Often times, the core is strictly thought of as the muscles of your abdomen, also known as your “six pack”. However, the core refers to the muscles of your torso that help you maintain your posture, whether you are running, standing, or sitting. The core not only includes your abdominal muscles, but it also includes lower back muscles.
The lower back muscles are often neglected during core work, which can lead to fatigue during long runs. At my last marathon I fell victim to fatigue of the lower back. At around mile 22 my back was in tremendous amounts of pain and quite tired. It was purely my fault and could have been avoided if I had spent more time on my lower back. Lesson learned for the next marathon.
A weak lower back can lead to hamstring and knee problems. When you run, your lower back absorbs a lot of the shock. If your lower back is not strong it will become fatigued much sooner. Your hamstrings often do more work than necessary due to overcompensating for a weak back. This overcompensation can lead to hamstring problems. Lastly, without a strong core it is harder to control the movement of your torso, which can put extra force on your knees each time you land. Extra force on the knees can lead to Runner’s knee and iliotibial band problems.
The abdominal muscles are equally as important as the lower back muscles. The abdominal muscles also help to stabilize the body, and help absorb some of the shock each time you land.
Here are more specific ways that a strong core benefits running:
Lateral Movement- Often times I have to quickly move out of the way to avoid a pot hole, ice, water puddle, messes from dogs or geese, or jump out of the way from a car that does not see you… Anyways, as you are making those lateral movements your obliques are working to keep you stabilized and upright.
Endurance- Towards the end of a long race your whole body is becoming fatigued and ready to quit. However, a strong core will get you to the finish line while keeping your posture up right. With a strong core you are able to run more efficiently and will not slouch over during your run. Poor posture leads to hip and knee problems.
Running downhill- I personally hate running downhill. It quite honestly freaks me out. I’d rather run up a hill anyway. However, running downhill has its advantages. However, as you run downhill you are adding a lot more force and shock to your body. A strong core will help to keep you upright and help to absorb some of that shock. A weak core + downhills can lead to injury.
Running uphill- Hills are a personal favorite of mine! Running uphill is challenging, and requires strong glutes and a strong core. As your propel forward uphill, your legs need to push off from your core. Having a strong core will make it easier on your legs and glutes to propel forward.
Now lets get to the good stuff… the actual core workouts.
The Superman- Start facedown on the floor, with your arms extended out in front of you and your legs straight back (like Superman!) Raise your head, your left arm, and right leg about five inches off the floor. Hold for three counts, then lower. Repeat with your right arm and left leg. Do for 45-60 seconds. This exercise works your transverses abdomens and erector spinae (lower back).
The Bridge– Lie faceup on the floor, with your knees bent 90 degrees and your feet on the floor. Lift your hips and back off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. For more of a challenge, extend your left leg out, and then your right. Do for 45-60 seconds. This exercise works your glutes and hamstrings.
The Plank- Begin facedown on the floor, propped up on your forearms, with knees and feet together. With your elbows under your shoulders, lift your torso, legs, and hips in a straight line from head to heels. It is important to keep a straight back and to not let it sag down. Hold for 30-60 seconds. This exercise works your transverses abdomens and lower back.
Side Plank- Lie on your right side, supporting your upper body on your right forearm, with your left arm at your left side. Lift your hips and, keeping your body weight supported on the forearm and the side of the right foot, extend your left arm above your shoulder. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Repeat on your left side. This exercise works your obliques, transversus abdominis, lower back, hips, and glutes.
The Bicycle- Lie on your back, and bring your knees up to about a 45-degree angle and slowly go through a bicycle pedal motion. It is important to go through this exercise slowly and fully extend your leg. Place your hands behind your neck, but make sure to not pull on your beck. Perform this for 30-60 seconds. This exercise works your rectus abdominus and obliques.
The Russian Twist- Start by sitting on the ground, with your legs bent in front of you and your heels on the ground. Lean slightly back while keeping your back straight. Slowly start to twist to your right, and then to your left. For more of a challenge hold a weight in your hand. It is important to keep your stomach tight throughout the exercise. Perform this exercise for 30-60 seconds. This exercise works your obliques, transversus abdominis, and lower back.
Bird-Dog- Start on the floor, on your hands and knees, with your hands firmly placed about shoulder width apart. Raise one leg off the floor and hold it straight out behind you. Be careful not to let one hip drop lower than the other, so you don’t twist your trunk. Once you feel stable with your leg raised, raise your opposite arm straight out in front of you at the same time. Slowly bring down your arm and leg, and repeat with the opposite leg and arm. Do this exercise for 45-60 seconds. This exercise works your lower back, glutes, and abdominals.
I do the above exercises back to back, and I try to do 3 sets. I wait 1-2 minutes in between sets. Like other muscles, it is important to let your core muscles rest at least 48 hours. Doing core work every other day my rule of thumb. For example, I do my core work on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.