Five of our seven energy centers are concentrated at the core - pelvic floor (root), sacrum, solar plexus, heart, and throat - and help move us forward physiologically. The other two energy centers - at the third eye and crown of the head - guide us spiritually and emotionally. Aligning and igniting these centers empowers our stride, our flow, and our life.
The muscles of the core - to include the hip flexors, glutes, obliques, abdominals, lateral muscles, serratus anterior, trapezius, and deltoids*, among others - surround the energy centers. When these muscles are strong, our entire composition is strong. Importantly, the core muscles also support and stabilize the spine. Strong, supple hip flexors allow us to concentrate energy at the core and relax the lower extremities (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, shins, knees, and ankles) during our run. The glutes are strong rear muscles that give us the power to lift and propel our legs forward ("firing" the glute). When "yoked"**, the hip flexors and glutes become the motor, guided by the entirety of the core system (muscles and energy centers), that allows our legs to become mere spokes in a wheel of forward movement.
Core development comes from cross-training activities such as yoga, swimming, and pilates. It is my belief that yoga provides the best natural core strengthening and mind-body connection practice. So much so that runners should spend as much time, if not more, in a yoga studio as they do running. I teach a Core Yoga class twice weekly that focuses on the entirety of the core system, not just the much desired six-pack.
That's right: run less. If you are currently running 50 miles a week, scale back to 30 and weave yoga into the rest of the time. If you are running five-six miles/hour, that's 3-5 sessions of yoga/week that you can build into your schedule! If you are running 30 miles/week, scale back to 15-20, creating space for 2-3 sessions/week, and so on. You'll grow stronger, improve your flexibility, and drastically reduce the likelihood of injury over time.
We maintain balance throughout our stride with a mid-foot strike when our foot hits the ground, evenly distributing weight upon impact, allowing all muscles involved to engage and release throughout the cycle. Too much initial weight on the ball or heel of the foot can overtax the engaging muscles in the front or back of the body. For example, if the Achilles tendon is not properly engaged, but instead is overstretched or deeply compressed because the foot fails to evenly meet the ground, you risk injury. When it lands evenly and experiences equal flexion and extension, it remains safe.
Even runners with the cleanest stride still absorb injury thanks to thousands, millions, even billions of running steps. Running is a high impact sport that will take a toll on the body over time. Staying as close to center as possible will help stave off inevitable injuries and improve recovery over time.
We need to examine other factors in life that affect our run - diet, lifestyle, schedule, etc. Igniting the energy centers at the third-eye and crown of the head - our seats of intuition and higher consciousness - through meditation and regular yoga practice will help us to do this.
Some run so they can eat or drink whatever they want. While running is certainly better than coupling bad eating habits with inactivity, it is worth taking a moment of pause to evaluate the trade offs of countering a heart-pumping, heat-building, stress-reducing, blood pressure-lowering activity with refined sugars, excess sodium, simple carbohydrates, processed foods, and saturated fats. That said, the occasional guilty food pleasure is certainly okay - occasionally.
BEFORE For some of us, we do not need to eat anything before a short run - especially if we already maintain a healthy, balanced diet. In fact, running off of stored energy as opposed to new fuel helps burn more fat and shed pounds. Early morning runs make this easy to do and it is safe for many runners. If you are preparing for a longer run or your constitution requires you to eat before any run, enjoy a complex carbohydrate (oatmeal, whole grain rice or bread, sweet potatoes, quinoa...) coupled with a banana for added potassium, and peanut or almond butter (teaspoon) for an easily digestible protein. The quantity should be proportionate to the distance of the run. Also, the night before a long run is a good time to each a balanced meal with lean protein and complex carbohydrates (grilled chicken with brown Basmati or Jasmine rice and sweet potatoes - all organic - is my favorite pre-long-run meal as the brown rice provides excellent complex carbohydrate load and a lower Glycemic Index to keep you fueled for your run) and to drink a lot of water.
DURING If you need to eat during your run (a long training run or race, for example), enjoy a goo or bar with sugar and sodium carbohydrates to replenish what you are losing and some protein. Electrolytes are essential, especially on a long run (10 miles or more).
AFTER Enjoy a lean protein soon after (~30 minutes) your run (hard-boiled eggs, almond butter, chicken breast, salmon...) to help the muscles recover. Enjoy a well-balanced meal with more protein, complex carbohydrates, and lots of veggies and fruits to replenish vitamins, nutrients, and essential carbohydrates several hours after your run. The good news is - you'll be hungry!
ALWAYS Drink water. A lot of it, all the time. Sunset all sugary drinks (soda, juice, fruity water powders). Sports drinks are okay, but in moderation and only if you need to rebuild or maintain electrolytes during or after a tough run or workout. Otherwise, like many processed and sugar-enhanced juice products, these are just extra calories and sugars your body does not need. Studies show enjoying caffeine and alcohol in moderation can have significant health benefits. Enjoy herbal teas but do no let them replace your pure water intake.
Eat veggies and fruits. Make them part of every meal. A fruit-based shake with yogurt, almond butter, and almond milk in the morning provides essential vitamins, nutrients, proteins, and carbohydrates. I recommend banana, avocado, dates, and blueberries as this combination provides a plethora of healthy fats, essential vitamins (such as calcium, iron, and potassium), and antioxidants.
There are so many negative stress-inducing lifestyle choices that reverse the benefits gained from running, yoga, or any other positive physical activity: working 12 hour days, maintaining unhealthy or unproductive relationships, drinking excessively, smoking, doing drugs, etc. Again, long workdays can be inevitable, unhealthy relationships are an unfortunate reality in our world, and we all have our vices. These things are present and undeniable, but if they are taking over our life and tilting the balance of negative vs. non-negative in the wrong direction, we should again take a moment to pause and reevaluate. We oftentimes use running or yoga to counteract the effects of such stress - this is a good thing. But, similar to eating junk food after a run, stress triggers can counteract all the positive effects we just worked to reverse!
Like meditation, your focus will wander as you attempt to balance your life. Another donut will always be calling your name, another glass of wine is awaiting at the bottom of the bottle, another work project will always seem more important, and another failed or faltering relationship will seem like the end of the universe. When this happens, take a deep breath in to rediscover the grounding life force inside of you and, on the breath out, bring the focus back to where it belongs: on your holistic, healthy lifestyle!
*Many do not include the deltoids as part of the core but I do, and would even extend the core musculature system to the biceps and triceps, because without strong delts and upper arms to support the traps and other upper body muscles, core strengthening is nearly impossible.
**The literal definition of "yoga" is "to yoke," or to unify two or more things, such as in harmonious movement, placement, or being.