A Runner's Guide to Fabulous Abs
There are two types of runners: those who have great abs, and those who want them.
Go ahead, admit it: you want great abs! It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, some scientists, including Devendra Singh, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas, speculate that we humans are genetically predisposed to covet a lean midsection, because it’s a sign of good health and “reproductive fitness”.
Besides looking good, great abs really are healthy. Research has shown that, for both genders, there is a strong correlation between the amount of abdominal fat a person has and the risk of developing metabolic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Obviously, men and women with visible abdominal muscles have a small amount of belly fat and therefore a lower risk for these diseases.
There’s another pair of benefits to having great abs that is specific to runners: better running performance and fewer injuries. Visible abdominal muscles result not just from having a small amount of abdominal fat but also from having well conditioned core musculature. Strong abs increase the stability of your hips, pelvis, and even your knees during running. The result is less strain on your muscles and connective tissues and consequently less chance of injury. Also, by minimizing wasteful movement at the joints, strong abs make your stride more efficient, so you can run faster, longer.
How do you get great abs? Running is a good start, because it burns fat. But running alone won’t do the job. You also have to eliminate those extra calories from your diet that are turned into belly fat. Even if you run 50 miles a week, your paunch won’t vanish if you continue to eat donuts and french fries all day long. Finally, you need to condition your abdominal muscles with core strength exercises, because even with a very small amount of belly fat your core muscles won’t show through if they are poorly conditioned.
Since you’re already running, let’s look at how you can make your diet leaner and your abs stronger.
Part I: Your “Abs Diet”
To get great abs you need to get leaner, or shed body fat while preserving your lean muscle mass. In terms of diet, the best way to get leaner is to consume just enough calories to nourish your muscles, but not enough to continue feeding your excess body fat. This is easier than you think.
Imagine you’ve already achieved a lean body, complete with great abs, and your goal now is to keep it. The eating patterns required to do so are those that you should put into practice now. In other words, if your ideal body weight is 150 pounds, you should eat enough calories each day to sustain 150 pounds of bodyweight, regardless of how much you currently weigh.
There’s no surefire way to predict your ideal body weight, but most people are pretty good at estimating how many pounds of fat they could stand to lose. It takes just 2 calories to sustain an entire pound of body fat for one day. So all you have to do is trim 2 calories a day for every pound of excess body fat you’re now carrying and you will find yourself eating to sustain your ideal body weight—as long as your current weight is holding steady. If you’ve been gaining weight recently, you’ll need to trim 3 or 4 calories per pound.
Does this mean you only need to cut 20 to 40 calories per day to lose 10 pounds of excess body fat? Yes and no. By doing this you will eventually lose 10 pounds of body fat, but not as quickly as you would like. If you want to lose your fat more quickly, take advantage of the fact that you’re a runner by allowing your body fat to help fuel your running, instead of your diet alone.
For each additional calorie you remove from your diet, your muscles will take an extra calorie from your body fat stores while you run. You don’t want to cut too many calories or you’ll begin depleting your muscle carbohydrate stores and compromise your post-workout recovery—not to mention you’ll be hungry all day. But you can certainly trim 100-200 calories per day (in addition to 2-4 calories per pound of excess body fat) without spoiling your running or having to hear your stomach growl constantly.
When you achieve the lean body composition you’re looking for, you can actually ease these 100-200 calories back into your diet without any risk of regaining the body fat you lost.
The good news is that you don’t have to go on any kind of formal weight loss diet to trim this modest number of calories. Eating to sustain your optimal body fat level does not require eating less. By merely replacing some of the foods you currently eat with lower-calorie alternatives, or even by simply adjusting the proportions of foods you’re already eating in meals, you can trim a few hundred calories from your daily intake and start getting leaner. Check out these examples.
Instead of: 1 cup Wheaties cereal with 2% milk
Eat this: ½ cup Wheaties with fresh strawberries and 2% milk
Why: Due to their high fiber and water content, fresh fruits have a very low caloric density compared to most other foods, meaning they fill more space in your stomach with fewer calories. By adding fresh fruit to meals and reducing the portions of other foods, you can trim significant calories and still feel satisfied.
Calories Saved: 46
Instead of: Grande Starbucks Caffe Latte with nonfat milk, no whip cream
Drink this: Tall Starbucks coffee with half-n-half and sugar
Why: Coffee has minimal calories, but the fancy coffee drinks made with syrup and milk (or soy milk) are bona fide calorie bombs, especially when you order the larger sizes. Ordering nonfat milk and holding the whip cream helps a little, but for a truly lean caffeine fix go back to a medium-size coffee sweetened with a little cream and sugar.
Calories Saved: 120
Instead of: PowerBar Triple Threat
Eat this: Kettle Valley Real Fruit Bar
Why: Energy bars are convenient and tasty snacks, but most of them pack a ton of calories. While many nutrition experts are fond of dismissing all energy bars as “candy bars in disguise”, some are actually fairly light and healthy. Read labels and choose a bar with 150 calories or fewer.
Calories Saved: 90
Instead of: Turkey sub
Eat this: Turkey wrap
Why: One of the few positive legacies of the low-carb diet craze is the popularization of wraps as a lower-calorie alternative to sandwiches. Tortillas have fewer calories than bulky sandwich rolls, and it’s easier to stuff a wrap than a sandwich with veggies. Just be sure not to spoil your wraps with too much mayo, heavy salad dressings, and the like.
Calories Saved: 80
Instead of this: Baked potato chips
Eat this: Baby carrots dipped in ranch dressing
Why: Most “light” alternatives to snack chips are still relatively high in calories and low in overall nutrition. Plain baby carrots, while very light, don’t provide the same satisfaction as chips, but when dipped in ranch dressing they do (while remaining low in calories).
Calories saved: 54
Instead of: Trail mix (2 parts nuts to 1 part dried fruit)
Eat this: Dried fruit (2 parts dried fruit to 1 part)
Why: While trail mixes that contain only nuts and dried fruit are quite nutritious, those with more nuts than fruit are also heavy on calories. You can make this snack significantly lighter by choosing a mix with more fruit than nuts.
Calories Saved: 116
Instead of: Chicken (4 oz) and vegetable (3/4 cup) stir-fry with white rice (1 cup)
Eat this: Chicken (3 oz) and vegetable (1 cup) stir-fry with brown rice (3/4 cup)
Why: You can lower the number of calories in almost any dinner menu by increasing its vegetable content and shrinking its meat and starch content. This is due to the fact that veggies have a much lower caloric density. You can lighten your dinner further by swapping a refined grain for a whole grain. For example, brown rice, a whole grain, has 26 fewer calories per cup than white rice, a refined grain.
Other examples of ways to make this type of substitution are as follow: spaghetti and marina sauce with less pasta, less cheese and more sautéed veggies; a burrito with less meat, more beans, and grilled veggies added; kabobs with less meat and more veggies; and pizza with a thinner crust, less cheese, and vegetable toppings added (e.g. tomatoes and green peppers). Use whole-wheat spaghetti, tortillas, and pizza flour.
Calories Saved: 87
Instead of: Fruit sorbet
Eat this: Dark chocolate (1 piece)
Why: Some desserts have fewer calories than others, and sorbet is lighter than most. But dark chocolate is the world’s best dessert by far. Dark chocolate releases mood-boosting serotonin in the brain, so just a single 50-calorie piece can satisfy you better than a whole bowl of sorbet. And the antioxidants in dark chocolate are good for the heart.
Calories saved: 100
Part II: The 5 Best Abs Exercises for Runners
Strong abdominal muscles don’t just look good, but they also help you run better and prevent injuries. There are dozens of abdominal exercises you can use to strengthen your midsection; the best ones for runners are those that have the most functional carryover to the act of running.
These five exercises are the best of the best. Each will benefit your running in a slightly different way. Start by doing one set of each exercise 2 or 3 times per week and build up to 2 or 3 sets of each, 3 times per week.
Benefit: strengthens the abdominal wall and improves the stability of the pelvis and lower spine during running.
Lie on your back, bend your knees, and draw them as close to your chest as possible. Grasp any type of stick or rod (such as a broom handle) with both hands, positioned shoulder-width apart. Begin with your arms extended straight toward your toes. Now squeeze your abdominal muscles and reach forward with the stick until it passes beyond your toes. (This is a very small movement—just a few inches.) Pause for one second and relax. Do 15 to 30 repetitions.
Lying Draw-In with Hip Flexion
Benefit: teaches your deep abs to stabilize the pelvis during alternating leg movements.
Lay face up with your head supported by a large pillow or foam roller. Begin with your legs bent 90 degrees and your thighs perpendicular to the floor, feet together. Engage your deep abs by drawing your navel toward your spine. While holding this contraction, slowly lower your right foot to the floor, return slowly to the starting position, and then lower the left foot. If you find this easy, you are failing to hold the contraction of your deep abs. Lower each foot to the floor 8 to 10 times. Progress by adding repetitions.
Benefit: strengthens the abdominal muscles that prevent excessive trunk rotation during running
Lay face up with your arms resting at your sides and your palms flat on the floor. Extend your legs directly toward the ceiling, keeping your feet together, and point your toes. Keeping your big toes side-by-side, tip your legs 12 to 18 inches to the right by twisting at the hip, so that your left buttock comes off the floor. Fight the pull of gravity by maintaining stability with your abs and obliques. Pause for a moment, then return slowly to the start position, again using your core muscles to control the movement. Repeat on the left side. Do 8-10 repetitions on each side.
Benefit: strengthens the muscles involved in maintaining lateral stability at the hips, pelvis, and spine
Lay on your side with your ankles together and your torso propped up by your upper arm. Lift your hips upward until your body forms a diagonal plank from ankles to neck. Hold this position for 20 seconds, concentrating on not allowing your hips to sag towards the floor. Reverse your position and repeat. Progress by increasing the duration you hold the bridge position. To increase the challenge further, perform several leg lifts from the bridge position.
Benefit: strengthens the lower abs and hip flexors with a running-specific leg action
Lay face up with your arms resting at your sides. Begin with your legs extended and your feet raised two inches above the floor, heels together. Press the small of your back into the floor. Now draw your left knee toward your head while keeping your right leg extended and your lower spine in contact with the floor. Return to the starting position and then draw your left knee toward your head. Repeat 8-12 times with each leg.
Sidebar: Lean by the Numbers
There’s an expression that many coaches, trainers, and dietitians use: “What gets measured gets managed”. In other words, if you’re trying to control some factor in your life, you’ll get better results if you measure it frequently. This principle certainly applies to getting leaner.
Measuring your body fat allows you to pursue the goal of getting leaner objectively. The easiest way to measure your body fat is to purchase a body fat scale for home use. These devices use bioelectrical impedance (a small electrical impulse sent through your body) to estimate body fat percentage with excellent accuracy. Body fat scales made by companies such as Tanita and Taylor are widely available at department stores, pharmacies, and sporting goods stores for as little as $40. Use them the same way you do a regular bathroom scale (just step on and read the display).
The American Council on Exercise offers the following guidelines for body fat percentage in men and women:
Once you have determined your current body fat percentage, set incremental goals to improve it, checking your progress every two weeks or so. If you are currently above the acceptable range, set a modest initial goal of moving down into this range. If you’re currently in the middle of the acceptable range, set a goal of moving down into the fitness range.
Don’t automatically aim straight for the bottom of the athletic range. Not everyone can safely get there, and no one gets there overnight. There is no specific body fat percentage associated with great-looking abs, but one thing is certain: by actively reducing your measured body fat percentage through good nutrition and core conditioning you will develop great abs the whole world can see.