Your core is more than just your abdominal muscles. All of the muscles that make up the midsection — deep and superficial alike — comprise the core, from the hips on up to the top of the rib care. All of the musculature that supports the spine, ribs, pelvis, and internal organs are important parts of your core strength and stability (1).
Your core muscles have two primary functions related to running: mobility and stability (
Stability is your muscles’ ability to resist movement — particularly unwanted movement in the spine, ribs, or pelvis. This function is necessary to support your posture and resist gravity, helping you to maintain healthy spinal length during activity and at rest. It’s also key for absorbing the impact of force on the body.
The other function of the core muscles is mobility, primarily of the spine.
Spinal mobility occurs in three planes of motion: the frontal plane, which is the plane of lateral flexion, as in side bends; the sagittal plane in which spinal flexion and extension occur, as in the movement of cat/cow; and the transverse plane, which is the realm of rotation. All three of these planes of motion are relevant to running.
As you run in a forward direction, you are moving mostly within the sagittal plane, so all muscles that support and move the front and back of the body are relevant here. Your hip flexors bring the leg forward in hip flexion, while the gluteus maximus and hamstrings extend the hip as you push through each leg.
Meanwhile, your obliques and spinal erectors are stabilizing your ribs, pelvis, and spine as you power through your stride.
As your foot hits the ground, your gluteus medius activates to provide lateral stability in the frontal plane. You may know or be a runner who has suffered knee or back pain caused by a weak gluteus medius. Strengthening this important core stabilizer can make you a stronger, more balanced runner.
As your arms pump for balance, your ribcage rotates slightly as you run. Your obliques, multifidus, and spinal rotators both mobilize the spine, but also provide the stability to avoid over-rotation, thus controlling inefficient motion.
Even this oversimplification of the mobilizing and stabilizing muscles of the core shows their importance in the biomechanics of running. Strengthening the core muscles improves their endurance and maximizes the efficiency of the work you’re doing as you run (
Now that you know the importance of these muscles, how can you effectively and efficiently train them to give you the strength, stability, and mobility to aid your running? Here is a quick, 10-minute workout for the core, designed specifically for the needs of runners:
The plank exercise will improve your core stability as well as muscular strength and endurance, challenging you to keep your posture strong under fatigued conditions.
- Come to your elbows and knees or elbows and toes for a more challenging plank. Keep a long line from the top of your head to your knees (or heels if opting for the straight-leg version).
- Lift your ribs and abdominals and remember to breathe.
- Hold for 90 seconds, breaking the time up into six, 15-second planks if necessary to get started. Then progress to three planks for 30-seconds each, then two for 45-seconds, and eventually one, 90-second plank.
Dead bug is another exercise that will improve your core stability.
- Lie on your back with your arms straight up in the air and your legs in a tabletop position. Hold a strong abdominal contraction with a neutral spine. If it feels difficult to hold this position without arching your back, tilt your pelvis back slightly bringing your lower back toward the ground.
- Slowly extend one arm and the opposite leg while holding your ribcage snug. Keep the knee bent for easier work, or straighten the knee for a more challenging exercise. Exhale on the extension, and inhale as you return to neutral.
- Alternate sides for 20 repetitions.
The bird dog is essentially the same exercise as dead bug, but upside down. It both stabilizes the core and strengthens the hip extensors and shoulder muscles for mobility.
- Come to your hands and knees in a neutral spine posture. Inhale as you extend one arm and the opposite leg. Try to make the work come from your shoulders, glutes, and abs, rather than the arm and leg.
- Exhale to lower your limbs back down, and lift the opposite arm and leg on your next inhale.
- Alternate sides for 20 repetitions.
Use a dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a resistance band to strengthen your core mobilizers with added weight during the wood chop exercise.
- Stand with your legs shoulder distance or slightly wider, holding a weight or band with both hands.
- Squat slightly as you inhale, and on the exhale, lift your arms out and off to one side, about shoulder high, rotating through the torso to initiate the movement. Hold your abdominals tight and keep a strong posture throughout.
- Control the descent and repeat. Do 10 repetitions on one side, then switch sides and repeat for a total of 20 reps in each direction.
- Lie on your back with your legs off the ground, bent at 90 degrees at the hip and knee, in tabletop position. Bring your hands behind your head with your elbows open wide, and keep your stomach pulled in.
- Inhale to stretch out one leg long.
- Turn toward the lifted knee as you exhale. Switch legs and inhale, turning toward the lifted leg. Try to keep your pelvis still as you twist from the waist up.
- Do 30 repetitions, starting with sets of 10 reps with rest in between, and progressing until you can do all 30 at once.
This final exercise stabilizes the abdominals, back, hip, and shoulder muscles.
- Lie on your side, aligning your elbow on the floor underneath your armpit. Lift your hips off the ground, keeping your bottom knee down for less of a challenge. Or, stand on your bottom foot for a greater challenge; you can opt to stagger your feet for easier stability or further challenge yourself by stacking the feet.
- Hold for 30–60 seconds on each side, building stamina by taking breaks and re-setting the plank until you can hold the full 60 seconds on each side.
One of the great things about this 10-minute workout is that since it emphasizes stability and endurance rather than strength or power, it can be done daily if desired. The workout is short and not intense enough to warrant an abundance of recovery time. That said, a 7-day per week commitment is not necessary.
As little as 3 days per week could be enough to improve your core strength, but shooting for 5 days will increase your strength more noticeably (
Whatever type of core workout you choose, it’s a good idea to make sure that you are working in all three planes of motion and are balancing stability work with mobility work. Running is a 3-dimensional activity and you will benefit from giving your body a variety of challenges.
Because running is so repetitive, the weaknesses in your routine will manifest at best with poor performance and at worst with injury. Giving yourself the gift of a strong, stable core with a 3-dimensional workout will improve your running performance and hopefully your enjoyment of the process (
Possibly the best way to stay consistent with core work is to make it mandatory. It’s pretty easy to give yourself excuses and opt out if you have a vague notion of when you will do the work. Scheduling core work just as you do your training runs will bring the consistency to this work that will bring you the results you want and need.
While it may seem like a good idea to do core work after your run, will you legitimately follow through with it? Or will you half-heart the work or even skip it? If so, schedule it in the morning.
Set your alarm 10 minutes early and “earn” your morning coffee. You can schedule core training as part of your bedtime routine if you find the endorphins and heat won’t leave you sleepless. You can even incorporate core work into your dynamic warmup for training runs.
Make sure you’re breathing. Obviously you need to breathe, but if you can do so with purpose as you work your core muscles, you’re making use of not only the target core muscles (such as abs or glutes), but also your intercostal muscles, diaphragm, and pelvic floor, increasing the stabilization effect of the exercise (6).
Engage these deeper muscles as you do your core work. Lifting from the pelvic floor can be done at the same time as the abdominal scoop or glute squeeze. Mindfully engaging your muscles during training will give you more bang for your buck, and your overall strength, endurance, and stability will benefit.
A strong core is a prerequisite to having good posture, alignment, and economy of movement. Runners are not the only people who benefit from a strong core, of course, but a strong and stable core is a great asset to anyone who wants to run more, or more efficiently.
A workout such as the one above strengthens the core for mobility and stability in all three planes of movement, paving the way for improved performance and more enjoyment when running.