The term "core work" often conjures up images of chiseled, six-pack abs and sweat-soaked gym rats pumping iron. For runners, however, the term should be interpreted a lot more broadly. To be sure, strong abs are great, but there is a long list of other core muscles that play even bigger roles in keeping you healthy and running strong.
The core includes muscles of the pelvis and lower trunk, such as the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, hips and obliques. Strengthening these muscles can assist in everything from better form to injury prevention to increased performance.
"A runner's core is like a tree's trunk," explains Erica Gratton, a USA Track and Field and Road Runners Club of America certified coach in Thousand Oaks, California. "It is your anchor, your stabilizer."
Research Proves the Benefits of Core Work
Increased core strength fortifies your kinetic chain, and increases running efficiency and overall athleticism.
One of the biggest benefits garnered from doing core work is a more economical running form that you can maintain when running at faster speeds and for longer periods of time.
When you have weaknesses in areas like you hips and glutes, your entire form falls apart when you begin to fatigue. One of the most common signs of the connection between weakness and poor form is the classic hip drop: When you plant your left foot, rather than keeping your midsection balanced and aligned, the right hip drops downwards at an angle. This tilting of the pelvis is not only inefficient, but it can also be injurious.
Weak hips have been tied to everything from runner's knee to IT band syndrome. One study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise looked at 120 collegiate athletes, assessing various measures of core strength before their season began. In the end, weakness in the hips was tied to injuries, leading researchers to conclude: "Core stability has an important role in injury prevention."
Other research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered a link between core strength and actual running performance. For this study, scientists rounded up a group of healthy adult runners, and measured their lower-extremity stability after they ran a 5,000-meter time trial on a track. The participants were then split into two groups, one of which performed six weeks of core strength work, and the other simply carried on with training as usual. At the end of the month-and-a-half long study, the researchers had the runners repeat the 5,000-meter time trial. The core strength group logged faster times.
When it comes to implementing a core strength program, be sure to assess where your own individual weaknesses might be. For the most part, Gratton says you can't go wrong with a variety of exercises.
"I don't think you can overdo core exercises," says Gratton. "Just keep in mind you are engaging those muscles every time you exercise, and remember to maintain good form. If you notice your form slipping, then perhaps you're too tired to perform the exercises properly and should take the day off."
Top Five Core Exercises for Runners
Here are the top five core exercises for runners that aren't about gaining rock-hard abs, but rather promoting injury prevention and good running performance. Start with this routine twice a week post-run. If you stick to it for at least six weeks, the research suggests you should see improvements in your running.
1. Side Leg Raises: Lie on your right side with your arm extended under your head. Raise your left leg upwards as far as is comfortable and slowly lower it back down. Complete 15 to 20 reps on each side.
2. Clamshells: Lie on your right side, but this time bend your knees, like you're getting ready to get in the fetal position. With your bent legs stacked on top of one another, open up the clamshell by lifting your left knee upwards, keeping your feet together. Complete 15 to 20 reps on each side.
3. Donkey Kicks: Get on all fours, keeping your back straight and supporting your hips. Take your bent right leg and kick it back and upwards before bringing it back to the starting position. Complete 20 to 25 reps on each side.
4. Bridges: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. With your arms at your sides, deliberately raise your butt and lower back off the floor until your body forms a diagonal line from your knees to your torso to your head. Hold for two seconds and lower back down. Complete 10 to 15 reps.
5. Planks: Get in push-up position, but instead of supporting your body with your hands, go down to your forearms. Hold this position, making sure not to let your midsection sag towards the ground. Complete four to six reps for 30 seconds per repetition.race.