In the past you'd have been hard-pressed to find elite runners paying attention to their abs. Today, it's practically mandatory.
"It's so important. The stronger the core, the more likely you are to hold your form and less likely to get injured," explains marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe. You simply can't run your best without a strong core: the muscles in your abdominals, lower back and glutes. They provide the stability, power and endurance that runners need for powering up hills, sprinting to the finish and maintaining form mile after mile.
"When your core is strong, everything else will follow," says running coach Greg McMillan (mcmillanrunning.com), who has worked with scores of elite and recreational runners. "It's the foundation for all of your movement, no matter what level of running you're doing."
Evidence that core strength training improves your running has been revealed in a study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, where 28 recreational and competitive runners were put to the test.
After initial evaluation of ground reaction forces, lower-extremity stability scores and 5,000m running performance, half participated in a six-week core strength training programme while the other half did not. All runners went through a repeat of the evaluations after the six weeks. The core strength training group increased their running times more over the course of the study than the other group, providing evidence that core strength training can make you a faster runner.
The key to core training is to train your core like a specialist. Experts have mapped out precisely how the movements of running draw on the strength and stability of the glutes, obliques and abdominal muscles that lie deep beneath the six-pack. They've learned how essential it is for runners to engage these muscles to finish fast, reduce pain and hang tough on long runs. Best of all, they've tailored workouts to help them do that.
All runners – from those rehabilitating injuries to elites gunning for PBs – can benefit from this detailed approach. "Ironically, so many runners don't discover the importance of core stability until they are laid up. But when all the muscles involved in running are supported, you don't get as many injuries and can enjoy running more," says running coach Nick Anderson (fullpotential.co.uk).
Quality core work isn't easy. But it doesn't require much of your time, says Anderson. "You don't need to put in more than 15 minutes a few times a week." It's an investment that will pay dividends on the road.
HARD CORE, HEALTHY RUNNER
Your core is like a power plant. If it’s not working efficiently, you’ll waste energy, says Tim Hilden, a physical therapist, athletic trainer, and exercise physiologist, specialising in running mechanics. "You'll see too much unwanted movement, which decreases performance or sets you up for injury." Here are three areas that can become injured as a result of
a weak core:
As your legs pound the pavement, your vertebrae absorb much of the force. That shock worsens if your core is weak, which will produce lower-back pain. Build those muscles with moves like the superman (see below).
When your core isn't stable, your hamstrings often have to work extra hard, says running coach and physiotherapist Paula Coates. The added work can leave them shorter, tighter, and more vulnerable to injury. To strengthen them, as well as your glutes, try exercises like bridges, lunges and squats.
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Without a stable core, you can't control the movement of your torso as well, and you risk putting excess force on your joints each time your foot lands. This can lead to pain under the knee (known as 'runner's knee'), patellar tendinitis (a sharp pain in the bottom of the knee), and iliotibial-band tendinitis. The plank and side plank (exercises below) strengthen the transversus abdominis, which help steady