Improve your core strength this winter to boost your triathlon times without braving the cold
Pilates classes in gyms are now regularly oversubscribed and even the most dedicated Tarzan is realising that training smarter brings greater rewards and fewer injuries than just training harder.
So what is “core stability”? A simplified definition could be “the effective recruitment of appropriate muscles to stabilise the trunk and pelvis during movement”. In other words, the deep muscles of the neck, shoulder blades, back, stomach and pelvis need to be able to hold the spine and trunk stable while the arms and legs are moving the body.
If the stabilising muscles are not working effectively, those muscles that are supposed to be moving the body, i.e. the mobilisers, have to attempt to stabilise as well. The result of this conflict of interest is at the very least a decrease in efficiency of movement, and at worst an injury. For example if every time a runner lifts one of their feet off the floor their pelvis drops slightly on one side, there is a knock on effect up the spine and down the leg. These compensatory movements are likely to get worse as the athlete tires during their training session or race and could eventually result in an injury, often of the lower back or knee.
Core stability exercises require a good amount of body awareness to perform correctly. They are often subtle in nature and as such can be quite alien to triathletes who may be more used to recognising an effective training session in terms of heart rate, splits, power output etc. To maximise body awareness, keep your eyes open during the exercises and use mirrors where possible to check your body alignment. Whilst the exercises described in this article are designed for you to practice at home, nothing beats having the supervision and correction of a good Pilates teacher or personal trainer if you are unsure how effective you are being.
Neutral Pelvis and Neutral Spine
A neutral pelvis refers to the plane created by the Anterior Superior Iliac Spines (ASISs or “hip bones”) and the pubic bone. When lying semi supine (on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor) the pelvis is in neutral when this plane is parallel with the floor. In this position your spine should also be neutral as it is in its correct postural alignment with its natural curves in place.
Recruiting the centre
This refers to a light drawing up internally of the pelvic floor muscles (as if to prevent passing wind and water) along with a tensing of the deep stomach muscles by pulling the belly button back and slightly upwards towards the spine.
Lie on your back on a mat with your pelvis and spine in neutral, your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, hip width apart. Place a small cushion or folded towel under your head to ensure that your eye focus is slightly ahead of you on the ceiling and that there is no tension in your neck and shoulders. Place your hands on your stomach for feedback. Recruit your centre as you breathe out and slowly float your leg in at the hip joint until there is about a 90-degree angle at the hip and the shin is parallel to the floor. Hold the position as you breathe in and replace the foot to the floor as you breathe out. Be careful not to tense or arch the lower back and make sure that the stomach pulls downwards away from your hands. Repeat eight times on each leg
Progress this exercise by swapping the legs over in mid air so that only one foot is on the floor at any one time.
Lie in a semi supine position as for the start of the single knee folds. On an out breath recruit your centre and at the same time use your buttocks to lift your pelvis off the floor until your torso is at an angle approximately 45 degrees with the floor in a shallow concave curve. The pubic bone is the highest point of this curve, the breast bone is the lowest and the shoulder blades remain flat on the floor. Avoid flaring the ribcage and extending the lower back. Breathe in at the top of the movement and then on the next out breath, slowly lower the pelvis back to the floor. Repeat up to eight times.
To progress this exercise, stay in the bridge position and on an out breath begin to lift your right foot away from the floor, whilst at the same time contracting your left buttock to ensure that the pelvis doesn’t tilt. Straighten the right knee joint keeping the thighs parallel. Breathe in to bend the knee and slowly place the foot back onto the floor. Breathe out to repeat with the other leg. Make sure that you maintain your centre during the exercise and avoid propping yourself up on your shoulders. Perform one knee extension on each leg per spinal bridge, swapping which leg you lead with each time.
Make fists with your hands, put your knuckles together and place your elbows underneath your shoulder joints. Your legs are out behind you just wider than hip width apart with your toes tucked under. Recruit your centre, draw your shoulder blades into your ribcage, lengthen out through the crown of your head and come up onto your elbows and toes, creating a straight line with your torso and legs. You should feel that your stomach and shoulder blades are working hard to hold you up. Do not let your low back sink and push the back of the neck to the ceiling. If you feel pinching or pain in your low back you have lost form and may need to tuck your pelvis under you slightly. Hold the position for increasing periods of time as you get stronger, up to a minute, making sure that you breathe normally throughout.
Progress this exercise by supporting yourself on your hands and toes in a press up position.
Place yourself in a four point kneeling position (side on to a mirror helps with alignment). Your hands are directly under your shoulders with your elbows straight and your shoulder blades down your back. Your knees are directly under your hip joints. Your pelvis and spine are neutral and your eye focus is on the floor, slightly ahead of you with the back of the neck pressing to the ceiling. There should be a small curve in your lower back (your lumbar lordosis) where you can balance a tennis ball to help you with feedback on the movement. On your out breath, trying to keep the pelvis and spine still, recruit your centre and slide your right leg away from you along the floor. Hold the position as you breathe in and then, again recruiting your centre, slide the leg back under you to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg. You are trying to keep your weight down through the centre line of the body and trying not to shift the weight across to the stationery leg. If you lose the ball on your back you know you moved your pelvis or spine. Repeat up to eight times on each leg.
Progress this exercise by adding in an opposite arm movement.
Lie on your right side in a straight line with your pelvis neutral and facing forward in front of a mirror (if possible). Your hips and feet are stacked on top of each other and your right elbow is bent, directly underneath your shoulder joint, with the forearm parallel to the short sides of the mat. Your left arm is straight on top of your left leg. Keeping your pelvis neutral and facing forward throughout, recruit your centre on your out breath, draw your right shoulder blade down into your right lower rib cage and slowly lift your pelvis away from the floor. Hold the position for an in breath and slowly lower back down to the mat on the out breath. Get the feeling of lengthening your head away from your shoulder and elbow as you lift and look forward. Repeat up to six times on each side.
Standing one leg balance
Stand in a neutral pelvis and spine facing a mirror if possible. Your feet should be hip width apart and parallel, your knees soft and your weight balanced equally between the base of the big toes, little toes and centre of the heels. Lift one foot away from the floor whilst trying to maintain a level pelvis. Ensure that the pelvis doesn’t drop on one side and that the spine doesn’t side bend.
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