The core of the matter

January 10th 2018

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

The core of the matter

The following is aimed at addressing the frequently asked question regarding core training for triathlon. “Core” training (along with strength and conditioning, yoga, Pilates, etc) has become very trendy amongst triathletes, but will it (or the other supplement sessions) really help improve performance?

Firstly, lets establish where and what we mean when discussing the “Core” …

If asked “Where is your core?” almost everyone will confidently respond with a “Here!” with a hand and finger pointed at the tummy. Whilst this is correct; the “Here” is only a VERY small part of the actual core.

Follow that question with “What does the core do for us in triathlon (or any other activity)?” and there will often be silence. This is the key question – as it can help decide whether core training will help improve performance compared to just doing triathlon (swim, bike, run) training!

Where and what is the core

The core, as it is now known, is commonly thought to be limited to the musculature around tummy, our “abs” and “obliques”, and the common movements used to train our “core” are sit ups, crunches, side raises and planks – right?

However, the core is a lot more complex than that, and is better referred to as the “Trunk Musculature”. The trunk musculature is an intricate construction that houses many, many, muscles that work symbiotically to hold and support our upper body on our lower body.

The picture above only shows the trunk musculature area, there are many more muscles deeper in the body, under the surface.

Our body is incredibly strong and resilient in construction, but has a weak point… the mid-section. There is a gap in structural support between our pelvis and rib cage, no “hard” structural support other than a few vertebrae – our spine. Sitting on top of this is basically a large mass – our head (typically 5kg for an adult)!

This is where the trunk musculature, or core, comes in

An unsupported skeleton will simply collapse. To prevent this the trunk contains many muscles spanning from the glutes, in the hips, all the way up to the base of the head – and completely envelopes the torso.

These muscles are strategically placed, and their primary role is to stop the torso from collapsing forwards.

One of its secondary function is to provide a strong base for our limbs to work with / against when generating movement.

Trunk musculature training

Now knowing that the role of the trunk musculature is to support the torso while providing a strong base, we can begin to look at how best use and train it.

A sport specific trunk musculature workout (specific to triathlon in this case) is one that places a demand on it when either swimming, cycling or running. The torso must be held stable while generating force and movement with the limbs.

Therefore, to specifically train the trunk musculature in a way that will benefit sporting performance (triathlon, or any other sport) it is necessary to increase the demand on the trunk to support and engage while performing the sport in question (swim, bike or run in our case).

This is easily achieved – simply by swimming hard reps with paddles, pushing big gears at low cadence on the bike and running hill reps. The increased demand of force production on the limbs directly impacts the demand placed on the trunk – as it is required to support itself against increased limb force and structural torsion (twisting and bending stresses).

Any other “core” training is NOT specific to the function of the trunk and sport – it may aid in aesthetic goals, but not sporting performance.

Any movements that bend you forwards or sideways, twists you (sit ups and side bends) or even hold the trunk stable and static in elongated horizontal positions (planks) are not training the trunk in its natural state/function – forget triathlon specificity, natural specificity!

Dedicated “core” training is very over rated (and statistically more likely to create an injury), while benefits from sport specific strength sessions are very unacknowledged…

Training needs to be sport specific and, for most people, fit within an already busy schedule. Swim repetitions in the pool pulling with paddles, the time spent pushing HARD on big gears and time striding up the hills. These training sessions provide better core training, in the most specific way, than any other isolated core exercise ever will – making the trunk contract to hold the torso fixed while generating force with the limbs in sport specific pattern.

Introducing strength sessions (or pushing that little harder in the swim, stomping slightly bigger gears and striding harder on hill reps) will almost immediately highlight the effect on your body – your arms, shoulders and legs will feel the “burn / tingle / numbing”, but so will your trunk.

Going forwards

To get stronger and faster the trunk musculature must get stronger. To get the trunk stronger you must train the limb muscles harder – not the trunk.

Strength training is hard, muscles will burn/tingle/quiver/go numb. This will mainly be felt in the limbs, not your trunk, but this DOESN’T mean it isn’t being trained.

Keep it simple and specific, complete a strength session in each discipline (swim, bike and run) once a week. If time is limited, perform an upper body strength swim and either the bike or run (both train the leg strength).

Swimming with paddles, pushing big gears on the bike and running hills will strengthen your limbs AND “core”. In a way that is specific to TRIATHLON.

If you are in the position that you can swim, bike and run as well as having time to “spare” for additional training, think hard about whether an additional swim, bike or run session would benefit you more than time in the gym doing non-specific movements. For most, the answer is no!

Additionally, if an extra “discipline” is added to the weekly training plan, it will take up more time, more energy, conflict with the balance of upper and lower session distribution and increase likelihood of injury.

Elite / pro athletes have the “luxury” of more time to spend training, and even they don’t all swear by additional, non-triathlon sessions.