I’ve been speaking with some of the local pro triathletes here in Boulder, the Mecca of triathlon, and asking them about what’s the secret to their speed. I thought they’d say things like speed workouts, great nutrition, mental stamina or EPO (just kidding guys and gals). It turns out that they all rave about core strength…especially during base training. I was surprised to learn the pros use yoga and pilates, among other ways, to build core strength.
Now to me core strength means being able to get out of bed without grunting. Lucky my web friend Niki Dobbyn, who runs TriathaNewbie.com, knows a lot more about the subject. So I’ve borrowed the following story about core strength workouts. I think that it gives a great way to build strength, plus I like the little pictures/diagrams. For some strange reason they make me really smile:
We challenge ourselves with triathlons, training year round to keep our aerobic levels and technical skills to a point where we can compete to our body's potential, but sometimes we forget that not all of our bodies are made for the wear and tear that accompanies such a demanding schedule. Professional athletes have personal trainers, but the average triathletes have to listen to our bodies and interpret the signals to our best ability. We all have aches and pains that we deal with on a regular basis, and we work through them. Occasionally though, we misinterprets the pain signals and try to push through aches and pains that should be addressed and not pushed through.
One of the most common problems triathletes face is a weak lower back. If we push though lower back pain instead of address it, there is a possibility that we will have to discontinue working out altogether to recover from related injuries. But if we can detect the weakness ahead of time, there are exercises we can do to build up our lower back muscles before we injure them.
Before you start these exercises, be sure that your body has had a sufficient warm-up. You can walk for 15 minutes on a treadmill, go out for an easy 15 minute rollerblade or jog around the block a few times. Take a few minutes afterwards to stretch out so that you do not pull any muscles while following the exercise drills below.
Exercise 1: (see fig 1)
Grab an exercise ball and sit on it. Roll down the ball carefully until only your neck and head are on the ball. Push your butt up so that your back is aligned with your head and neck. Bend your knees and plant your feet firmly on the floor. Try and keep your knees close to together. They don't have to touch. If you are having pain in your knees, position them comfortably to avoid injury.
Keep your body in position and raise both arms so that they are perpendicular to your body. Keeping your left arm in place, lower the right arm down to your side. Then bring it back up. Keeping your right arm in place, lower the left arm down to your side. Then bring it back up. Be sure to keep your body posture through these arm movements. Start out by completing 1 minute of these exercises. Then, as you get better, move up to 2 minutes.
To challenge yourself even more, grab some stretchy bands and ask a friend to help out or use a pole. Slide into the same position listed above, but have your friend or the pole stand behind you and hold the stretchy band in the middle while you hold the two ends. You will do the same exercise above, but this time you will have resistance. This will work your core muscles, specifically your lower back and butt muscles as well as simulate a freestyle-like arm movement that will certainly strengthen your swim.
You can do this same exercise but change it up to work other muscles by having the friend or the poll on the other side of you, standing down by your knees. Instead of lowering each arm to your side like the exercise above, lower each arm the opposite way and brush your biceps by your cheek. Make sure your arm is straight and not bent. Again, start out doing 1 minute drills and move to 2 minutes as you get stronger. To get out of this position, let go of the stretchy bands, put your hands on the floor and sit down carefully. Move the ball away and stand when you are ready.
Exercise 2: (see fig 2)
Keep the exercise ball and rest only your calves and feet on it. The rest of your body should be lying flat on an exercise mat. Your arms should be facing palm down next to you body on each side for balance. After you have gotten yourself into this position, you want to push your butt up into the air so that you can draw a straight line from your neck to your ankles. Do not arch your back. The straight line is the key! In this position, you want to lower your butt to the mat and raise it back to the initial position slowly. You will feel your butt and thigh muscles working! Start out doing a two sets of 10 slow sets and move to 20 when you feel strong enough to complete them. To make this workout harder, roll the ball so that only your ankles and feet are on it. It will make your butt and thigh muscles work harder producing much better results. To get out of this position, put your butt on the floor, bend your knees, push the ball away and put your legs on the floor. Simply sit up from there and stand up when you are ready.
Exercise 3: (see fig 3)
Continue using the exercise ball and lay face down on your belly. Put both hands and both feet on the floor to gain your balance. Once you have your balance, raise your right arm and left leg at the same time. Then lower them back to the ground and raise your left arm and right leg. Do not raise your hand higher than your head or your leg higher than your butt. You should be using your lower back muscles to do raise and lower your arms and legs. If you are not sure whether or not you are using these muscles, ask a friend to feel your lower back while you are doing this drill to make sure they are flexing. Just a tip: Be sure to keep your head facing down or you may strain your neck muscles.
Start out by completing 1 minute of these exercises. Then, as you get better, move up to 2 minutes. To get out of this position, simply put all hands and feet on the floor, roll back so that your knees are on the ground, and sit back on your feet. Roll the ball away and stand up when you are ready.
When you are finished, take a few minutes to stretch and think about the drills. If you are having problems with these drills, ask a friend to watch or exercise in front of a mirror so that you can see if your body is properly aligned.