Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Core vs. Abs and Why You Should Know the Difference

There seems to be this fitness myth floating around. It's so prevalent that there's a good chance that you might believe it, even if you're a veteran endurance athlete. I know that up until a couple years ago, I certainly did.

A couple years ago, I got a back ache. Not a big deal, people get back aches every day. It started with my flip turns during swim practice. Just a little twinge, every time I flipped. But after 10,000 yards and 400 odd flip turns, that small twinge was a major pain. Then it would hurt during dryland, doing sit ups and leg lifts and medicine ball twists. Eventually, it became so constant that I started to question could this be something more than just a back ache?

I was right to question. Eventually I went to a doctor, then a sports physiologist, then another doctor, this time for an MRI. The results weren't good. I had stress reactions in two of my vertebrae, L4 and L5. Left untreated, these stress reactions could potentially degenerate into spondylolysis, or pars stress fractures of the spine. I was sent to see a physical therapist. What he told me change my entire perspective on what I had been doing.

Swimming is touted as a zero-impact way to remain fit, stay active, and avoid injury. And judging by the number of senior citizens I see in the pool at 5am every day, whatever they tell these elderly folk is working. But for young, ambitious swimmers, there is an increased risk of repetitive stress injuries like spondylolysis. This is because spondylolysis is generally caused by repeated bending of the spine. Adding to the problem was the dryland I was doing with the team. We would do somewhere between 120 and 180 crunches a practice. 2 practices a day, you can do the math.

See, what your coach called core work was really abdominal work, I was told. That's important because although swimming engages every muscle in your body, the extra dryland was throwing mine out of balance. The core of the body is comprised of more than just the abs that everyone seems to be obsessed with making appear.

By strengthening only our abs, in our unending pursuit of aesthetic perfection, we put ourselves at risk for back pain and injury. When our abdominal muscles are engaged and strengthened, they pull our belly in and cause the back to hunch. The stronger the back, the more this is counteracted. Todd, my physical therapist, put me through a rigorous back routine to strengthen those muscles and told me to ditch the crunches. Exercises such as the plank engage your abdominal muscles and your back. He also had me stretching like crazy because my hamstrings were also tight, which was a by product of my tight back, but also inhibiting the loosening of the spinal erectors.

See, the muscles in our core have a symbiotic relationship with one another and when we ignore one, we tend to weaken the entire core and open the door to injury. This is particularly important for triathletes. We don't just have swimming to worry about, we have a bike and run after it, and both will tax your entire core.

What does riding your bike remind you of? Imagine riding a bike upside down...see where I'm going with this? There's a reason that there's an exercise called the "bicycle crunch." The bike leg taxes your abdominal muscles quite a bit, so consequently, lots of cyclists have strong abdominals, but not much else in the way of core strength. The images above were taken from Tom Danielson's Core Advantage, a book that details his struggles with back pain, and his realization that strengthening his entire core would lead to more explosiveness and more power. Additionally, having loose hamstrings and a flexible lower back allows triathletes to get into a lower, more aerodynamic tuck and hold it longer. This is extremely important. Many athletes can get low, but can't remain there, so they go back to using the base bar. In that case, you might as well have saved your money and raced with your road bike, because your aerodynamics would be close the same with your hands on the hoods as they are resting on the base bar.

And most everyone should know that the core is the difference between a good run and a great run. Most don't know that the hamstrings are part of that equation, but they know how it feels to run with tight hammies. It's not pleasant. The other part of the core is necessary to hold you upright, and helps you maintain your form throughout the course of the run. Good form is fast form, and faster is better, right AT&T kids?

Remember, love your body, love your core, and work your core. If transition is the fourth discipline of triathlon, then you might as well make it a pentathlon because core is equally, if not more, important as the other disciplines.

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