Optimal Core Training for Runners
Does having a more stable core lead to an improvement in distance running performance?
When it comes to core and abdominal training, most think of sit-up variations and crunches. Not necessarily wrong, these exercise variations do target the abdominal muscles, but do they improve running performance? Many runners talk about the importance of core training, but which core exercises are the best? And is there actually a direct link between a stronger core and running performance?
The function of the core
The core includes active and passive structures such as bone, ligaments and muscle in your torso, pelvis and hip regions – it’s more than just your 6-pack muscle. Core strength is the maximum force the core muscles can generate or maintain. In contrast, core stability is the ability of the trunk and hips to resist movement during static or dynamic activities, like running.
The shoulders and hips move independently of each other when running to balance your body and to help propel you forward with each stride. The shoulders rotate in one direction while the hips rotate slightly in the opposite direction. This action is controlled by the abdominals and if the amount of rotation is excessive, energy will be wasted. The abdominals and other torso muscles also control running posture and aid in heavy and forceful breathing. A recent study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that fatiguing the core muscles prior to running to exhaustion negatively affected running performance, illustrating the importance of core muscle activity when running.
Core Training and Running Performance
Research connecting core stability and core strength to running performance is actually quite sparse and results are conflicting. A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that male athletes who participated in a 6-week core-focused exercise-ball training program increased core stability but not performance on an incremental treadmill running test.
A different study, also in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that recreational and competitive runners who participated in a 6-week core stability training program were more aware of their core muscles controlling their running form and also had quicker 5000-meter time-trial times. Possible explanations for the conflict in results may be linked to exercises chosen, training volume and running experience of the participants.
There are many factors that contribute to improving running performance. It appears that improving core stability and core endurance may have a positive impact in reducing race times. For optimal results, choose core exercises that maximize the transfer of training. Functionally superior exercises include exercises that challenge core stability such as planks, side planks and challenging progressions like performing a plank and lifting a limb or two off the ground.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS is a runner, strength coach and owner of JKConditioning in St. John’s, NL, Canada. Jon specializes in strength training endurance athletes and is currently in the middle of preparing a strength training resource for runners. Stay in touch by checking out www.JKConditioning.com.
Sato, K., & Mokha, M. (2009). Does core strength training influence running kinetics, lower-extremity stability, and 5000-M performance in runners? J Strength Cond Res, 23, 1, 133-40. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818eb0c5
Stanton, R., Reaburn, P.R., & Humphries, B. (2004). The effect of short-term Swiss ball training on core stability and running economy. J Strength Cond Res, 18, 3, 522-528.
Tong, T.K., Wu, S., Nie, J., Baker, J.S., & Lin, H. (2014). The occurrence of core muscle fatigue during high-intensity running exercise and its limitation to performance: The role of respiratory work. J Sports Sci Med, 13, 2, 244-251.