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It's All About the Run: How Strength Training and Core Exercises Helped Me Achieve My Fitness Goals

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I am sure you have noticed that as we get older our bodies do not perform as they did in our 20s, 30s, and yes, 40s. Not a big news item but it is important to bear in mind as you work to stay fit after 50.

When I started running again, I noticed that I could no longer pound out a 7:30 or 8:00 minute mile -- I had lost a step or two, or possibly three. In addition to my slower pace, I experienced frequent injuries (aging is not fun). As I discussed in my previous posts, triathlons are all about the run! I competed in three triathlons my first year racing. My run time for each was terrible, with an average pace of 9:30 miles. I didn't expect to have blazing speed after swimming and biking, but 9:30 miles seemed crazy! Additionally, no matter if I ran on fresh legs or tired legs, my hamstrings felt like they were on a rack.

While I understood why I was slower (I didn't want to accept it, but did comprehend it) I was concerned about my hamstring issue. I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to continue with another season of triathlons I needed a running coach.

Enter John Goldthorp. John is a local Philadelphia running coach and came highly recommended. For our first session he had me take a Functional Movement Screen to locate my areas of weakness. I was surprised to learn that my core strength and core timing were lacking (how could this be, I swim, bike, and run). Core timing is very important for running, it is the "firing" or "engaging" of your core. One image I like to use for core timing is the ignition of the car -- once you fire up the ignition you are ready to go.

To address my weaknesses, John started me doing exercises that at the time seemed rather silly. From my hands and knees, with a water bottle at the base of my back, I had to lift my right leg and left arm and point them in opposite directions and the water bottle had to stay on my back. Try it and you will be surprised at how hard it is. He gave me various other core strengthening exercises to do daily (AND yes, they all seemed silly). What made sense to me is something that I now do every day before I workout -- a dynamic six minute warm-up. Instead of doing static stretches on cold muscles, I now warm up with movement. This type of warm-up gets me into the flow of the run before I start (as well as the swim and bike).

After a few sessions John introduced weights for strengthening. One exercise in particular helped my hamstrings -- the dead lift. After a couple months my hamstrings felt stronger and didn't hurt when I ran. Another bonus -- I could keep the water bottle on my back. Realizing that maybe John was on to something, I faithfully did strength training twice a week along with core strengthening. We also talked a lot about running form, power from the core, and core timing. I kept these concepts in mind every time I ran. John told me that I shouldn't be running fast every work-out, that I should mix it up and run slow, at least two minutes slower per mile than I would run in a race. I didn't need to beat myself up with every work-out -- a revelation!

Hermes also went to John for a couple of sessions. He was experiencing different running issues -- planter fasciitis and he was a heel striker. John gave Hermes exercises for his planter fasciitis and taped Hermes running so he could see what he was doing wrong. Hermes spent last year doing the exercises and changing his running form to a mid-foot strike. Hermes ran his first marathon last October, the New York Marathon, in 4 hours and 5 seconds after only 6 weeks of training -- and faster than our 30-something son who trained for months.

My first big running test after I started training with John came last June at the PHYLYTRI. I was doing the Olympic distance, .9 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike, and a 6.2 mile run. Drum roll -- my average running pace was 8:45 minute miles. Forty-five seconds faster per mile than the prior year. All the hard work and silly exercises paid off and then some!

The second big test came in August at the SheROX Triathlon in Philadelphia. SheROX is a sprint distance race and I had done the race the prior year and averaged a 9:30 pace. Drum roll again -- this time I averaged a 8:29 pace -- 59 seconds faster per mile. Note to any woman who is considering a triathlon. The SheROX triathlon series is awesome - no men allowed!

So what is the big take away here? For me the first big step came when I recognized that I had to change my approach to running rather than giving up running. I couldn't take my body for granted anymore, I had to help it along with strengthening and core exercises. I learned to be patient and remind myself that this process would get me to my fitness goals, running without pain and running faster. I also learned not to beat myself up during every work-out. I know now that it is still important to work hard and push my lactate threshold pace to improve endurance, but it is just as important to go slow.

Finally, setting fitness goals is very important. What do you want to achieve? In my case the first goal was to run without pain. Once achieved, I was able to run faster. To avoid setting yourself up for failure, fitness goals should start small, and escalate as you accomplish each goal. The sense of each accomplishment is very rewarding.