I hear a lot of runners say their core gets all the exercise it needs while they’re running, but does it? Why spend precious exercise time working on your abs when you could be doing a tempo run, right?
Core strengthening is something runners often overlook. Sometimes intentionally, but more often it’s something they just never get around to. There are many reasons you should be adding core specific work to your routine though. Stability, balance and injury prevention are obvious benefits. Additionally, a strong well-conditioned core is going to improve your endurance. Especially on long runs over uneven or hilly terrain.
In simple terms, the less fatigued your body gets while running, the longer and faster you can go.
Here Are The Best Core Strengthening Exercises For Runners
- Sprints (Dynamic Core Exercises)
- Frog Hops (Dynamic Core Exercises)
- High Plank (Static Core Exercises)
- Low Plank to High Plank (Static Core Exercises)
- Bicycle Crunches (Static Core Exercises)
- Hanging Leg Raises (Static Core Exercises)
Why Are Core Muscles Important to a Runner?
Let’s think about the act of running. Your arms are swinging. Your legs are pumping. Your upper body has to balance across multiple planes of motion. It transfers weight from one leg to the other stabilizing as you move across uneven ground and up or down inclines.
Your core anchors everything together. It supports your spine and all your internal organs. It’s the foundation of every movement. Your core consists of so much more than the six pack everyone dreams of. It includes several layers of abdominals, stabilizer muscles in the back, the diaphragm as well as the pelvic floor. It works in conjunction with the hip flexors and spinal erectors. It’s always flexing and pulling to keep you erect and balanced as you run.
A runner with a weak core is going to fatigue sooner, especially when the course is uneven and full of hills. Will a strong core make a runner faster? Maybe. Will a strong core improve an athlete’s ability to run further over difficult terrain before fatigue sets in? Absolutely.
Can Running Strengthen Your Core?
Yes, the right type of running can strengthen your core. Sprinting is what we’re after, as it’s the only type of running that will give your entire abdominal wall a good workout. The explosive nature of the exercise requires abdominal muscles to react with speed and contract with force. Your limbs are swinging faster, your whole torso is twisting and shifting. It’s the kind of core conditioning you just don’t get with any other type of running.
So, while doing sit-ups is a good general core exercise, its cross-over benefit to running may be limited. Sprinting targets the abdominal muscles specifically used for running.
Does that mean we runners shouldn’t do any other core work outside of sprinting? Of course not. In fact, I’m going to give you a list of great exercises that will condition your core. But the closer our cross-training can resemble that of our discipline, the better our results will be.
Think of it this way. A mountain climber may get benefits from cross-training. But they’ll get much more bang for their buck if they add finger-strength exercises than doing bench presses twice a week. In the same way, a runner is going to benefit more from adding sprints once a week than from doing 500 crunches a day.
Training for Power and Endurance
I’ve seen the improvement in my own running by focusing on two aspects. Power and endurance. What does your core have to do with power and endurance? Everything. Running at speed requires explosive power. So does running up steep grades. It’s all about those fast twitch muscle fibers. For muscular endurance we need to focus more on those slow twitch muscle fibers. Your legs may have great muscular endurance and even explosive power. If your core is lacking in either, you are going to get tired when the race gets long and you have another long hill in front of you. So, let’s look at how to target both.
Core Exercises for Explosive Power:
- Speed work
Core Exercises for Endurance:
- Bicycle crunches
- Hanging leg raises
How do you put together a core workout with your running in mind? I like to do Power Days and Chill Days.
Power Days are for working on explosive or dynamic movement like sprinting and plyometrics. I also like to add one of the more difficult bodyweight exercises that specifically targets the core. Depending on your training split, these can be done once a week. Preferably you’ll have a rest day between a power day and your next scheduled running day.
On your low intensity or active recovery days, what I call chill days, I like to do crunches and static movements like planks.
So, let’s look at what exercises would go into a Power Day workout. Any workout with explosive movements always carries the risk of injury so make sure you warm up well.
Power Day – Dynamic Core Exercises
Start with 10-15 minutes of easy jogging, followed by 1 minute of high knees and 1 minute of butt kicks.
8 – 10 reps x 50 meters
If you are fortunate enough to have access to a track, pick a spot to start, sprint, then walk back to start at the same place every time. Then repeat. If you don’t have access to a track, lamp post to lamp post works just as well. Sprint to one lamp post. Walk to the next lamp post.
It’s important to ease into the sprint. Start each sprint by bringing your speed up gradually for the first 5 or 6 strides. Focus on your form, driving forward hard with your arms, with your core fully engaged. Also decelerate slowly when you reach the finish line. But keep your core engaged the whole time.
For the first 2 reps, your maximum speed should be at around 60% – faster than your jogging pace but not running hard yet. Run the 3rd and 4th rep at 80% – running hard but not a full sprint yet. The first time you do these, only go to 90% on your last reps. Nothing is worse than trying something for the first time and getting injured.
3 sets of 20 meters (2 minutes rest between sets)
With your frog hops you start in the crouched position. Drive up and forward as hard as you can with your arms and legs. Complete the 20 meters and walk back to the start. Repeat. For those who want to ramp up the intensity, try doing frog hops up an incline. As with the sprints, it is important to concentrate on engaging the core with each rep.
Chill Day – Static Core Exercises
Schedule static core workouts for your rest day or for low intensity days. Begin with 10 minutes of light stretching and then move into the workout.
The plank is one of the best static or isometric exercises for your core. Isometric simply means you’re exercising the muscle without shortening or lengthening it. Get into the push up position with your arms straight under your shoulders, back straight and hold. A good progression is starting with 30 seconds and adding 15-30 seconds as you get stronger.
Low Plank to High Plank
In the plank position, move down onto your elbows and back up again, one arm at a time. Alternate which elbow goes down first. See if you can make 30 seconds to start off with and then add 15 second increments as you get stronger.
Be careful when doing crunches not to jerk on your neck and spine. You want to lie down on your back, lift your shoulders slightly up off the ground with your hands behind your ears. You want to bring your left knee to your right elbow, twisting your torso and extending the right leg. You then want to switch and bring the right knee to the left elbow twisting your torso to the other side and extending the left leg. Continue alternating in a pedaling motion. The bottom leg extension targets the lower abdominals and the torso twist targets the obliques.
Hanging Leg Raises:
3 sets x max reps
Hanging leg raises are another good exercise to target those lower abdominals, obliques and also tie in the hip flexors. Hang from a pull-up bar and bring your knees up to just above your waist. If you want to increase the intensity, keep your legs straight and toes pointed when you raise them. For the really motivated among us, you can do windshield wiper leg raises, which will really hit those obliques.
As runners, our goal is to become better – at running. The more time we spend running, the better we can become. We can also reap the benefits of cross-training by doing exercises outside of running that specifically targets the muscles we incorporate when we do run. Abdominal training is part of that equation, but we have to train it in a way that benefits us, as runners. It means choosing exercises and training modalities that are closest and most beneficial to our discipline.
It’s important to make it part of our routine, but not to overwhelm ourselves with it. Be in it for the long haul. A power session once a week or even once every two weeks is better than trying to fit too much in. That leads to overtraining or giving up on it altogether. You can do Chill days more often, but even so, they are a supplement to our running, not a replacement for it.
A well-planned training block that includes specific core work will pay big dividends for our long-term running goals. Whether it’s a faster time on race day, a new distance PR, or finally being able to finish that hilly course without walking. A well-conditioned core will also mean less injuries and is better for overall fitness and mobility.