Strong to the Core

I received a nice email from a reader that made me want to write a post to answer her question.

“Hi, I am a loyal follower of your blog, and I am wondering if you would do a post on how you built or currently build your core strength? I struggle with injuring my back from simply doing very little, and my physio said to build it. So I was wondering if you had any tips.”

It’s a GREAT question. Not only is improving core strength important for fitness but it’s important for preventing injuries. There’s a reason that there are so many people with back issues. Since I’m not a doctor or a personal trainer, I can’t give advice. I suggest you see a doctor or personal trainer before starting any new exercise routine–especially if you have a history of back injuries. What I can do is share what I’ve done to strengthen my abs and what Michael has done to improve his own back injury.

Why is core strength so important? Because it helps your WHOLE body. Really, it does! Last year I spent all winter focusing on weight lifting and improving my core strength and by the time cycling season started, I was ready. My core was so much stronger. How did I notice it was stronger? Because I didn’t have fatigue on long rides. When you get tired, your form gets sloppy. It happens in anything–weight lifting, running, cycling…Core strength improves stability, balance and improves your fitness abilities. If you’re looking for a six-pack, that might be unrealistic. I know it’s unrealistic for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do what I can to strengthen my core.

The funny thing about the body is that most exercises will effect most parts of the body…think about it. You do squats and that strengthens your glutes, your hamstrings, your quads AND your core. You wouldn’t think core strength has anything to do with say, a running injury like mine…knees and back? How are they related? But everything is. Alignment makes a huge difference!

Most core exercises don’t require a gym, either. So if money is an issue, focus on getting your workouts in at home where it’s free! If you think working on your core means this:


Don’t fret! It doesn’t have to be that hard. Start small.


You’d be surprised at how fit yoga can make you! Not only does it stretch out tight muscles but yoga also helps build strength. Think about the last time you went to a yoga class — how hard was it for you? I know it’s hard for me. I have a hard time with balance sometimes and I also have a hard time holding the yoga poses for a really long time. There have been classes where it seemed like the instructor was in love with Downward Dog. I like Downward Dog and can hold the position for a long time but when it becomes minutes, I struggle.

Some people have lower back pain and that’s often related to tight hamstrings. Yoga can help loosen that up. Upper back pain? Some of those yoga poses that stretch out your shoulders can help with upper back pain. I suggest going to a yoga studio and talking to the instructor about what you want to focus on.


I’ve never taken a pilates class but I REALLY want to! My mom got Michael a book with pilates exercises in it for Christmas and I’ve been incorporating some of the exercises into my stretching routines.


One of these days I’ll actually get to try a pilates class…

Kettle bells

Kettle bells are how Michael fixed his back pain. I’m not sure why it fixed it other than it strengthened his core. I asked Suzanne for her opinion on kettle bells and this what she had to say:

Kettle bell exercises recruit your core stabilizer muscles as you try to control and balance the asymmetrical, and thus, unstable weight. So not only are you burning more calories and getting full-body conditioning with kettle bells, but you’re strengthening your core indirectly. Having a strong core can help prevent back injuries and chronic pain, and using kettle bells is a super effective way to gain strength in those areas. The one-arm kettle bell swing forces you to stabilize your body using your core, so that’s probably my favorite kettle bell exercise.”

I suggest you get a lesson on how to use a kettle bell and get the proper swing down before doing too much. Doing the kettle bell swing can do wonders for your back IF YOU DO IT RIGHT! If you do it wrong, it can make it worse!

Ab Work

I have a few favorites that I do in my normal workout routine for my abs. I want to share some of my favorites with you that have helped me a lot.

Russian Twist: I’ve been doing this one for years and I love it. I’m up to doing it with a 15 pound kettlebell and I need to increase that because I’m no longer sore when I do it. Time to step it up.

Supermans: It’s for the lowerback.

Plank: Planks are hard and I’m trying to do better at doing them. Make sure your form is correct otherwise you can do more harm than good.

Side Plank with Arm Lift: I love this one! It’s easier for me than a regular plank for some reason. My sports medicine doctor told me to do this as part of my PT exercise to strengthen my core and glutes.


Toe Touches: I do this one a lot at the gym but I add a a kettlebell or medicine ball to it and touch my toes with the weight. I use either an 8 pound medicine ball or a 10 pound kettlebell, depending on what is available.


Arm and Leg Lift: This one is pretty good but when I do it, I don’t really feel much in my abs. What I feel more is a difficult in balancing–which is something I KNOW I need to work on. Balance is hard!


Stability Ball Roll-Out: This is a new ab exercise for me. Suzanne added it as part of my workout and I really like it!  I tell ya, after doing this exercise for the first time I was sore for about 4 days.

How Strong Are You?

Ask yourself this question and think about it honestly. My core is okay but it needs work. The strength training I’ve been doing the last few months has helped tremendously but I still have a long way to go.

QUESTION: How do you strengthen your core?

Running is Hard

One of the things I’ve needed to remind myself of post-injury is the fact that RUNNING IS HARD. Running HURTS.

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Running HURTS. You will push yourself to the brink and then run a little further.  The funny thing about running is that it is often difficult to distinguish between legitimate pain (i.e. injury) and just the discomfort of pushing ourselves hard. For me I knew immediately when I was truly injured. It felt different than the normal aches and pains of running.

Running CHALLENGES. Once you reach a goal, there’s always another goal not far behind it. At first my goal was to run without walking or stopping. Then it was running a certain distance, then it was running a certain distance within a certain amount of time. Then the goal was racing. The challenges and goals were always evolving.

Running is MENTAL. I will think a million times during a run “I can’t do this” and “I want to stop! I can’t make it to the finish!” but most of the time it’s all in my head. It’s a mental block, something in me telling me I CAN’T when I know I CAN. I often tricked myself when I was running and starting to feel that mental block creeping into my thoughts. I would tell myself “One More Mile” or “Just run to that lamppost down the street and then you can walk” and most of the time by I got to that lamppost I had gotten over that mental block and kept running.

Running can be INCONSISTENT. Sometimes the food I ate the night before makes a difference. Sometimes the snack I eat right before the run can really effect my run. Weather, clothing, moods, everything can effect the performance of a runner. The important thing to remember is that not every run is going to be great. There will be ugly runs, slow runs, fast runs, great runs.

Running is NOT FREE. Sure, in theory it could be a super cheap form of exercise. In reality it’s not. Don’t make the mistake of skimping on the gear. Get fitted for running shoes at a real running store. It makes a huge difference for comfort and injury prevention. I am so serious about this one. Pay the extra money for good shoes. Same with socks. Don’t wear cheapo socks that will give you blisters. I like Smart Wool (available at REI, Nordstroms and online) and have never had blisters when I use those running socks.

Running is WORTH IT. The pain sucks. Sometimes it’s really sucky. When you’re running and tired and your legs are burning and your brain tells you you can’t make it, you wonder if it’s worth it. Is it worth it? Totally. Hood to Coast hurt. It was brutal and a lot of it was miserable. I don’t regret doing it at all. Would I do that particular race again? No. But I am happy I did it!

Running isn’t COMPARABLE. Stop comparing yourself to other runners. One thing my running injury taught me was to stop comparing myself to other runners, other bloggers. There will always be people faster than me, or slower than me. If I run a race, I’m a runner–whether I cross the line first or last.  Just because I’m not running a marathon every weekend or continually training for some race doesn’t mean I’m not a runner. I’m more than a runner. I’m a swimmer, biker, hiker, walker, weight lifter. All of those things make me a stronger runner.

“When all else fails, start running!”

-Dean Karnazes

QUESTION: In what way is running hard for you?