GB international Alex Teuten shares his thoughts and advice on a much-discussed training topic
Having a good core and strength routine was one of the most frequent topics that emerged from my recent article on injury prevention, which featured a number of talented GB internationals.
Starting with the former: a strong core offers so many advantages, such as improved balance, posture, and an ability to run more efficiently ultimately making you run faster.
Balance originates from supporting body weight across the abdominal muscles and the lower back. A weak core applies additional load to the latter, often leading to painful back injuries. Strengthening means that an even weight distribution is applied over the torso and spine, improving balance. This also relates to posture, and is significant because it enables everyday tasks to be carried out without experiencing back pain. An added benefit is a more efficient running style and gait, since several peripheral muscles form part of the core group, including glutes and hamstrings, and appropriate exercises can assist in the collaboration of these muscles to invoke movement.
Strength is also really important, especially for track-specialist athletes where races demand a high power output from muscles.
Running is inherently a power activity, where a force is applied to the ground to propel the athlete. A strength routine prepares an athlete for this activity without actually running.
In a way, distance running is quite an inefficient method at strengthening muscles since it is largely a low-intensity activity. At a biological level, the fibres that constitute a muscle are not required to coordinate together to induce the movement involved in running, and in fact some fibres might not even be recruited at all. By strengthening a muscle, you are essentially teaching the brain how to carry out the strengthening activity (i.e. a lift) more efficiently, which will improve the power output of the muscle to that and other similar activities, including running.
The success of both of these processes lies in technique. Poor technique will not have the desired strengthening effect, and instead will likely lead to injuries so it is really important that you are carrying out strength and core activities correctly. It is best if you utilise a coach that can observe you carrying out your routines, at least at first until you are familiar.
Sadly, not everyone has access to this, so I have some tips.
With respect to core, you should be able to breathe and talk normally whilst carrying out the exercise, since breathing utilises the diaphragm, which is not recruited by core muscles. The most important feature to strength, especially lifting, is to not allow the load to be applied to the back, and so a straight spine is essential. A slight forward lean is required such that the weight is over the thighs. If you begin to experience pain, then stop and remove the load.
On that note, it is really important that safety parameters are in place whilst lifting. This means that for bench press, ensure safety bars are in place in case of failure to lift. The safety bar should rest the weight bar just above your chest. Also ensure that the bar sits within comfortable reach prior to lifting. Test with a low weight to begin with. The same applies to squats; one should comfortably be able to rest the weight after lifting. Ideally you should lift with someone “spotting” you, to reduce risk of accident.
With respect to my own conditioning, I usually carry out three core sessions per week, and one strength session. My core routine has two sets, with one set consisting of plank (2 minutes), side plank (1 minute each side), side cable row (15 each side, 12.5 kg weight), Russian twist (15 twists, 10 kg medicine ball), and oblique knee raises from chin-up bar (25).
My strength routine has three sets, with one set consisting of bench press (sets of 5, start at 30kg then increase according to how I feel on the day, usually 40kg), alternate between squat and deadlift each week (progress 60 to 90kg for squat, 75 to 100 for deadlift, sets of 5), assisted pull-ups (10), calf raises (25) and weighted step ups (15, 10kg dumbbell in opposite hand).
I am often inconsistent in how much I am able to lift on a particular day so I would not recommend setting oneself a target for a particular session; instead determine by how you feel. I would also start with lighter weights as preparation, and I will reiterate that my routine has been set for myself based on my own requirements. Enjoy, and be safe!
» Alex Teuten was part of Britain’s bronze medal-winning men’s team at the Euro Cross in 2017, won last year’s BUCS cross-country title and blogs at alexteuten.wordpress.com