This is another one of those questions that keeps cropping up. Especially from beginner runners but surprisingly perhaps even more seasoned runners ask me it from time to time too.
The short answer is VERY important.
The long answer is that a good strong core is crucial for running and many other basic daily tasks performed whilst your upright and on two feet. But for runners, the definition of core strength and how to achieve it is quite specific. I'm going to explain what I mean by that in the remainder of this article.
What is the core?
My definition may not fit with most text book versions. Because I include the glutes (buttocks), hip flexors and shoulders. But my view point as a running coach is formulated from my knowledge of a runner's anatomy and good running technique.
That would therefore include the following:
- Back muscles (very important as they support the spine)
- Glutes (buttocks)
- Hip flexors (in particular the psoas muscles)
- Side muscles (obliques)
- Diaphragm (controls breathing)
- Intercostal muscles (the ones in between your ribs also help with breathing)
- Pelvic floor muscles (these help prevent unwanted leakage)
- The abs (stomach - the 6 pack muscles)
This is a simplified list and in reality there are several muscle groups in many of the above. But you don't need to have a detailed anatomical knowledge or understanding of exactly what muscles are involved to know what the core is and what it does.
I've placed the abs at the bottom of my list on purpose. Because despite what many people might think. And what many advertising stock images imply. They're probably the least important muscles in the core - from a running perspective. Because their main job is to lift you up from a lying down position. Something I hope most runners won't have to do during their races!
For runners it's much more important to try and stay upright. Which is why I put the back muscles on top of my list.
Abs do have a certain 'I-want-to-look-good-on-the-beach' appeal. Which is why some PTs and gym bunnies put a lot of emphasis on developing and toning their abs. Though in my opinion concentrating too much on a single muscle group can cause problems too. As it has the potential to develop muscular imbalances.
What does the core do during running?
- Provides Stability and Balance
- Gives a solid base for your legs to push against and therefore propel you forwards
- Keeps you upright and stops you crumpling in a heap. Helps you resist the forces of gravity
- Maintains your chest cavity - helps you to breath
- Helps to counter-balance your arms and legs
Why is core strength important for runners?
A good solid core is crucial for running. As it will help you stabilise, control and co-ordinate the movements of your arms and legs. A strong core will also ensure that you can cope with the impact forces generated with each foot strike. Running is a series of one legged jumps. Each time we land we have to deal with forces equal to or greater than 3 times our own bodyweight.
Core muscles help with balance too making it easier for you to stay upright on uneven ground or when you stumble. Therefore having a good strong core will provide a greater ability to recover from little mishaps, trips and slips and help you avoid injuries.
As well as helping you resist the force of gravity dragging you to the ground. Being in an upright position means you can also breath more easily. Breathing is fundamental for an aerobic exercise like distance running. As we need to get oxygen into our lungs to help with energy production.
What does core strength mean?
Strength is usually thought of as the maximum amount of load a muscle or group of muscles can lift, carry or move. To gain strength in specific muscle groups would usually involve using heavy weights - or as heavy a weight as you could tolerate for minimal repetitions.
The process of training for strength usually involves training to 'failure' too. That means pushing the muscle to the point where it can no longer perform. Then rest to recover and gain the benefit of the training - rinse & repeat. Then test periodically to gauge improvement and effectiveness of your training regime.
With core strength training for running we're not talking about developing maximum strength. So there's no need to train our core muscles to failure using heavy weights. In fact I'd suggest that doing so could be counter-productive for endurance athletes.
We don't want to exercise to complete failure. Because, apart from when we're lying down, we're always using our core muscles throughout the day - we can't avoid it. If we completely exhaust ourselves during our core workouts. We leave ourselves open to injury during our normal day activities. As our core muscles won't be able to function as they should. Because they're too tired.
What runners need is stamina or endurance. We need the core muscles to remain strong and work well for extended periods - several hours for running a marathon or even several days for ultra events.
If you've ever been a spectator at a marathon finish line, you'd have noticed many runners approaching the end of the race with poor posture. Some stooped over and really struggling to run. Core strength training would help these runners maintain better technique and pace for the whole race.
So we need to challenge the core muscles and stimulate them, get them to play together nicely as a team. But not exhaust them. This can be done by limiting the numbers of sets and/or reps (especially if you've not done any core strength training before) avoiding the use of heavy weights.
How to improve core strength for running
Not so long ago the main form of exercises used to work on improving core strength would have been sit-ups. Sit-ups primarily target the abs and obliques (if there is an element of twisting involved). As we've already established there is a lot more to the core than just the abs.
Running in and of itself as an activity will work the core muscles to an extent. But it's unlikely to result in a major boost in core strength as it doesn't challenge the core muscles enough to stimulate any real noticeable improvements in strength. It is better to do some specific targeted exercises to work the core muscles individually and as a whole. Because when we run - the core muscles have to work together as a team.
Some strength and conditioning books state that the core's primary function is to provide stability and then suggest the best way to train for stability is using static holds. By bracing the core and staying still - like you do whilst performing a basic plank.
Whilst I don't disagree that the central elements of the core do most definitely provide stability. There is also an element of mobility needed at the top (upper back) and bottom (hips) during running. To allow the arms and legs to do their jobs effectively - taking turns pumping backwards and forwards.
So I'd suggest including some dynamic (moving) exercises for arms and legs too.
With an exercise like the plank, I'd suggest starting with a static hold first. Then after you've mastered that and can maintain a good plank for approaching a minute - add some movement by marching the arms or legs. A similar approach can be applied to some other core exercises too. Trying to hold a plank on a gym ball will also ramp up the challenge by adding some instability into the mix.
If you're not used to working your core, as with any form of exercise you need to start with the basics (making sure your technique is good) and gradually increase the difficulty. Any good core routine should include an element of progression and not just repeat the same exercises forever and a day.
How to tell if your core is strong enough?
If you're able to walk and sit upright without your back supported by a chair. Then you have some core strength. But is it enough to maintain good posture and technique whilst running a 5k, or marathon? And do you have any core muscle imbalances that may hinder your running?
Some potential things to consider when assessing if you're lacking core strength for running are:
- Do you sit most of the day?
- Do you tend to hunch/round your shoulders?
- Do you have back or groin pain during or after running?
- Do you hold your breath when you lift heavy objects?
- Do you wobble when performing single leg exercises (lunges or squats)?
Check out this video for a few more pointers on assessing core strength.
Is Yoga or Pilates a good way to improve core strength for runners?
Yes they absolutely can be. But as with all types of exercise classes it depends on factors like the type of class, the quality of the instructor and whether it's something you enjoy. Because we all tend to avoid things we don't enjoy. Or we don't give such activities our full attention and therefore don't benefit as fully as we could.
As mentioned in what to do - if the classes available to you cover this - then great. Also if you're more likely to attend a yoga class than to do some strength training on your own at home. Then go for it. Both Yoga and Pilates have a good mobility element included in them too. As well as a focus on relaxation and breathing - which are all good. Plus the social element associated with group in-person classes can be really beneficial (if socialising is your bag) for your emotional and mental wellbeing. So definitely not bad choices.
In fact many of the best core exercises for runners that I know are derived from yoga moves.
Essential Core exercises for runners
Ideally we want to train the whole of the core or as much of it as possible with as few exercises as possible.
The best core strengthening routines for runner will also include an element of balance and work against gravity. So make sure to include some exercises that are done standing (preferably on one leg), so as to mimic the actions of running as closely as possible. It's good to include some with movement of the arms and legs and twisting of the torso and/or hips. Similar to what happens when we run.
I've given some very broad guidelines here and the reality is that as with many things there isn't an ideal one-size-fits-all core strength program. Despite what many exercise gurus may tell you. The best option would be to get yourself assessed by a professional coach with strength & conditioning know-how (hello there - that's me) and have them produce a tailored program that helps work on your specific weak areas.
But if I had to choose a set of 10 basic core exercises that I think deliver the biggest bang-for-buck for running I would include the following:
Reverse Lunge & Twist
There are many more exercise to choose from and many that I use for my own training and suggest to my runners too. Some of which I've sneaked in below in my suggestions for core strength exercises to do after a run. I also like to include more single leg exercises myself like Romanian deadlifts and Bowler squats.
When is the best time to do core strength training?
Basically anytime that you will actually get the core strength training done is a good time. I'll give some suggestions below, it's best that you consider them in the context of how your life schedule works in reality and then chose the option that works best for you. Or come up with an alternative. It doesn't really matter - as long as you do the training a minimum of twice a week and preferably a few times more than that. But twice is the baseline to aim for initially, if you're not regularly doing some already.
Core exercises before running
You can add some core strengthening exercises into your warm-up routine quite easily especially things like:
- glute bridges
- push ups
- prone YTI
- mason twists
- bear crawls
Core exercises after running
In a similar way to adding strength training moves to your warm-up routines you can also throw some into your cool down routine. Here though I'd suggest going for less dynamic and more static exercises and even those that include an element of mobility like:
- windscreen wipers
- walking spiderman with overhead reach or yoga plex
- downward dog to upward dog
Walking Spiderman with Overhead Reach
Down dog to upward facing dog
A runner with a strong core is a strong runner. It's as simple as that.
Don't miss out on that opportunity. Make sure you consistently get at least 2 Core Strength sessions a week in your training schedule.
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