How Core Strength Training for Runners Works

Strong core muscles are essential to a runner's success.
Strong core muscles are essential to a runner's success.
Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Thinkstock

Many people assume that core strength training consists merely of sit-ups or crunches. After all, the late-night infomercials advertising ab-strengthening rockers, loungers and workout DVDs insist that six-pack abs are a sign of a well-toned midsection. But core strength training for runners goes beyond sculpting a washboard stomach: A stronger core can improve a runner's speed and prevent injuries.

Your core muscles connect your trunk, pelvis and spine to each other and to the rest of your body, including your hips, legs and shoulder blades. This is why merely doing sit-ups or crunches doesn't constitute a complete core-training workout and won't fully stabilize your core. We'll explore specific core-strengthening exercises later in this article.

Core stability is essential for runners because it prevents pain, reduces wear and tear of joints, and reduces the chances of damage to muscles and bones, which can make or break an amateur or professional runner's career. It's the job of core muscles like the quadriceps (front thigh muscles) to keep you standing while gravity tries to pull you down. Others, like the hamstrings (muscles on the back of your thigh), power your hips and legs when you walk or run. When any of these muscles aren't in top shape, normal life activities -- let alone running -- can cause problems ranging from discomfort to major injuries.

Some people suggest including core training in your regular resistance or weight-training regimen. Yet others take a slightly different approach: They believe core conditioning is more about training your brain and muscles to work together while you focus on isolated core exercises, rather than hurriedly tacking them on to the end of your weight training sessions. Whatever your approach, the goal is to strengthen your core without becoming too muscular and stabilize your trunk area while you run.

Stride to the next section to learn more about core strength training.

Core Strength Training Explained

This runner is strengthening his core muscles by doing crunches on a stability ball.
This runner is strengthening his core muscles by doing crunches on a stability ball.
Goodshot/Thinkstock

Core strength training helps ensure that your torso remains steady while you run. The core muscles stabilize your trunk and keep it from wobbling when you move your arms and legs. When all of these muscles are functioning properly, they also reduce the strain on your back and legs.

As mentioned earlier, numerous muscles in your torso and back work together to form your core. Some of the other muscles involved in the core group include the external and internal obliques (muscles that run up and down alongside your abs) and the glutes (hips and buttocks). Can you believe the hamstrings are also part of the core group? Erector spinae -- the muscles and tendons running down your spine to the side of your vertebral column -- are, as well.

It's all about control when it comes to core strength training. When you perform core exercises, which we'll explore shortly, you want to practice proper form to prevent injury. Typically, you'll want to do each exercise slowly while focusing on specific, controlled motion. At the same time, you'll want to regulate your breathing, inhaling and exhaling throughout each exercise, so your muscles can receive the oxygen they need for growth and development.

Hundreds of exercises can challenge your core muscles. Even while reading this article, you can strengthen your core by pulling your navel to your spine, holding that position for 30 seconds and then repeating the exercise at least nine times.

So how do you know if you're doing the exercises the right way? One way to know if you're engaging your core is by talking while you exercise. If you can talk, then you're doing the exercise properly because you're using your diaphragm. Without using your diaphragm, you're not engaging your core muscles. You may wonder how to tell whether core strength training is working. Here's how: Soon after integrating core conditioning into your resistance or weight regimen, you should notice that it's easier to run and perform other physical activities.

Keep in mind that you won't typically lose weight from doing core exercises; they don't burn many calories. But overdoing it with the core exercises may actually bulk up your abs rather than just keeping them toned [source: PureHealthMD].

Importance of Core Strength for Runners

A strong core helps runners with their stability, balance, posture and overall control.
A strong core helps runners with their stability, balance, posture and overall control.
Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Runners are increasingly recognizing the importance of core strength. Overall, core strength training reinforces the way that your pelvis, abs, hips and lower back work together. When you're at your peak fitness level, running allows well-toned core muscles to work in sync. When your foot hits the ground, they hold your trunk rock-solid as the kinetic energy from your foot transmits to your hamstring, up to your arm and back down to your other foot. A conditioned core prevents any wiggling in your torso and keeps you from deflecting energy, so you run faster.

As we mentioned earlier, core conditioning reduces the chances of all sorts of injuries, ranging from common running injuries to those that are considered a normal part of the aging process. Core strength training also improves stability and balance, two qualities that you'll lose without practice. And without them, routine running and even regular activities -- like sitting in an office chair all day at work -- can lead to back pain, hernia, disc degeneration and arthritis [source: Shaw]. This is one reason why people favor using stability balls or doing exercises that challenge balance -- like doing bicep curls while standing on one leg -- when performing core-strengthening workouts.

It may seem obvious that core conditioning improves posture, which is a bonus for marathon runners. When you're exhausted at the end of a long race, your coordination and posture tend to suffer and cause you to slow down. But core-strengthening workouts will improve your coordination and posture throughout the race, even in the latter part of a marathon when you may need it most [source: runbritain].

As a runner, you probably already know your goal is to achieve greater running power without becoming too muscular. Moderate resistance training -- including core conditioning -- helps your nervous system coordinate how and when muscle fibers contract, contributing to greater force [source: Beck]. Striking the delicate balance between keeping your weight down and being both strong and fast can be difficult. A coach or trainer can help you set your strength and endurance goals and come up with workout plans that help you achieve your performance objectives.

Tighten up your abs and hop over to the next section to learn more about core strength workouts.

Core Strength Workouts

The beauty of core-strengthening workouts is that you can do them just about anywhere without any special equipment -- you can use your body weight alone. But you still have the option to use weights, resistance bands, stability balls or other resistance devices. What matters most is making sure the exercises you choose will strengthen your core muscles.

You can find hundreds of body weight exercises that build core strength, including various forms of planks, crunches, overhead claps, lunges, and hip and back extensions. The bird dog, or leg raise, is a basic exercise that can help you build base strength and achieve advanced core fitness.

  • Place your palms and knees on the floor.
  • Keep your back straight.
  • Raise your left arm and right leg to form a line parallel to the floor.
  • Hold that pose for 10 to 30 seconds, then switch to the opposite arm and leg.

Additionally, you can perform core-conditioning exercises using a stability ball. The following exercise is called a plank, and it forces your core muscles to hold up your body vertically against gravity, working your obliques.

  • Place your forearms on top of the ball while your toes are on the floor.
  • Keep your body in a straight line.
  • Lift your chest off the ball and hold for 30 seconds.
  • Rest for 15 seconds and repeat.

Then there are weight machines. If you go to a gym, you'll likely see circuit equipment labeled according to the muscle groups they work. You can also use free weights like dumbbells to strengthen your core while improving coordination. How does it work? Stand on one foot while doing arm exercises like curls, or place one or both feet on a Bosu ball -- it looks like a stability ball chopped in half -- while doing arm exercises. Tightening your core muscles while exercising on a pulley weight machine helps build your stability, balance and strength.

If you're a beginner, pick just a few exercises and aim for two to three sets of 15 reps; every week or two, increase the number of reps and sets. Once you can do four or five exercises and repeat four sets of 20 reps, you should switch to new exercises to keep your body challenged. Check out this Discovery Health article on abdominal and lower back exercises for more detailed descriptions and images that show how some favorite core exercises work.

Head to the next page for lots more information about how core strength training for runners works.

Related Articles

Sources

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  • Escalante, Manny, Jr. "Core Strength Training for Athletes." BeginnerTriathlete. March 21, 2005. (July 28, 2010)http://www.beginnertriathlete.com/cms/article-detail.asp?articleid=425
  • Hanc, John. "Core Curriculum." Runner's World. June 4, 2008. (July 28, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-393---12657-0,00.html
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Core exercises: 7 reasons to strengthen your core muscles." Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Oct. 3, 2009. (July 28, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/core-exercises/SM00071
  • Olsen, Lottie. "Core: Abdominal and Lower Back Exercises." Discovery Health. Aug. 1, 2007. (July 28, 2010)https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/diet-fitness/exercise/core-abdominal-and-lower-back-exercises.htm
  • PureHealthMD Editors. "Core Strengthening." Discovery Health. June 28, 2010. (July 28, 2010)https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/diet-fitness/information/core-strengthening.htm
  • runbritain. "How to deal with injuries and illness when training for a marathon." (July 28, 2010)http://www.runbritain.com/articles/how-to-deal-with-injuries-and-illness-when-tr/
  • Schafer, Susanne M. "Army training targets the core." Boston Globe. March 17, 2010. (July 28, 2010)http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2010/03/17/army_training_targets_the_core/
  • Shaw, Gina. "Relieve back pain with core strength training." WebMD the Magazine. May 28, 2008. (July 28, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/back-pain/features/relieve-back-pain-with-core-strength-training
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