Having a stable core is an essential part of any runner’s toolkit. By building your core muscles, according to experts, you can enhance your performance, decrease lower back pain, and even avoid common running-related injuries. And that’s a good thing because a survey of 4,621 new and experienced runners, published in The Physician and Sportsmedicine, found that 30 percent of the participants suffered from a some kind of running-related injury in the last year.
In general, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of your injuries. Yet, many experts swear by core stability exercises to help stave off getting sidelined. So whether you’re new to clocking miles or have run several marathons, building a solid core is a must.
We spoke to experts and dug through the research to help you understand what core stability really means, how it applies to the mechanics of running, and how stabilizing your core can help you reach your run goals.
First, what muscles make up your core?
If you’re not familiar with anatomy, then you probably can’t name every single muscle that makes up your core. And if you can, bravo. Luckily, identifying your core is easy, though it probably includes even more muscles than you think. Just picture your body without your head, arms, or legs, as the Academy of Sports Medicine suggests. That means your core makes up everything between your shoulders and hips, including your abs (of course), but also your back muscles and your glutes and hip flexors.
What are the benefits of core stability?
Consider your core the power transfer center between your lower body and your upper body, Nick Rodriguez, NASM-certified personal trainer at Valley Wellness Center tells Runner’s World. While your core transfers that energy, it also helps you stay stable, so you can run tall and strong.
Core stability is important for all runner’s, but especially novice runners who are more susceptible to injury and more likely to give up the sport if they do get injured, Ajit Chaudhari, Ph.D., health and rehabilitation professor at Ohio State University and biomechanics researcher tells Runner’s World. As the the survey mentioned above says, novice runners were the ones who reported more running-related injuries than experienced runners. The likely culprit, Chaudhari says, is doing too much too quickly.
“That means increasing mileage too quickly, or changing to a different shoe and then trying to go right back to the mileage you were doing without giving your body time and miles to adapt, and all the other changes we make to try to get to our goals too quickly,” he says.
By strengthening your core, you can sidestep some of those issues and risk factors for injury. “You need those core muscles functioning properly to run well, so a gradual program that builds strength and control of those muscles will help new runners to run successfully,” Chaudhari adds.
Dan Giordano P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S. and chief medical officer at Bespoke Treatments agrees saying, if trained correctly a strong core will allow you to run properly and efficiently without wasting energy. A weak core can cause you to have an imbalance, he says, which can decrease your running performance, cause you to become fatigued, make you run with poor posture, or even wobble side to side as you run.
Plus, if you have a weak core, it’s likely going to affect other muscles throughout your body. “A weak core can be correlated really to almost any running injury from plantar fasciitis to runner’s knee to hip strains and lower back pain,” Giordano says.
Research backs up this relationship between core weakness and injury risk. A group of researchers published a review in the journal Physical Therapy in Sport, highlighting deficiencies in core strength and endurance as potential risk factors for injuries. Similarly, a study conducted by Chaudhari and his colleagues on core stability in novice runners, found that having a weak core could cause runners to develop patellofemoral pain (a.k.a. runner’s knee).
Chaudhari says by measuring peak knee flexion movement, he and his colleagues were able to estimate how hard participants’ quads were working while running. They discovered that those with harder working quads also had a weak core—and those participants ran in a way that increased their risk for developing runner’s knee.
“If your quadriceps muscle is working harder that means that your patella is going to press harder against your femur. Other studies have concluded that if the patellofemoral force is higher then you’re at greater risk of developing patellofemoral pain,” Chaudhari says.
“When you strike your foot on the ground, your glute medius—which is the outside of your glute—that’s where the peak load comes through. That’s also a muscle that stabilizes your pelvis, so if the glute medius is weak it can increase the compression force back to your lower back,” Giordano says. He adds that your body may compensate for a weak core in other areas of the posterior chain, too, causes aches and pains elsewhere along the body.
In addition to injury prevention, core strength can also support your performance. One study on 21 college athletes, published in the journal PLoS One, found that an eight-week core training program improved core endurance, balance, and running economy (or the energy required to maintain a constant speed of running).
A strong, stable core can also lead to better running posture and form, helping to keep you upright, even through those later miles when you might feel fatigued. This also allows you to use your energy more effectively. “If your core is strong, your body is going to spend less energy elsewhere,” Giordano says. “It’s going to focus on that run, it’s not going to work to compensate through forces, gaits, or patterns that are not normal.”
The Core Stability Workout for Runners
The easiest way to add core exercises to your training routine is to start with the basics. When it comes to building and training your core muscles, Rodriguez says, focus on form first. Giordano suggest practicing moves that train your body to maintain a stable position, such as a plank (an isometric move) or a Pallof press (an anti-rotation exercise). When you master those, you can progress to more challenging moves, like lifting a limb in a plank or switching up your stance in the Pallof press.
Ready to add core work to your routine right now? Rodriguez designed this workout to strengthen the core muscles essential for running efficiently. (You’ll see those planks and the Pallof press mixed into the workout.)
How to use this list: Complete 3-5 sets of the following exercises in order. Perform each exercise for 30 seconds, with little to no rest in between each exercises and one minute between rounds.
Each move is demonstrated by Monique LeBrun, Runner’s World associate health and fitness editor, so you can follow proper form. You will need a set of dumbbells (or kettlebells) and a resistance band. An exercise mat is optional.
Lie faceup with legs straight and arms overhead. Engage core—think belly button to spine to press lower back into the mat. Lift arms, head, neck, shoulders, and legs off the floor, keeping low back pressing into the mat. Look straight ahead. Hold.
Start in a high-plank position, wrists directly underneath shoulders and feet hip-width apart. You should form a straight line from shoulders to heels and think about belly button pulling up to spine. Raise right hand out in front of you, holding for 5 seconds. Then place it back down. Then raise left hand in front of you, holding for 5 seconds. Then place it back down. Lift right foot off the ground, holding for 5 seconds. Then place it back down. Lift left foot off the ground, holding for 5 seconds. Then place it back down. Continue alternating hands and feet.
Lie faceup, legs extended and arms reaching overhead, biceps by ears. Sit up onto tailbone as you bring knees into chest. Slowly lower back down with control. Repeat.
Lie facedown with arms extended in front of you and feet together. Looking down at the mat, lift head, arms, legs, and feet up towards ceiling and hold for three seconds. Lower back down. Repeat.
At about chest height, loop a resistance band around a pole, squat rack, rig, or other stable anchor. Stand with the right side of body facing the pole, feet hip-width apart, and grasp the band with both hands at chest height. (Make sure you’re far enough away from the pole so that you feel resistance on the band.) Engage the core and push the band directly in front of the chest. Use your core to resist the pull of the band. Pull the arms back to your chest. Repeat. Keep shoulders down away from ears, chest tall, core tight, the entire time.
Hold a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand down by sides and stand tall with shoulders down and back, looking straight ahead. Remain as vertical as possible, with core tight and shoulders relaxed, as you slowly walk forward. Then, turn around and walk back. Repeat.
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