One of the great things about running is that anybody can do it. All you need is a good pair of running shoes and then you can toddle off happy in the knowledge that the efforts you are putting in will make you a stronger, fitter, leaner, healthier person. And the best bit of all is that running is all about the legs, and they will get stronger as you exercise them on your jogs; no need for any other kind of muscular strength training at all, right? Wrong! Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but although you can concentrate on just running and hoping that you will be fine, the truth is that your core muscles – not just the abdominals, but all the lower trunk musculature – play a vital role in helping you maintain correct posture and optimal running form. Without a good program of core strengthening exercises, you can be inviting injuries, as your other muscle groups do their best to compensate for your flabbly midriff.
The Core Muscles And Core Stability
Our core muscles really are far more than just that magical six pack that people often crave. And so getting ripped abdominals and a really pronounced six pack do not mean you have achieved what is necessary to gain proper core stability. It is the deeper muscles that need strengthening, and these include the transverse abdominis, external obliques, multifidus and pelvic floor muscles, all of which bring stability to the spine and help with good posture. So if you are having difficulties running for prolonged periods of time because your lower back starts aching, one of the things you can consider is whether you have a strong enough core. If you are sitting in an office job all day long, and you do not deliberately include strengthening exercises in your routine at least twice a week, then this might be the cause of your problem.
It is not just that developing core strength will provide you with a better general posture and improved running form. These all important structures play a vital role in connecting our upper and lower bodies, and act as a power generator, enabling the legs to run with strength and speed. In many martial arts, it is the lower torso (in Chinese martial arts called the dantien) which is believed to create the body’s power. Neglecting it as runners will mean running is more of a challenge than it needs to be, and in the worst case scenario, other muscles take over the role which the core normally takes, leading to overuse injuries and frustrating breaks from training.
Balance should always be the watchword when training, and if you are going to embark on a core workout regime, it must involve exercises to strengthen the deep abdominal muscles mentioned above, but also the muscles of the lower back and the glutes. These all play their part in attaining perfect and efficient running form.
Core Workouts For Runners
I decided to collate a few of the best core strength training exercises, as this is an area which I have always neglected myself. I also want to be a little bit more diligent about getting my body right for running, after several leg muscle injuries in quick succession have kept me out of action for thirteen weeks so far.
So here is a nice selection of single exercises for better abdominals and glutes, and also a couple of quick core workout routines which are ideal for runners. I’ll be trying all of these out myself, and if you have neglected your trunk, maybe you should think about trying them too.
Disclaimer: these exercises and routines are for informational purposes, and if you decide to try them out, first make sure to seek the advice of your physician or coach, so that you don’t end up taking on too much too fast, or end up injuring yourself. If you feel any pain or dizziness doing them, stop immediately and consult your doctor.
As with all exercises, remember to breathe normally. Do not hold your breath as you do them.
1. Bridge Exercise
The Bridge exercise is essentially a strengthening drill for your gluteal muscles. Many people do not realise that the glutes are important for running, and often this is because when they run, they are not recruiting this set of muscles. The problem is that failure to use them means you compensate by using others, such as the hamstrings, which can then get injured unnecessarily. Raphael Brandon has written a detailed account about the Bridge gluteal exercise and its benefits on the Sports Injury Bulletin.
The Exercise – Lie on your back with a neutral spine, which means that you do not want to flatten your back completely against the floor or mat, and also should not arch your lower spine. Just lie in a relaxed state, with your knees and feet aligned and shoulder width apart. The knees should be bent and feet flat on the floor.
Put your arms out to the sides for balance, and then activate your core by pulling your belly button in towards the spine and contracting the muscles of the butt (the glutes). To perform the exercise, lift your hips off the floor and form a straight line from your knees to hips to lower back. Keep your shoulders on the floor, and do not over extend, otherwise you will be arching your lower back – keep you back relaxed. Keep breathing normally and hold for 10-30 seconds. Then slowly lower yourself back to the floor. Start with 3 sets of 10 repetitions, as long as you can do so without losing form.
Use your senses to feel where the muscles are working; if you feel tightness in the lower back, you have probably stretched to far, and will need to lower your back and stop arching. A tightness in the hamstrings often means you have fatigued your glutes (and the hamstrings have taken over). In this case, it is time for a break.
The following clip features Dr Evan Osar from the Fitness Education Seminars Youtube channel, discussing the Bridge exercise for glutes, and how to do it correctly, along with some modifications for more advanced athletes.
2. Abdominal Crunch
The abdominal crunch is an exercise that lots of people know and perform either on the floor or on an exercise ball. The basic crunch is different to a sit-up in that the back does not leave the floor when it is performed properly. There are some basic rules to follow which make the exercise more effective, and more safe for you.
The Exercise – Lie on the floor and ensure you are relaxed as for the Bridge Exercise described previously. This means having a neutral back, with no arching and no straining to flatten the entire back into the floor. Again, the knees are bent with feet flat on the ground, about a hip width apart.
Put your hands behind your neck and engage your core, by pulling in the belly button towards the spine and by lifting the pelvic floor muscles. Continue breathing normally. Then prepare by inhaling; as you exhale pull yourself up using your abdominals so that just your head and shoulders leave the floor. Do not pull with your arms or let your neck slip out of alignment as this will damage your neck. To prevent neck movement, always make sure there is a gap between your chin and chest of about the same width as your fist.
Remember to breathe: inhale to prepare, exhale on the way up, and inhale on the way back down. And do not allow your back to compress into the floor while doing this exercise, otherwise you are utilizing the back muscles rather than the abdominals.
Here is a good clip from LiveStrong’s channel, explaining and demonstrating the abdominal crunch, and a modification to increase the difficulty once you have the basic crunch mastered.
3. Bicycle Crunches
The Bicycle Crunch exercise is a more advanced form of the Leg-Raise Crunch which Tamara demonstrated in the clip above. The same basic rules apply, but the shoulders are held off the ground with the core muscles activated throughout the routine. You then need to bring your left elbow to right knee, followed by right elbow to left knee and repeat.
Here’s a quick demo from St Augustine Personal Trainer Brandon Rahe.
4. Plank and Side Plank Exercises
The previous exercises are great for strengthening your core muscles using dynamic techniques. The Plank and Side Plank are also very effective for increasing core stability, but are more static in nature, relying on activating the core muscles while holding balancing positions. The great thing about both of these is that they give all the muscles of your trunk a fantastic overall workout.
The Exercise – For the front plank, you should lie face down, resting on your forearms and toes, and with your body in a completely straight line. Make sure you do not drop your hips or belly towards the floor, as this will place stress on your lower back. Also, try not to cheat by raising your butt above the straight line position. You might have to cheat just a little if you are feeling any achiness in your back, but if you get any unexpected pain, stop doing the exercise, and get yourself checked out by a medical professional to make sure you do not have any underlying back injuries or problems.
Hold the Plank position, starting with a 60 second hold for beginners, and then gradually increasing the length of time as you improve. Make sure you activate the core during the exercise, and that you breathe normally; do not hold your breath or you can end up raising your blood pressure and feeling dizzy.
For a demonstration of this drill, plus the more advanced Side Plank exercise, watch the clip below featuring Coach Darin Steen of Mercola Peak Fitness.
5. Runners Core Workout Routine
This clip by Dr Donald DeFabio, a Sports Physician, provides a nice trio of abdominal and core exercises for runners, the first two of which have been covered in the sections above. He talks about ‘Bracing’ which is another way of saying ‘activate your core’, which involves the drawing in of the belly button and lifting the pelvic floor muscles. He then moves onto Bracing in the Bridge position with one leg raised, which is yet another of the many variations on the Bridge exercise. Finally, he demonstrates the Gluteus Medius raising exercise, which is very important as it strengthens muscle groups not used in running, and it is a good idea to optimize all our muscles to ensure the best possible performance.
6. Another Core Strengthening Routine
Finally, here’s a nice informational clip from ActiveDotCom, which discusses the reasons for using a core muscle workout program if you are a runner, together with some of the previous exercises such as the Plank and Side Plank. It also introduces Leg Lifts, which are great as an alternative to Basic Crunches if those give you too many problems with your neck or arms.
I will be utilizing all of these ab exercises in the coming weeks, as I build up my fitness after injury. The best part about trying them out is that you do not need anything except a floor. For extra benefits, an exercise, or Swiss ball can add higher levels of difficulty. I will discuss Swiss ball exercises in a future post. In the meantime, if you don’t already use core routines in your training, give some of these ideas a go and see if they can improve your posture and running form, and hopefully they will enable you to run faster and further than ever before.