In 2008, Canadian Triathlete Carolyn Murray finally realized her dream of being selected for the Olympic triathlon team. Murray was often in the lead pack off the bike. However, despite being an excellent runner, she would fade during the run. After trying many strategies, Carolyn tried something different altogether. She doubled down on her core training. I recall her explaining that it was her stronger core, not more speed work or volume, that was the difference maker. She said her body could hold it together, maintaining a faster pace, as fatigue set in near the later stages of the race.
This feel-good story always stuck with me. As an undergrad in kinesiology, it was exciting to see the relevance of a sound core training program start to be embraced amongst endurance athletes. Back then and still today, many endurance athletes fear strength training, including core training, thinking it will waste time or worse, reduce performance by creating large, bulky muscles. Done correctly and efficiently, this could not be further from the truth.
Despite run training progressions, studies found that novice runners do not improve run techniques for greater efficiency or reduced risk of injury.
They still showed a greater increase in trunk inclination (bending forward at the waist) and increased ankle eversion as the runners became fatigued. Research indicates that poor core endurance can reduce your ability to maintain a trunk position, negatively affecting run kinematics. These trunk changes reduce run efficiency and increase risk of injury, indicating that core strength and endurance must especially be addressed.
It is often said that every action each step we take is initiated from the core. It is often said that power comes from the core. When good technique is used during running or daily tasks, power is often generated through the hips and is transmitted through a stiffened or “braced” core. Lesser known or discussed, the core more often functions to prevent motion rather than initiating it, stabilizing and protecting the body. A “functionally strong core” is essential for injury prevention and optimal performance.
What is the Core?
We are not just talking abs here! Core encompasses your entire back, abdominal wall muscles, and glutes. It also includes your latissimus dorsi and psoas muscles, linking your core to the pelvis, legs, shoulders, and arms. You can essentially think of the core as everything aside from your limbs. Ideally, the muscles work together to create spinal stabilization, called “core bracing.”
Unlike your limb muscles, your core muscles often co-contract, stiffening your torso so all muscles become synergists in your running and daily life activities. This is important, and this is the reason why training your core needs to be done differently than your limbs to be the most effective.
Core and Run Performance
Is core training going to increase your V02max? Likely not. It will, however, improve something that may be more beneficial: running economy.
Core endurance is a very important part of run training, as it helps to maintain an efficient trunk position. Studies have demonstrated that core stability training improves running performance. One of the reasons is, yep “core bracing!” With core bracing, the body becomes stiffer to accept the foot impact.
Core endurance is especially important during long distance and/or high intensity running, as muscle fatigue is greater. Research aside, essentially every triathlete and runner I have seen with dysfunction, injury, and frustrating performance has had insufficient core strength and endurance, especially regards to spinal stability. Just look at a runner who is running, bent over. That was me when I started running! Not only does the bent over runner reduce one’s ability for oxygen exchange, the kinematics change, causing inefficiency and greater stress on the spine, hips, and knees. But this can be improved with a little consistent training. In the Ogaya study, for example, runners significantly improved their trunk muscular endurance after four weeks of training, three times per week. Their hip range increased, which can effectively open-up the stride, and angles of their lower limb angles improved, reducing risk of injury.
How To Effectively Train the Core?
Should you be doing sit-ups? Crunches? Isolating the obliques? Negative.
In fact, doing repeated spine flexion (ie situps and endless crunches) are training the muscles in a manner they are rarely used, and performing numerous situps may increase risk of spinal disc injury. McGill, renowned spinal expert, states that “focusing on a single muscle generally does not enhance stability but creates patterns that when quantified result in less stability.” Your core is like a team: Together Everyone Achieves More. Effectively training the core means training all the muscles to work together.
The best way is to train the less glorified muscles. We are not talking 6-pack abs here, rather the deep pelvic and spinal stability muscles, referred often as “control exercises.” Exercises that truly enhance spinal stabilization are the exercises encouraging stiffening of the entire core musculature. The best way is also to include exercises that transfer into running, called “dynamic correspondence exercises.” Dynamic correspondence exercises enhance movement patterns and other components of fitness to prepare you in the best way for your sport.
Three Core Exercises
Here are three great exercises for the runner toolbox that will improve your core strength / trunk stability specifically for running. Although I am also a fan of weight bearing core exercises (i.e. various offset carries), I chose these exercises as they do not require equipment, can be done anywhere, anytime, and are a great foundation to build on. The dead bug and bird dog exercises especially mimic similar running movement patterns: Alternating mobility in one leg and stability in the other leg, along with opposing arm movements while core bracing, making these excellent dynamic correspondence exercises.
Try and keep your training program simple, effective, and efficient for more energy and time to be spent doing what we love: Running!
- Glute Bridge Variations
Why: Promotes the correct firing sequence pattern of: Engaging your glutes before your hamstrings and lower back. This enhances your ability to produce greater force and reduces risk of injury. So common in runners, hip flexors, back stabilizers, and other smaller muscles take on the roll of the glutes if they are not firing properly. The hamstring muscles can take over too much of the burden as well, extending the hips instead of what should be – the glutes. Over time, without the correct firing sequence, this can lead to overly tight muscles and negatively affects your stride.
How to (Figure 4 Glute Bridge Demo Link):
Lay on your back with feet approximately hip width apart or a little wider, perform a very mild pelvic tilt (just a couple inches or so for a “neutral spine”) and focus on squeezing your glutes. This is super important. We can easily use our back muscles to compensate and just power through this exercise, changing the glute bridge exercise from beneficial to detrimental. Sometimes literally placing a finger on your side glute helps to activate the right muscle group.
Cross your arms over your chest to reduce the help from your upper body, and slowly lift up. Breathe out on the way up, breathe in as you return to starting position. There are many glute bridge variations. Please see demo links to a variation that does not require any equipment and will facilitate a hip stretch at the same time.
Keep movements slow and deliberate. If you are experiencing fatigue before your desired reps are up, stop. Done correctly, you likely will not lift up all that high and should feel your butt burning. Feel the burn!
Sets and reps: Try 10-12 repetitions per side, 2-3 sets, 2-3 x week. This is a general guideline only and will vary per athlete. Again, if fatigue sets in and you are losing form, stop. It is better to do 5 good repetitions versus 10 bad ones.
- Dead Bug Exercise
Why: The dead bug is an excellent exercise for runners! It resembles motor skill patterning used in running. The dead bug is a control exercise. You are teaching your body to control and stabilize your trunk- essentially reinforcing a stiff and stable trunk and pelvis – while your limbs are moving.
How to: Dead Bug Demo Link Here
Lay on your back with knees bent approximately hip width apart and your arms raised in the air directly above your shoulders. Bring both legs up, with your hips and knees flexed at approximately 90o. Your knees should be directly above your hips, with your ankles dorsiflexed (opposite of pointing your toes, pull them back), and your lower back in a “neutral position”.
From this position, slowly lower the right leg, maintaining approximately 90o flexion and touch the ground briefly with your toes. Bring your right leg up, and alternate with the left leg. Repeat for desired reps or until you get fatigued. Advanced versions include extending the leg out instead of touching the ground, and the very advanced version includes extending the leg out while simultaneously pulling your opposite arm away from the leg.
You should be performing this in a slow and controlled manner, breathing in as you start the movement and breathing out upon returning to start position.
It is vital that you maintain a neutral spine, it should not change during the exercise. For a neutral spine: perform a very slight pelvic tilt or you can think of gently pressing your ribs into the ground, “keeping your rib cage down.” Don’t overdo the pelvic tilt though, another common mistake! If you are not sure about this, a friend can help. He or she could place a resistance band under your lower back and gently try pulling the band out as you are doing the exercise and if he/she can’t pull it out, then you are keeping the neutral position. If you are on your own, you can try placing a small rolled up towel under your low back to start.
Tips: If you feel your back losing its neutral spine, try doing less reps or a lower-level dead bug. Examples: dead bug breathing- in start position, breathe deeply 3-5 times then relax and reset. Or, shortening your lever (ie touch the ground closer to your butt with knees at a greater flexion).
Remember, dead bug is a control exercise. If you see people using weight and/or powering through quickly doing tons of reps, don’t be tempted. As in most of these, they are a great exercise performed incorrectly and for the wrong reasons. Done correctly, you should really engage your lower abdominal (pelvic region) muscles, even just getting into the ready position. Remember to move slowly and thoughtfully!
Sets and reps: Try 8-12 repetitions per side, 2-3 sets, 2-3 x week. Again, this is a general guideline only and will vary per athlete. Remember, if fatigue sets in and you are losing form, stop. Start with fewer reps or the modified versions mentioned.
3. Bird Dog Exercise
Why: The bird dog is another control exercise that emphasizes core bracing while moving limbs, making it an excellent exercise for runners!
How To: Bird Dog Demo Link Here
Start all fours in “table-top position” (knees under hips and hands under shoulders). Press your hands firmly into the ground and while maintaining a neutral spine, slowly extend one leg out with opposite arm, then the other side, keeping your hips stable. This means keeping your hips square, and not allowing one hip to shift. This is the most important part of the exercise.
I would start with arms only, progress to legs only, then finally the opposites once the previous variations become fairly easy. You can also add a band for resistance. However, be careful not to overload yourself and change your mechanics. Remember: The most important part is to keep your spine and hips stable. If one side is dropping, then you are defeating the purpose. Remember: Core bracing!
Sets and reps: Recommend 5-6 repetitions per side, 2-3 sets, 2x week. As with all, use the modifications best suited to your ability, stop and reset if you are fatiguing and losing form.
Word of caution:
If you have back problems or are experiencing back pain with any of these exercises, stop and see your health care practitioner.
A Little Goes a Long Way
Including a few simple exercises consistently can make a positive impact on your running, both in terms of performance and injury resilience. Doing these exercises consistently – i.e. 3 times per week for less than 10 minutes – is a better payoff versus one big session per week. You can do these before a run, after your warmup, or within your strength and stretching sessions.
Incorporate some specific core training consistently and enjoy the benefits. Run on!
Tammy Kovaluk is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about her or to work with her, check out her coach profile.