Core Exercises for Runners
If you have ever spectated a marathon from start to finish, you are likely aware of the carnage that takes place the last 6 or so miles. Runners that began the race with pep in their step and upright form often finish dragging their legs and looking hunched over. However, the runners who win marathons typically have the same form from start to finish, and are even able to run blazing splits during that last quarter mile. What gives? Much of the difference lies in core strength, which describes the muscles from hips to shoulders that are responsible for keeping the body upright and moving. Every single runner can benefit from core strengthening, and even small improvements can lead to big drops in finishing times. Core exercises for runners are as important as any other training.
Which Muscles Comprise your Core?
When runners go to the gym, they are typically told to do exercises that strengthen biceps, triceps, hamstrings, quads, and calves. However, the core muscles are most often neglected, and these include hip abductors and adductors, hip flexors, pelvic floor muscles, obliques (side body), transversus abdominus (the outer edges of the 6-pack area), multifudus (muscles deep in your back that run along the length of your spine), rectus abdominus (traditional 6-pack region), erector spinae (muscles that control position and rotation of spine), gluteus maximus (muscles which extend from your hamstrings into your buttocks), latissimus dorsi (back muscles beneath the shoulders), and trapezius (muscle that spans neck and shoulder).
Why is Core Strengthening Important for Runners?
Although running is one of the healthiest activities a person can undertake, it does not come without stress. The continual impact can wreak havoc on our bones and muscles which is exacerbated the longer we run.
Additionally, unless you are a super human runner with perfect form, there are likely muscle imbalances or weaknesses that can add to risk of injury. When you strengthen your core you also aid in the alignment of hips and spine, which can stave off injury and improve running economy. Your posture improves, your stride becomes more fluid, and your movement is less restricted (for example, stand up straight and lift your knees; now hunch over, lift your knees, and notice the difference.)
One of the most tangible benefits of core strengthening is improved endurance and strength at the end of a race. The longer you can keep your core from breaking down, the better you are likely to perform.
How to Improve Core Strength
There are many core exercises for runners available, and most do not require any additional equipment. While numerous exercises can be done with body weight, there are a few tools that can improve your workout. These include a yoga mat, a medicine ball, light dumbbells (5 – 10 lbs), a Swiss medicine ball, and/or a Kettle bell.
Exercises should be performed 3 – 4 times per week with 15 – 20 minute routines, if possible. However, for those with less time to spare, even 5 minutes of core a few times per week can be beneficial. Most exercises should be repeated 10 – 15 times for a total of 2 – 3 sets. Never perform an exercise if it causes any pain.
For a runner, the hips are arguably the most important body part, as they are the link between legs and torso, both of which need to work in unison for proper running efficiency. Many injuries, such as runner’s knee and illiotibial band syndrome stem from weaknesses in the hips.
Lying on your side with knees bent, engage your hip muscles by squeezing your buttocks together. With your hips engaged, lift one knee away from the other, as if a clam shell were opening. This exercise strengthens adductors, abductors, and IT band.
Start on your hands and knees, with wrists beneath shoulders and knees below hips. Lift your knee off the ground such that your foot is parallel with the ceiling. Rotate your leg to open your hip (your inner thigh should be parallel to the floor), and then complete the rotation by bringing your leg back to the starting position. Do these rotations both forward and backwards.
Pelvic Floor Muscle Exercises
Especially important for women who have had children, pelvic floor muscle strength is utilized for keeping your hips and pelvis in alignment.
Lie with your back on the floor and knees bent. As you inhale, lift your pelvis so that your knees, hips, and shoulders are aligned. Hold this position for 30 – 60 seconds.
This exercise may remind you of high school gym class, but it is actually a great strengthener for pelvic muscles. The key here is to engage the muscles while you perform the exercise. Firing the proper muscles will feel as though you are stopping the flow of urine midstream. During jumping jacks, engage the muscles as you jump your legs apart and bring your arms overhead, then release the muscles when you return to starting position.
These side body muscles are especially important to keep your body from twisting your core at the end of the race.
Start by lying face down on the ground and roll onto one side. Place your forearm perpendicular to the rest of your body and push up, placing all your weight on one foot and your forearm. Your body should form a straight line from ankle to head. Hold this pose for 30 – 60 seconds.
Side plank with a twist
While in the side plank position, lightly place your free hand behind your head, forming a “V” with your elbow. Now, touch your free elbow to the floor by twisting your body, all while holding the side plank, then return to the starting position.
Transversus Abdominus Exercises
An often overlooked and underdeveloped muscle among runners, the transversus abdominus (TrA) is crucial for proper core development. Situated between your obliques and rectus abdominus (six-pack muscles), the TrA can be difficult to engage. However, simply being mindful of the muscle during core exercise can lead to dramatic improvements.
Planks are a great multifunctional exercise that can be used to strengthen many muscle groups on this list, but are especially good for building TrA strength. Start by lying face down with your forearms positioned parallel to one another, with elbows beneath shoulders. Lift yourself off the ground and balance by placing your weight on forearms and toes. Your body should be a straight line from head to feet. Engage your core by drawing your belly in towards your back and by squeezing your glutes. Hold this position for 30 – 60 seconds. If this plank position is too intense at first, instead hold a modified version, where you balance on hands and toes instead (as if you were about to do a push up).
While lying on your back extend your arms past your head and make your body as long as possible. As you inhale, draw your stomach in and try to “suck in” your belly as much as you can. This simple movement will engage your core muscles, including the elusive TrA. Hold for 30 – 60 seconds.
Rectus Abdominus Exercises
The rectus abdominus muscles are exactly the muscles that people first think of when they think about the core, as they are what people see when looking at a defined six pack. For running they are important because they act as an anchor to keep hip alignment in check and maintain good posture.
The most ubiquitous core exercise is crunches; however, many athletes do not perform these correctly. Begin by lying on your back and pressing your low back to the floor. You will likely already feel your core muscles contract during this motion. Keeping your back completely flat, knees bent, and soles of feet on the floor, perform crunches by lifting only your shoulders off the ground, without any help from your arms.
Stability Ball Roll Outs
Place yourself in plank position on a Swiss Medicine Ball, using your forearms as balance. Now, roll the ball away from you, while keeping your feet still, and shift your balance towards your elbows. Roll the ball back towards your body so that you are again balancing on forearms. Repeat this motion 4 – 5 more times.
Another all-around great core exercise, chin ups not only work arms and shoulders, but are beneficial for rectus abdominus muscles as well. Find a sturdy pull up bar, jungle gym, or other area that can hold your weight, and grip the bar with palms facing your body. Pull your chin over and the bar before returning to the starting position. Use assistance if necessary, or work your way up to a chin up by hanging from the bar with your arm flexed.
Lower Back Exercises
Low back strength is important for warding off hamstring, calf, and glute injuries, as well as maintaining good posture while you run.
Start by lying on the ground, face down. Place your hands behind your head, similar to if you were going to do regular crunches. Lift your chest and shoulders off the floor and hold this position for 3 seconds before returning to the ground. To make the exercise more intense, lift your feet off the ground when you lift your shoulders.
Russian Dead Lifts with Dumbbells
With low-weight dumbbells in each hand, slightly bend your knees. Lower the dumbbells by pushing your butt backwards, with your head looking forwards. Continue lowering until your back forms a flat table top, and then slowly bring the weights back up to the starting position. This exercise is also great for hamstrings and glute strength.
Gluteus Maximus Exercises
An extremely common reason for injury among runners is misfiring glutes. Due to the propensity of desk jobs and sitting all day, many glutes become inactivated by sedentary work schedules. However, glutes have an important role in running by propelling the runner forward.
While resting on hands and knees, squeeze the glutes to engage the muscles. Next, slowly bring one leg towards the sky, stopping when quad is parallel with the floor, then return to starting position. To increase the difficulty of this exercise, extend the opposite arm during the donkey kick.
Hip Bridge Lifts
Place yourself in hip bridge position with knees, hips, and shoulders aligned. Now, extend one leg straight. Lower your butt to the floor (but do not make contact), then raise yourself back into this single leg hip bridge. Repeat 7 – 9 more times.
Latissiumus Dorsi Exercises
What do arms have to do with running and core? When running, arm swing and leg swing are connected. The faster you can move your arms, the faster your legs will go. At the end of a race you will be able to force your legs to move faster if you have the strength to increase the rate of your arm swing.
Different from chin ups, pull ups are done with palms facing away from you. The small difference in positioning makes a big difference in the muscles that are used!
Med Ball Slam
Take an 8 – 12 lb medicine ball (not to be confused with a Swiss medicine ball, which is the inflatable kind), and hold it above your head. Now, slam it to the ground. This exercise is simple, effective, and cathartic.
Have you ever been told to drop your shoulders during a race? Tension in shoulders can be caused by lack of strength.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand and drop your hands to your sides. Now draw your shoulders up to your ears, then return to starting position. To increase the difficulty, do this exercise while standing on your toes.
This exercise is perfect for use with a Kettle bell. Hold the Kettle bell by the handle with your arms dropped in front of your body. Pull the Kettle bell up towards your chin and send your elbows out to the sides. Lower the Kettle bell back to the starting position.
We hope this Core Exercises for Runners guide helps you with your core strength. Let us know and follow us on Facebook.