Planking for Runners

DSC_0629No one can argue a strong core isn’t good for your overall health and fitness, but did you know having a strong core is especially good for runners? I have been slacking over the past couple of months with my core exercises but in the past few weeks I’ve really ramped it back up.

In my weekly training recaps I write about doing plank exercises and one reader asked me what are the best planks for runners? Well, truth is there are so many variations of planks and I try to do as many as I can but I’m no expert so I thought I’d reach out to the creator of the #plankaday trend that hit the Twitter-sphere and Interwebs by storm beginning in June 2011. Now, 7,000 plankers strong, what started out as an accountability exercise between Dr. Sherry Pagoto, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and her longtime friend Mike Bauman. The two used the hashtag #plankaday to keep each other consistent and pretty soon their followers caught on.

“Because I am a behavioral scientist with an expertise in health and weight loss, I was fascinated by how Twitter facilitated such engagement in an exercise, so I began to study it scientifically,” Dr. Pagoto said. Her study will be published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health in the near future.

I first caught on to the plank a day craze this past summer. At the time I was more focused on being able to hold a plank for as long as possible (4:02 PR!) but when I stopped being so consistent, I really lost my plank endurance. Turns out however, duration of planking might not be so important for runners. I wanted to find out more about how planking helps runners specifically so Dr. Pagoto referred me to her sister, Julie Mulcahy, MPT, who is a physical therapist and runner.

What benefits will runners see from doing a plank a day?

Runners will see many benefits from adding planks to their strengthening routine. Planks strengthen core muscles, which include the spine, hip, and abdominal muscles. I use the analogy of building a house to teach the importance of a strong core. If you build a strong house with all the finest materials, but build it on a weak foundation, it will not be stable and may come crashing down. Your core is your body’s foundation. With a strong foundation the arms and legs can function from a stable base and can provide more power.

Should runners do different plank variations?

I always recommend variations of exercise for most efficient training. Doing the same static plank day after day will eventually lead to training plateaus. Dynamic planks are the best for runners. During running, the core must stabilize as one foot is on the ground and the other is in the air during the swing phase of running. There are many ways to train your core with planks for this phase of the running pattern. Performing planks with alternating leg lifts or mountain climber planks are two examples. Here is a video where I demonstrate a few variations:

Side plank

Side plank

Side plank with raised arm

Side plank with raised arm

Alternating leg planks.

Alternating leg planks.

Spider planks.

Spider planks.

What is the benefit of being able to hold a plank for a long period of time? Do you get the same benefits from holding for less time but doing more planks?

The hold time for planks is very subjective depending on the person. Start with an amount of time that you can successfully hold your form perfectly. You may add multiple sets of planks at this same hold time. Performing multiple sets of shorter duration planks are preferred over one very long duration plank. Anytime you are strengthening your core, quality is preferred over duration and quantity. When you are able to hold a minute, start trying dynamic movements. Remember to include prone  (stomach facing the floor) and side lying positions. Holding very long durations, possibly over 5 minutes, is a test of your ability to tolerate significant discomfort and endurance, however not entirely functional for running. During running the core doesn’t need to generate and maintain such an intense force for durations of that length of time. 
Should runners supplement planks with any other kind of abdominal exercises as well?

For my running clients, I combine other abdominal exercises in various positions that facilitate core stabilization and balance, in addition to planks.  Using weighted medicine balls, tubing and pulleys in standing and semi reclined, pelvic neutral positions can also train core effectively for runners and can be a great complement to planks in an overall core strengthening routine. 

Some people say doing planks hurts their shoulders, is there any way to alleviate this but still reap the benefits of planks?

Another great benefit of planks is that they build upper body strength. However if a shoulder, elbow or wrist problem is present, planking can be difficult. To alleviate wrist pain from the extension and pressure from a plank, place two dumbbells on the floor and hold onto them instead of placing wrist directly on the floor. When planking with bent elbows, place a pad under elbows to alleviate pressure.  For anyone with shoulder pain, attempt planking with hands on floor and elbows straight. This helps distribute some of the force through more of the upper extremities. However, there are occasions when certain upper extremity conditions cannot tolerate the weight bearing required of planks and other types of core strengthening can be recommended. Always consult a health care professional based on your individual case.

To learn more about plank a day, visit Dr. Pagoto’s website, FU Diet.

#PlankADay challenge is still on

3 minutes and 4 seconds! #plankaday

A few weeks ago I told you all I’d be taking on the challenge of doing a plank every day. So far, I’ve maintained the challenge and done up to five variations of planks EVERY DAY! I’ve definitely noticed results and I have some clear definition on my abs now which is pretty exciting.

Planks are such an easy and beneficial exercise. They really get at your inner abs as opposed to crunches which really just work your surface muscles. Also, having a stronger core helps with running in terms of alignment and balance.

I have a few variations of planks that I do regularly.

  • Standard planks- this is a typical plank where you get on your elbows and hold. I usually hold for at least one minute but lately I’ve been trying to see how long I can last. The longest one so far was just over three minutes!
  • Side planks- for a side plank you want to lay on your side, stack your legs and lift up using your obliques and elbow for support. Which ever arm is free you can either put your hand on your hip and hold it behind your head. I usually hold these for 30 secs on each side.
  • Alternating leg planks- for this variation, get into a standard plank pose, hold for 10 secs then lift your right foot about a foot off the ground, hold here for 10 secs, place your foot back down and lift your left foot off the ground and hold for 10 secs. Then, place your left foot back on the ground and hold the plank for 30 more second. Feel the burn!
  • Knee to elbow- for this plank, you want to get in standard plank position and bring your right knee to your right elbow and then place your foot back on the ground. Then bring your left knee to your left elbow and put your foot back on the ground. It feels silly but can really work your obliques. Naturally your butt is going to pop up a bit while doing this but do your best to keep it down.
  • Elbow to floor side planks- this is a toughy but SO great! First get into standard side plank position and place your free hand behind your head, like you would for a crunch. Make sure you are stabilized and then try to reach the elbow of your free arm to the floor. You don’t have to touch the floor with your elbow but if you can, that’s even better!

After each plank I like to stretch out my core by doing a simple yoga child’s pose stretch. As always, with planks you want to stay stiff as a board and don’t let your bum pop up! Are you doing the #plankaday challenge or do you have any other plank variations? If so, let me know in the comment section or tweet to me @FitHappyGirl.

Fit Girl takes on #PlankADay challenge

I have always loved ab workouts but it’s hard to get deep into the abdominal muscles by doing just crunches. So I am taking on the FitFluential #plankaday challenge. The challenge is simple- complete one plank every day and slowly increase the amount of time the plank lasts each day- the results, fantastic!

According to Live Strong, plank exercises are part of isometric training. In laymen’s terms this means “contracting your muscles against stationary resistance.” Planks and other isometric training can help you get past strengthening plateaus, according to the article, and build mental endurance. As opposed to crunches, planks get at the inner abdominal muscles which is really where the strength comes from.

There are many variations on planks but I’ll show you those in posts later on this week. If you think you’re up for the #plankaday challenge then start off by doing a 30-secon plank each day. After doing a plank you want to be sure to stretch out your back and abs. I like going into the yoga position, child’s pose, for a nice long stretch. Also, let me know how you’re doing and tweet your progress to me @FitHappyGirl and @FitFluential with the hashtag #plankaday.