ‘core’

First published in Mint on 26th Nov 2013, just before ADHM

Running is the most basic form of physical activity. It is ingrained in us. As toddlers, we instinctively start running before we can barely walk. Then, where does it all go wrong? How come we are prone to injury when we try to pick up running at a later age?

What comes naturally to us as children no longer does, courtesy the chair. Most of us are stuck in a chair since the age of 2-3, whether it is to eat food, study, watch the idiot box or just hold a conversation. Being seated most of the time really messes up our posture and muscle balance. Almost any movement seems very awkward after a few years.

After being stuck in a chair till the age of 30-40, we suddenly become conscious of our health and fitness. Since walking and running are activities that can be done anywhere and by anyone, they end up being our choice of physical activities, and rightly so. Even though the intention is to use running to get fit, we first need to be fit to be able to run. Otherwise injuries are waiting to happen.

The most important exercises for runners are core exercises. Even though working on your core muscles is imperative, most people do not really understand what core is. Leave alone the newbie runners, even seasoned runners and gym instructors think of core as the abdominal muscles alone.

The Oxford dictionary defines core as “the part of something that is central to its existence or character”. The same applies to the “core” during the movements in the human body. For example, when we move our arms while running, that energy is intended to translate into moving our legs quicker, and more efficiently.

Mobility, stability and strength go hand in hand. There needs to be a fine balance between all three. Optimal work can happen only when the muscles of the abdomen, back and hips work in synchronization to support and stabilize the spine. This ends up providing a solid foundation for the movements in the legs and arms.

Most people who run in the morning, or even in marathons and ultra marathons, aren’t doing justice to their bodies. There is too much hip sway and shoulder rotation, too little stability between the two, and grossly poor posture. An improved core can make them efficient runners and reduce the chances of injuries.

One exercise all runners must incorporate in their routine is the “plank”. This is a better exercise than sit-ups, which can cause pain in the lower back. A full plank activates core muscles from top to bottom without causing injuries; it also improves sitting, standing and running posture.

Besides the plank, runners (or those looking to start running) must incorporate some basic exercises (see below) to strengthen their core.

Wall Squats

Activates the quadricep muscles

Lean with your back against a wall. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and about 2ft from the wall. 

Slowly slide your back down the wall; aim for close to 90 degree angle at the hips; relax your neck, shoulders and upper back; adjust your feet if you need to so that your knees are directly above your ankles (rather than over your toes); keep your back flat against the wall. You may feel a burning sensation in the quads, but if you have pain in the knee or kneecap, stop the exercise. Start with holding the position for 15-20 seconds. Rest for 30 seconds, and repeat the exercise three times. Increase your hold time by 5 seconds as you increase your strength.

Ideally want you to go down to 90 degree angle at knee joint, but is ok to go down a little lesser. It works on quadricep muscles.

Bridging

Trains the core muscles (gluteus maximus, transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, lumbar paraspinal and pelvic floor muscles).

Lie down on your back with both arms flat on the floor; bend both your knees; make sure your neck and shoulders are completely relaxed; keep breathing normally, using your chest. 

Raise your hips off the ground so that you make a straight line from the shoulders to the knees; make sure not to strain your hamstrings and neck. Maintain this position for 5-10 seconds and repeat it five times. Gradually hold the position for longer durations.

Cat-camel
Increases the mobility of the lower back

Get on all fours. Place your feet shoulder-width apart and your elbows right under your shoulders. 

Now tilt your pelvis the other way and round it off like making a hump on your back.

Now try to tilt your pelvis down by making a curve in your lower back—a hollow-shaped back will form as a result of the pelvic tilt. 

Repeat 15 - 20 times. Do 3-5 sets throughout the day.

Latissimus dorsi stretch
Stretches the upper-mid back muscle

Kneel down and sit on your heels; keep your back straight; slowly try to slide forward with straight elbows without lifting your buttocks off the heels; you will feel the stretch near the sides of your upper back and down till the buttocks. 

To stretch the right side, turn towards your left side and slide forward. Hold the position for 3-5 seconds and slowly come back to the centre. 

Now repeat the same for the left side by going to the right. Repeat both sides 10-15 times. Do 3-5 sets throughout the day.

Side to side
Stretches the quadratus lumborum muscle

Lie down on your back with bent knees, with both arms flat on the floor; make sure your neck and shoulders are completely relaxed. 

Slowly roll your knees first to the right; keep your upper trunk still; your left buttock should only very slightly come off the bed/mat.

Repeat 10-15 times by rolling to both the and right sides. Do 3-5 sets throughout the day. 

Hamstring stretch
Stretches back of the thigh

Lie down on your back with both arms flat on the floor. Bend both knees. Grab your right left behind the knee with both hands. 

Pull the right knee up till its almost vertical to the ground. Make sure your neck and shoulders are completely relaxed at all times. Don’t shrug your shoulders.

Try to straighten a bit more. There is no advantage of having a completely straight knee. all your knee up a bit further towards your chest. Hold the stretch for 3-4 seconds. Repeat it 10-15 times with each leg.