Three core strength exercises for runners

It's about more than just abs!

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

You need a strong core to be a better runner, but doing 100 sit-ups a day isn’t the answer! Physiotherapist and trail runner Karine Bezuidenhout debunks myths, explains anatomy, and provides exercises.

Karine Bezuidenhour core strength single leg balance TRAIL 37

Functionally human bodies work in slings. The core connects the upper body and lower body and functions as a strong base for these slings to function with ease and strength.

When we run with inefficiencies within these functional slings, certain structures constantly overwork, which can cause injury.

The structures that can overwork can be structures like our feet, ankles, knees, hips, or our cardiovascular system. This means we get tired unnecessarily early or struggle to recover once we get to the top of that beautiful mountain.

The core also influences our balance. If your core is not able to engage correctly through the full range, you might be more prone to roll an ankle or struggle to enjoy technical downhill running. Having a functionally strong core will allow you to have even more fun on the trails.

Core myths

Many people believe that a strong core means having a constantly tight or braced core.

A strong core, like any functional muscle group, should be able to lengthen and contract, and be functionally strong through its full range. If you have constantly tight hamstrings, they eventually cause inefficiency or injury, and the same is true for a consistently braced or tight core.

When we sit for long periods of our day, certain parts of our core can be overactive or tight to compensate for the parts with lower muscle tone.

Another common misconception we have about the core is that a beautiful sixpack is the only part of the core that matters.

Anatomy lesson

The core connects our upper body and lower body. It provides a base for our body to function from. This base consists of:

  • At the top: diaphragm
  • Like a corset: transversus abdominis
  • At the back, tightening the corset: multifidis; spine
  • At the bottom: pelvic floor muscles; bony and connective tissue structures of the pelvis and hip joints
  • Diagonally: internal and external obliques
  • At the front: our favourite Instagram muscle, rectus abdominis

These are just the main ones. Our bodies function as a whole, so the layers over and under these muscles all contribute and can be considered part of the core. The ability of the spine to move with strength through the full range should also be considered as part of your core’s ability to engage and support.

Your organs within their connective tissue casings and the health of your gastrointestinal tract all influence what we consider to be the core.

Get core strength

You can use life hacks, or structured training, to strengthen your core.

Ideally, we simply need to move more in a diverse way, engaging with our environment.

If your current lifestyle demands lots of sitting, devise clever ways to escape the desk. Play with your pets and kids throughout the day, stand on one leg at your standing desk. Climb a tree, jump a fence, do bear-crawls during the most boring part of a Zoom meeting! Your productivity and core will be grateful.

When you have to sit often, pay attention to your breath. The diaphragm is a big part of the core that you use all throughout the day (ideally).

You can optimise this muscle by making deep, slow, and easy breaths a habit.

For new ideas on how to create another layer of mastery in your body, join a Pilates or yoga class. Get as much diversity of movement in as possible.

For a more structured approach, try variations of the plank, hollow hold, and single-leg balances. With all of these exercises don’t pinch your core, or hold your breath. Simply engage.

core strength plank Karine Bezuidenhout TRAIL 37

You should be able to breathe with ease and ideally be able to sync your movement gracefully with your breaths in and out. Don’t worry too much about when you should inhale or exhale. When you run you have to be able to fully inhale and exhale with all the variations of your core engagement.

core strength hollow hold Karine Bezuidenhout TRAIL 37

Remember to engage with your environment in a fun way. Don’t stress too much about having the perfect body. Your core will come to the party if it’s a fun party. 

core strength single leg balance Karine Bezuidenhout TRAIL 37

This article was originally published in TRAIL issue 37.

Karine Bezuidenhout is a physiotherapist who runs trails, climbs mountains, and practices yoga.

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