by Helen Jewell
Having a strong core is essential for athletes who want to achieve their full potential and compete at the highest level. Triathletes put their bodies under immense stress, and swimming, cycling and running are all whole-body movements that require synergistic muscle action. Specific exercises can be used as part of a strength and conditioning programme to target the core muscles which will help the athlete maximise their efficiency and transfer of power during the sporting movements.
What core strength training?
The core, commonly known as the trunk or torso, predominantly involves all the big and small muscles surrounding the midsection but also incorporates the neck, shoulders and hips peripherally.
The core muscles function to provide proximal stability to allow for distal mobility. Having a strong, stable core will allow you to use your arms and legs more effectively and efficiently, enabling you to effectively transfer strength between the upper and lower body whilst also reducing risk of injury, particularly in the lower back.
Why is core stability important for triathletes?
Swimming, cycling and running use the whole body and depend on the core to create a base that supports the movements.
During swimming, a strong core will allow the athlete to remain more streamlined, enable a better body position and aid in good rotation and connection between the arm stroke and leg kick. This would result in a more energy efficient stroke meaning quicker swim times and more energy spare for the next event.
Cycling is the discipline that is least dependent on core strength, however it is still important and can help with performance and increase an athlete’s speed by transferring power through the legs more effectively and stabilising the body on the saddle. A strong core will also allow the rider to have more control over the bike and particularly help during hill climbs and when standing up out of the saddle.
Whilst running, a strong core will ensure the athlete maintains good postural alignment, stability and control. This is particularly important towards the end of the run where the athlete will be more tired, when mistakes can happen and risk of injury increases. Signs of a weaker core may be highlighted by a rocking or twisting motion between the chest and legs, or letting the hip drop out on the stance leg resulting in a tilting of the pelvis and the hip and knee to drop down on the recovery leg.
Core strength exercises for triathletes
Below are a few exercises which require good core control and stabilisation to maintain neutral alignment whilst also allowing for limb movement.
Support yourself on your forearms with shoulders and elbows at right angles and balls of the feet on the floor. Push strong through your shoulders and keep your bum and hips down slightly to create a straight line from head to toe. Avoid any sinking of the chest or hips and maintain a strong, solid core position. Hold this position for as long as you can. Once you can do 3-5sets of 2 minutes you can then start to progress the exercise.
One variation is to move up and down from the plank into a front support position whilst maintaining a flat back and resisting the amount of rotation throughout the movement. Always go for quality over quantity. Try 5 repetitions of each up and down but if there is excessive rotation and twisting or it is too difficult begin with less, instead try 3 repetitions and then just hold the plank for extra time at the end so you can bridge the gap between being static and moving.
Another progression from the plank is the side plank. Lie on your side with your body in a straight line and rest up on to the forearm of the arm that is against the floor. Keep the elbow and shoulder at right angles and then lift your hips up towards the ceiling to create a straight line down through the torso into the legs. The only other contact point on the floor should be the outside of the foot of the leg that is on the bottom. By raising the top arm up towards the ceiling and looking up at it can help to keep the hips forward in a nice straight line. You can either hold this position for time or move from plank into side plank.
Before lifting the arms and legs into the position shown (A), begin by finding your pelvic neutral position. Rotate the pelvis as far as you can either way and then find the mid-point. Your lower back should be flat against the floor but not completely compressed or rounded. Engage the lower abdominal muscles drawing them in towards the spine and lift one leg at a time without allowing your back to arch.
Keeping the abdominals engaged and maintaining a neutral spine, extend one leg and flex both arms taking them overhead (B) and then return the limbs back to the midline in the start position. Repeat with the other leg and continue alternating. Perform 3-5 sets of 10 reps on each leg.
A progression of this exercise (C) would be to extend both arms and legs at the same time. If this is too difficult and you feel like you are losing the neutral alignment you could try and do it with slightly bent knees instead of fully extending them.
Bird dogs / Superman on all four’s
Start on your hands and knees with your back flat and pelvis neutral. Stay strong through your shoulders and draw your lower abdominals in towards the spine to help stabilise it and prevent arching.
Remove one arm and the opposite leg, stretch them away in the opposite directions whilst maintaining the same trunk position and try to avoid any sinking, arching or twisting through the spine. Perform 10 reps on each side and repeat for 3-5 sets.
Lunge and twist
Lunge either forwards or backwards into a split position where your body is balanced evenly over both legs and torso remains upright. Add in a twist to either side and then return to standing by pushing back or forward depending on which way you lunged in the first place. Repeat 10 times on each leg for 3-5 sets.
Place one foot on a box so your entire foot is flat on top. Ensure the torso remains upright and drive through the heel of the foot on the box to step up and straighten the leg whilst raising the opposite leg up to 90 degrees. Squeeze your glutes on the stance leg and hold for 2 seconds before lowering back down. Move your arms at the same time as you would in a running motion. To progress this exercise, you could hold dumbbells in your hands or increase the box height. Do 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps on each leg.
When to do core strength training?
A strong core will not only improve the athlete’s performance by increasing efficiency and technique, therefore reducing wasted energy but it will also help to prevent the risk of injury. These core exercises or other variations should be continued throughout the training cycle, a few times a week to maintain good strength and allow for progression and improvements in performance. A strong core can help the athlete achieve their sporting goals but also make daily tasks easier and make the individual more robust.
About Helen Jewell
Helen is not only an experienced sports physio running the PhysioFix practice in Devon, she is also a former Olympic Weightlifter for Team GB. Helen was multiple-time British Champion and represented Great Britain at European and World Junior and Senior Championships, and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, but narrowly missed out on selection for London 2012 Olympic Games due to shoulder surgery.