When starting a new sport, I get it can be daunting. You think something as simple as running would be exactly that, simple. And it can be, but adding some extra training here and there, making practical changes such as breathing techniques, what to eat around your running training Plan, how to eradicate cramps, or how to run alongside your menstrual cycle, all can significantly up your game.
Hitting the gym for leg workouts are obvious, but what about a core workout? What exercises will benefit you the most? How long should a session be? How many times a week? Keep reading for the ultimate ‘how to’ core workout for every runner – and if the exercises get too easy; take notes of how we manipulate a movement, incurring a challenge again; keep reading for never-ending core gains.
Reasons to focus on your core
When we‘re discussing your core we don’t just mean the ‘rock hard 6 pack abs’ – yes they’re a part of it, but also your hip complex, your lower back and mid-back muscles, basically every muscle acting like a corset ranging from hip to pec region – (gluteals, erector spinae, Quadratus Lomborum, oblique abdominals, transverse abdominals, intercostal muscles even – for the au fait amongst us)
As a group, they keep the body stable and upright, and affect pretty much every other part of you, from your breathing to general movement.
Yes, whilst running, your legs do most of the heavy work, but your torso needs to be included too; that twisting movement from the belly button up is generated and supported by your core and is excruciatingly important for your running economy.
1. Improve running economy
In a nutshell, this means you can run further, for longer, and faster with ultimately less effort. Your well-trained core muscles act in a spring-like fashion, so you use less energy with each stride (sounds good right?). The technical term for the spring movement is the stretch-shortening cycle something you will hear a lot of during running training I’m sure. (It’s so important!)
2. Reduce the risk of injuries
Now for men and women, things are different in terms of injury rates and location statistics. For women, we are more likely to attain knee injuries as runners, and men have a more equal knee-ankle-foot injury rate ratio.
How does the core affect this?
A well-braced core will absorb some impact each time your foot hits the ground, significantly reducing impact injuries straight from the off.
Also, one of the most common injuries I see in runners relates to something called ‘muscle firing patterns’. Your muscles, ideally need to fire in a certain sequence to ensure the workload is spread evenly and avoid muscle overuse injuries. By focusing on your core, it will allow the gluteal muscles and lower back muscles to activate optimally before hitting the track, trails or tarmac. (It’s probably 70% of what I work on most with athletes).
3. Improve your technique
You may already hit the gym, and know that any exercise with free weights and the correct form will always involve the core. Once you brace the core and focus, you notice how much easier the exercise is, and that you could probably live heavier because of it. The same goes for running.
Heading out with poor core stability can feel like such hard work, gasping for air and flopping around like nobodies business. Uphills will feel painful for your back, may even suffer from a stitch quite often. Training the core makes everything feel tighter, compact and supported – your running technique becomes effortless and hills are not a problem anymore.
Plucked from personal experiences and research
Here are the best exercises to smash your core goals:
Starting position: Lay face down on a mat, arms and legs extended.
Beginner: raise right arm and left leg simultaneously. ‘squeeze’ the glutes and back muscles hold for 3 seconds and lower. Repeat with left arm and right leg.
Advanced: Raise both arms and Legs simultaneously, ‘squeeze’ the glutes and back muscles, hold for 3-5 seconds and lower.
2. Glute bridge
Starting position: Lay on your back on the floor. Bend both knees at roughly 90degree angle.
Beginners: drive your hips towards the sky. Your shoulder blades should still be in contact with the floor and there should not be any strain on your neck.
Advanced: ‘Glute bridge march’ this is where you assume the beginner position and hips are high. Keeping the left heel on the floor, you raise the right. Bending at the hips (but keep the hips square and high as possible) then alternate legs without letting your back one into contact with the ground – hips at the highest point always. This puts extra emphasis on the single glute working, and by maintaining level hips, the rest of your core is getting a workout too.
3. Window wipers
Starting position: lay on your back, arms straight out to each side to form a T shape.
Beginner: bend your knees at 90 degrees, and same at your hips (as if you were sat on a chair, with the back to the floor). Brace your core and let both knees fall slowly to the right-hand side (keeping them together), then with the abdominals engaged bring them both back to the centre (together-always touching) and then repeat to the left. If you’re struggling you can use your arms to help propel your legs back to neutral.
Advanced: Keeping your legs together and locked out straight, brace your core and let them fall to the right-hand side, and repeat to the left-hand side. By straightening the legs you increase the leverage and the intensity especially when those toes get close to the floor!
Ah, the infamous plank! If you don’t know what this one is where have you been hiding? (under a rock?) the Plank has a ridiculous amount of variations but let’s get started with the basics, shall we?
Get onto your hands and knees on a mat. Make sure your hands are directly below (and supporting) your shoulders. Now replace the hands with your elbows in the exact same spot. Keep the core engaged and step your feet out straightening the legs so your torso is suspended in the air, as such.
Beginner: if an elbows and toes plank is too much you can bring it back down to your knees and have elbow/knee plank, likewise stay on the toes and straighten your arms to a hand/toe plank. If both are too difficult, consider a hand/knee plank. All variations are absolutely fine so long as you keep that core engaged! There should be no back pain during the play, if there is, try an alternative variation.
Advanced: once you can hold the plank comfortably for around 30 seconds at a time, it is safe to start playing around with your planks. How about engaging the core and extending your left arm out in front? Still stable? Now extend your right leg to the sky, keeping it straight and hips parallel to the floor. And hold!
5. Russian twist
Starting position: sit on a mat with knees bent at roughly 90 degrees. Core engaged and torso upright.
Beginner: put one hand on top of the other, arms at an easy bend. Keeping the core strong, lean back slightly keeping your heels on the floor. Together your hands will touch the floor (or close to) on the right side from a twist at the torso. Repeat on the left-hand side. A slow and controlled movement is key here.
Advanced: core engaged and lean back further, lifting your heels off the floor also. Together your hands will touch the floor (or close to) on the right side from a twist at the torso. Repeat on the left-hand side. (You could also hold a weight plate or kettlebell, to help intensify the exercise). Remember slow, and controlled movement.
6. Mountain climbers
Starting position: start with a hand/toe plank position. (The same as a starting press-up position if that helps?)
Beginner: keep the abdominals strong and similar to a running motion, drive your right knee to your right elbow and repeat on the other side.
Advanced: drive your right knee to the opposite elbow/chest keeping the hips low and the core engaged. Speeding this exercise up to maximum effort reaps benefits with this exercise so keep the speed high as possible for a set time or repetitions.
7. Side plank
Two planks? Yes unfortunately so. Whilst the other plank focuses on the whole core, with abdominals and lower back dominant, the side plank will focus on, you guessed it, the sides! Your oblique abdominals and hips.
Starting position: get into a toe/hand plank position on a mat. Step the left foot behind and. Lift the left arm towards the sky. Your core should be engaged, your right hand is underneath your shoulder (push into the floor to keep it straight). Your legs are straight and locked out. Keeping the core, glutes, legs and arms engaged you should be in a straight line.
Beginner: bend your right leg, so the outside of the knee is in contact with the floor for some extra support. Keep the core engaged, and tuck your glutes in – remain in a straight line best you can.
Advanced: again many variations to play with here. You could hold the top leg in the air (like a starfish) and advance it further and hold the bottom leg up or even introduce hip dips. Remember to engage that core!
How often do I need to train my core?
The best thing about a core workout is that you don’t need special equipment or loads of time. It can be done anyhow here and as quickly as within 15 minutes! Research is fickle in this area, it doesn’t explicitly state the minimum amount of time for an effective core workout for runners, and doing something is always better than doing nothing at all, right?
So, If you can spare 15-30 minutes a week for your core workout, that really is enough! Research out there suggests that one 30-minute strength session a week produces the same results as two. So focus on the quality of once a week, and you’ll become a much better runner.
If you are following the above exercises, I suggest completing it like a circuit, beginners 30-second work, 30-second rest. Advanced 45 seconds work, 15 seconds rest for each exercise.
2 rounds for each exercise totals a 15-minute workout, building to an optimal 4 rounds per week as your strength progresses over time.
“one core workout a week is enough”
Are you ready?