Core Strength, Psoas and Performance

You know it and I know it: a strong core is gold for a runner’s performance. My lower back has been bothering me a little lately, which of course slowed down my running a bit. It never fails that when I take a little time to workout my lower abs and psoas muscles, my lower back issues get lost. Almost immediately. So, today at the gym, my focus was on just that, and as anticipated, I left feeling more supported in my lower back and abs, post-workout. You know me, when an area is bothering me, or becomes easily sore after an activity, I look at it as a giant flashing arrow to help me find the under-trained area and step up my game.

Several factors go into core strength, and it’s certainly a multi-pronged approach. However, the psoas muscle is a very, very important muscle when it comes to a runner’s core strength (or anyone’s core strength, for that matter), and, for reasons I will never understand, the poor psoas muscle group gets so little attention.

For starters, it is certainly worthy of our care. Ever wonder what muscles connect the torso and lower body? The psoas. Ever wonder why strong lower abs lessen or eliminate lower back pain? A strengthened psoas supports abdominal muscles, thighs, hips, lower back and even shoulder motion to an extent. Take that.

When the psoas muscles are in optimal condition, they stabilize the lower back, and cause the spine and abdomen to be held in alignment (that not-bowed-out-forward look, but the solid trunky look of the torso from the side), thus appearing and, most importantly, feeling strong.

Crunches are great for abs, and that’s all well and good, but I like to cut to the chase, personally. By that I mean, we can work on abs and not do much for the psoas, but it’s hard to work on the psoas and not work out the abs in the process.

Here are some pro-psoas and pro-core moves I like:

  • Try the reverse decline crunch, too. I make sure I stretch my torso out long, long, long on the bench. Maybe even a couple of weights on the ankles once in a while to really whoop your own butt a little. Then try the reverse decline abdominal reach. When my back bothers me, I do this one, along with the decline crunch and I think they rule. Your fitness practice is your own, reader dear, but I find that the more I lengthen my torso when I do any of these, the more I feel it. Do what suits you.
  • Lastly, the first and last exercises in this video clip are ones I rely on often. With the first exercise,  I either strap weights to my ankles, or pinch a dogbone dumbell vertically between my feet. In the last exercise, I really focus on doing it smoothly. No shaking, or fast stuff, just smooth, controlled movement. It’s a good one to do anyplace, and even a few seconds can give the torso a nice boost, say, after sitting at a desk too long.

On The Road: A (Track and) Field Guide to Omaha

The past weekend, I spoke and read at a literary festival in Omaha, and followed up with a day on a farm in east-central Nebraska. I like running in Omaha, as it is green, fairly hilly, boasts gorgeous architectural gems and has great public art in its series of parks (67-acre Memorial Park off Underwood is a good one not far from downtown and the Old Market District areas). And, the long open roads in rural areas of east-central Nebraska are an excellent place to log fast, steady mileage on foot or bike, as they’re quite flat and straight and not terribly busy.

Time permitting, start with a hello to the Omaha Running Club beforehand and check for opportunities to tag along on a scheduled group run or event. Also, check by Olympia Cycles, a cool little shop dedicated to community support and is into cyclists of all experience levels. If you find yourself in Nebraska in June, and feel gung-ho to cycle, there is a cycle-across-Nebraska event, too. The Omaha Marathon and Half-Marathon is in late September, and September in Omaha is gorgeous. The race is limited to 5,000 runners, so that means an uncrowded, cool-weather race, in my book.

But, for fitness anytime, there are some great running routes in Omaha, many with good hills, outside of the many parks, which are perfect for running, as well as good hiking trails nearby. Also, Activate Omaha is an excellent fitness site with a directory of local fitness resources and a calendar of events around town, many of which are free, such a drop-in yoga and group runs.

Lastly, I’m a big fan of supporting local, independent running shops, and Peak Performance is a great one, with two locations in Omaha.

What about you, readers dear? Do you know about a great fitness resource in Omaha or nearby I might have overlooked?

How To Keep Momentum Going When Traveling

I travel a lot. Not as much as, say, a pilot or trucker, of course, but I hold my own. Personally, I love exploring a new city by running or hiking. I might start out in a touristy or all-business area, but I’ll inevitably find something interesting off the main drag and find interesting restaurants, shops, museums or events for later or scenery and unique views. It’s difficult, when thrown out of our home routines, though, to keep our fitness momentum going. It’s also difficult because we often don’t have access to equipment, or don’t know any running routes nearby, and because we usually end up eating entirely in restaurants or at cetered events with few options, so our go-to snacks and meals are usually a bit off, too. Here are some of my favorite fitness travel tips and tools.

  • I usually just wing it and get lost in a new city and have had some wonderful adventures this way. But, it’s wise to pay better attention to safety and play around with the mapping tools on Active Trainer or Map My Run or the all-around excellent resource Run The Planet. When I do this, I try out various loops in various directions so I’m both semi-familiar with the immediate area, and to I can identify landmarks in several directions. Whether I map first of not, I always jot down the address (or grab a matchbook cover with the hotel address) and stick it in my pocket. There are many GPS devices that perform these functions, too. It’s usually worth Googling the destination city and “running route”, too, as sometimes area runners will save and post good routes in safe and scenic areas. Better still, drop a note to the local running club or a local fitness blogger (ahem) beforehand and get your fitness networking on.
  • I prefer to get out into the travel city and explore a bit, so I tend to do just the bare minimum in hotel fitness centers, if anything at all, do some reverse push-ups on the edge of the tub, my crunches series in the room, and then put my destination to work. For example, in Anguilla, I swam and sand-ran (info on beach-running here; it’s a little different). In Arizona, I climbed and hiked. In San Francisco, I tackled hills while I explored different neighborhoods. In Quebec City, I ran up and down the city’s many stairs (Psst, they have a kick-ass half-marathon on stairs. We have the Top of the Hancock race here in Chicago. Both could lead straight to training for the Great Wall Marathon. Just a thought.) In Amsterdam, where almost everyone is bicycle-happy, there are dozens of places to rent a bike for a few hours or days.
  • That said, I often put a resistance band, the yoga-to-go cards, or deck of pilates cards in my suitcase in case of crummy weather, so I can do something.
  • There are many fine books on the matter of travel and fitness. The book and website belonging to TravelFitness is filled with good ideas, many of which I personally practice. A few books I like are Travel Yoga and Fitness For Travelers.
  • I really pay extra attention to packing quick-dry technical fitness clothing when traveling because  stuffing sweaty running clothes into a suitcase is just gross. Most technical clothing will dry fast if you give them a good rinse in the sink after your workout and hang pieces over the shower rod. Add a tiny bit of shampoo or shower gel to warm water then rinse well if you prefer to wash instead of rinse. A friend of mine carries a tiny travel bottle in her bag that she’s filled with special fitness detergent for this very purpose and loves the stuff. Also, I bring a shoe bag along to keep things tidier.
  • Bring some healthy snacks. I almost always have some almonds, energy bars or something like that with me when I travel, as well as individual packets of powdered Gatorade. A friend of mine lines the bottom of her bag with pouches of heart-healthy instant oatmeal with the thought that a cup of hot water can be found anywhere, which I also like.
  • Remember that cabin air in airplanes is about as dry as it gets. Drink a lot of water on a plane. I mean, a lot. And, since you’ll be getting up to pee throughout the flight, stretch a bit while you’re up.
  • Very importantly, be prepared to stand up for your fitness. You’re going to hear things like, “Oh, you’re in great shape, blow it off!” or “Oh please. Missing one little run isn’t going to kill you!” and while that might be true, missing one run isn’t going to kill anyone, if you’re going to be dedicated, frackin’ be dedicated. Besides, there is a sense of pride that comes along with making the healthy choice and/or honoring a deal we made to ourselves. Scheduling an hour or two to do something healthy in-between events or first thing in the morning does matter to our fitness levels, and sense of well-being. As Chris Russell wrote for Cool Running’s 9 Travel Tips from a Veteran Road Warrior:

Many times the people you are working with will think your running addiction is a social disorder and will do their level best to keep you from your fun. In their world view they are saving you from yourself. Don’t be afraid to steal a run. “I’m sorry, I’ll be a little late for dinner I have an appointment, you go ahead to the bar and I’ll meet you there later.” Stick up for yourself. It’s something you need to do to feel good. It’s something that will make you more effective and clear your head. Screw them if they don’t get it. Sneak out and run.

  • Even then, sometimes I check to see if there is a local 5k race in the area while I’ll be around. It’s easy to get tired from jetlag and blow off a run, but I find having an event ahead keeps me excited and focused. Plus, it’s usually for a good cause.

What do you do when traveling to stay fit and focused?

Fight The Bonk: Fitness Challenges

No matter our respective fitness levels, we’re all going to plateau from time to time. It happens. Sometimes our training starts to feel boring, and worse, sometimes, we get completely unmotivated and bonk ourselves out. There’s no shame in it; we’re human and it’s bound to happen. It’s unreasonable to expect our minds and bodies to be gung-ho about the same exact fitness routine or running route day in and day out.

For me, one of the best ways to spring myself out of any kind of a fitness rut is to take on a challenge. As a general rule, the bigger the rut, the bigger the challenge. Here are some I like:

  • I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the Hundred Push-Up Program is both kicking my arse and rocking my world.
  • About.com’s 30-Day Fitness Challenge: You have to skip through a page of partner offers after sign-up, but that’s no big deal, just scroll to the “skip” button at the end. The challenge emails are great reminders and motivators and the variety is good.
  • Top End Sports has an excellent testing resource page you can use to challenge yourself with sit-ups and crunches, with some really great links at the end of the page including info about the various military sit-up tests.
  • And, on that note, if you really, really want to kick your own arse, the Navy Seal Fitness Challenge is an option, if that’s your style.

Gear Check: The Must Haves

So, this morning was the very soggy and chilly Chicago Half-Marathon & 5K and I’m thinking about the things we rely on, as runners, to feel comfortable, both mentally and physically, because Friday at the expo, I heard a woman say, “Well, it is my first race ever, Cindy! I should buy a brand new outfit and shoes to wear tomorrow.” Everyone within earshot, myself included, responded in a slo-mo “nooooooooooooooo!” sort of way and we all began talking at once about how it is essential to not vary your routine on race day. Nerves, excitement and the crowd of other runners will be wild card enough on race day; do not do anything else to deviate from how you have trained. The shoes, socks, food, sports drink/water combination, shorts and singlet all need to be tried and true and reliable and off your mind so you can be free to focus on having a good race. This applies, really, whether it’s your first race or your hundredth. Using tried and true items and routines on race day helps build a mental foundation, in a sense.

I found the cold weather running clothes I like, with a few of each in rotation, and ditto for the warm weather running clothes. But, for every race I have run since early 2005, in hot and dry weather and in cold and wet weather, I have worn Asics Kayano socks (the yellow-toed ones) and eaten peanut butter beforehand, without exception. A friend of mine makes sure she has a GU Energy Gel in strawberry-banana at a certain point in a marathon, every marathon, and another friend has a thing about wearing red, a la Tiger Woods. So, my question for you, readers dear, if this: What is the one specific product (besides the brand and make of shoes that you trust) do you consider essential and absolutely non-negotiable on event day? Is it something practical that eases your work or something for personal superstition or both?

Nissan Quality of Life Expo in Chicago

I spent a little time in the afternoon at the Nissan Quality of Life Expo at Chicago’s Navy Pier. I have so much to report back, that I think a list might be the way to go:

  • The best t-shirt is a tie between Montees “In My Mind I Am A Kenyan” and the official Chicago Half-Marathon & 5K shirts that read simply “I Run This City”.
  • Chatted with Bobby Overton of Overton Fitness about his Spibelt. Loved the product, and bought one in olive after trying it out by shoving my BlackBerry and all sorts of other crap in the pouch and hopping around. I’m keen to also pick up one of their reflective Spibelts, too. I’ll run with it for a week or so and give it a proper review here on Bonkless after. Spibelt seems to have addressed the age-old issue of having keys, ID and mobile device flopping around during a run.
  • Talked with a guy associated with both the Geist Half-Marathon & 5K and the Indianapolis Marathon & Half-Marathon. The Indianapolis Marathon is of particular interest, folks, because it’s a marathon, half-marathon, 5K run/walk, and marathon relay, which is cool if you’ve never done a marathon relay. Also, it’s got low crowd numbers, is really a pretty flat course so it’s a good Boston qualifier.
  • Talked with two women associated with the Disney Endurance Series. I have it on good authority that the Disney Marathon is a fun race. Plus, say the words “Florida in January” to a Chicago resident and our eyes turn to pinwheels. Their Tower of Terror 13K night race sounds kind of fun, as well. Speaking of escaping to Florida when it’s cold in Chicago, I also chatted with both the ING Miami Marathon and Publix Escape Miami Triathlon guy and entered to win free race registration, and then met a rep from Team Challenge, who, much like Team In Training, trains runners of all skill levels to run the ING Miami Marathon and others while raising money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, and you know I’m all about combining endurance sports and philanthropy whenever possible. Then, I met the ladies from the ING Georgia Marathon, which is not only a pretty race, but one of historical interest, as runners pass civil rights landmarks and the birthplace of MLK.
  • I met the wonderful ladies of the Chicago chapter of Girls on The Run, a program that uses the skills and confidence of running to help young girls develop healthy habits and a positive self-image. They offer a coaching program for women that I’m really keen to do at some point. They’re behind the Wonder Girl 5K races, too.
  • The guys behind Tru02 gave me a sample can of their oxygen-enriched air to test out post-run. Will report back on that a little later, too, once I’ve had a chance to try it out.
  • Chatted with the Chicago Endurance Sports folks for a fast moment, about their running programs from beginner to fine-tuning the intermediate runner, triathlon programs, cycling clinics, yoga and pilates for runners, and core performance for athletes programs. Now that is awesome. I’m a big advocate of core strength as a foundation, so I’m glad to see the yoga, pilates and core strengthening programs being offered. Also Illinois Runs was on hand with info about their runner training programs, with emphasis on the Chicago Half-Marathon and the full Marathon races next year. And, CARA (Chicago Area Runners Association) was around, too, of course, with info about their training programs, clinics and injury prevention hotline.
  • I met and talked for a while with Erik McClain, director of development for Pancreatica Running Team, and found the work they’re doing to be of great interest. They’re a small organization, to be sure, and so they make the absolute most of their budget, devoting almost all funding to research, as opposed to say advertising, public awareness and research. What I found particularly cool about the organization, aside from it being an organization supporting pancreatic cancer research is that athletes can do whatever events they want to raise money for them, not just participate in certain designated races. Sure, some races are on their website, races in which several other Pancreatica team members are participating, but any race is good in their view. And, I think that’s really cool. Apparently, a guy in Arkansas thinks this is very cool, too, and he is sleeping to raise money for pancreatic cancer. Hey, whatever works.

The Bonkless Interview At HellaSound

Friend-of-Bonkless, John Frenette of HellaSound, and I hopped on IM yesterday to chat about Bonkless. It went something like this: Get The Bonk Out!