by Martin John Trout
And there we have it, the classical posture of a runner when facing a very steep uphill…
The necessity to make rapid upwards progress but the inability of the muscles to express sufficient power to overcome the effect of gravity on the weight of the runner.
So we adopt a bent over position, hand on knees, and push downwards on our legs to aid and assist in producing the necessary force.
And it works!
The problem is that this bent over position, which allows us to use our arms as an ally in producing power, also puts our body and above all the back in a difficult and muscularly tense situation.
If the position is held for a short period of time it is not really a problem, but when the position is held for a prolonged amount of time, as may be the case during a long race, then the muscles which hold the spine in place will begin to fatigue, and will eventually begin to fail and became painful. This can not only lead to suffering during the race but can eventually lead to injury due to movements or positions of the spine which are not correct.
The use of poles can alleviate this problem to some extent but we are only delaying the onset not resolving the cause.
The importance of this has been perfectly summarised by Stuart M. McGill, director of the Spine Biomechanics Laboratory, University of Waterloo, Ontario and author of the book “Back Mechanic” –
“…….important factor is muscle endurance, or the ability of the muscles to contract for long periods without getting tired. If your back muscles get tired easily, it will cause you to “break form” when you’re exercising, or move in a way that increases your risk of injury…..” .
The Kinetic Chain
Therefore it is clear that strengthening these all important muscles can assist the athlete in maintaining good form, avoiding pain and possibly injury. At the same time we have to consider that the muscular and skeletal structure, though made up of many parts, works as a single unit, each separate part connected to the others through its immediate neighbouring parts.
This is often referred to as the kinetic chain and more specifically to the posterior kinetic chain and anterior kinetic chain. If we strengthen only the posterior chain and neglect the anterior chain, or vice versa, we will create other problems as the stronger part dominates and pulls on the other. It is necessary to strengthen the entirety of the chain both posterior and anterior.
The back can be divided into three major regions:
- Cervical (neck)
- Thoracic (upper-mid back)
- Lumbar (lower back)
In this case we will only consider the mid to lower portion of the back which is more important within the present context, defined as the thoraco-lumbar spine.
The area is supported by both the posterior and anterior kinetic chains, and this is accomplished by the following muscle groups:
- Hip flexors (psoas – flex the trunk and hip).
- Lower abdominals (transversus abdominus, multifidus & pelvic floor muscles) act as major stabilizers of the lower back.
- Obliques (internal & external obliques) stabilize trunk during rotation and movement.
- Upper abdominals (rectus abdominus) increase intra-abdominal pressure and assist in force expiration.
- Lower back muscles (quadratus lumborum & erector spinae) extend the trunk.
- Mid back muscles (latissimus dorsi) extends the lumbar and assists in breathing.
All of these muscles need to work together in order to stabilise the spine and it is not only about strength; it’s also about coordination and control of those muscles. Therefore it is important that the strengthening programme considers the kinetic chain in its entirety rather than muscle groups in isolation, as is the case with weight and exercise machines.
Which kind of back and core strengthening programme should the trail runner adopt?
In general it is fair to say that any exercises that tends to put diverse muscle groups under stress, and in a functional way, are to be preferred.
It is not the aim of the present article to prescribe a strengthening programme but to indicate possible strategies and methodologies. The typology of exercises may be divided into bodyweight exercises where no or minimal equipment (a mattress) is necessary, and exercises in which some form of free weight or support mechanism is required.
In the case of free weights we can consider barbells, dumbbells and kettle-bells, while as a support mechanism we can consider a TRX or similar. Naturally it is possible to combine the various types of exercises and in many cases using different equipment for the same types of movements.
Here we shall suggest various exercises for each typology of equipment or simple bodyweight, but would suggest for those athletes who wish to undertake a serious strengthening protocol that, unless they already have some kind of training in this kind of exercise, the best way to go is to ask advice from a local strength and conditioning coach.
A simple internet search will allow you to find various illustrations, explanations and even video tutorials of all these exercises.
- Front Plank
- Side Plank
- Bird Dog Plank
- Lumbar extension
Barbell, dumbbell and kettle-bell
- Romanian Deadlift
- Good Morning
- Bent Over Rows
- Kettle-bell Swings
- Abdominal Roll-Outs
- Push up Pikes
- Horizontal Pull Ups
- Mountain Climbers
Many of these exercises and particularly those of bodyweight exercises or TRX may be further refined by the use of an unstable surface such as that provided by a Bosu ball.
This will promote further stability control and coordination of the neuromuscular response.
Martin Trout is an all round Adventurer, an accomplished ultra runner, mountaineer, ski mountaineering instructor and trail running coach at Endurance Training in Progress. He’s been living in Italy since the 1990’s.