3 Best Core Exercises for Runners

Do you religiously perform situps because you understand that a solid core is important for running? Well, you are half correct, but may be wasting your time repetitively folding yourself in half.

While core strength is certainly not neglected in most runners’ weekly workout routines, the critical role this muscle set plays in running is often underestimated, and typical exercises to strengthen the core do not translate well to running. Core strength and midline stability is absolutely critical in running. Your core provides support for your upper body, which for the most part is a heavy passenger along for a ride. Good midline stability prevents wasting energy from a bobbing torso. It also prevents twisting which would otherwise result in further loss of efficient forward motion.

While form breakdown can start from any of a number of areas, I most often see form breaks at the waist. Too many runners are either bent forward at the waist or twist their upper body while they run. Though you may think either of these motions is part of proper running form, they are not. Leaning forward is necessary to produce and maintain forward momentum in running, but the lean should come from the ankles, not the waist. The entire body from the ankles though the top of the head should form one rigid straight line. Bending at the waist puts an unnecessary and non-beneficial force on the lower back and requires the landing leg to shoot far out in front to catch your extended falling carcass.

Twisting around the waist, and swinging shoulders and arms from side to side, is often thought to help produce forward momentum. In reality, the arms should only move as much as is necessary to counterbalance the motion of the legs. If you watch elite marathon runners, you will see that they barely move their arms at all, and they are running at an unbelievable 5:00/mile pace. All that twisting is just wasted energy.

Proper form dictates that the core should be under slight tension, holding the body in a straight line from ankles to hips to shoulders. However, even just knowing this fact makes it difficult to maintain such form, especially when running at fast paces or for marathon or ultra distances. Surely you have seen a finisher at a marathon hobbling across the line folded in half like a napkin. Not exactly the hallmark of a great runner. You need to work on core strength to maintain that form throughout a long or difficult run.

So if the goal in running is to keep our midline straight, why do we spend so much time training it to bend in half? Why has the sit-up or crunch gained hall-of-fame status as our core exercise of choice? Clearly if we want our core to be straight and strong while running, we are best served by training it to stay straight, right?

Here are three exercises that are very effective at increasing core strength and stability for runners, specifically aimed at a straight and strong midline.

1. Planks
The plank is probably already a staple in your exercise routine. It has become a standard core exercise because of its simplicity and effectiveness, hiding incredible torture in an otherwise elegant pose. In the basic plank, you lie face down on your toes and elbows, holding your midline straight and tight. Your body should form one line from your ankles to the top of your head. No bending in the middle and resist the urge to drop your head as a method to deal with the ever-increasing discomfort. Think about holding your stomach and glutes firm. Don’t just survive the position, make sure you are doing the work. Side planks are also important to include as they focus on your obliques (the muscles on the side of your stomach). Here again make sure to keep your body straight from heels to head.

There are some other plank forms that you should add to your routine to up the intensity. While in the plank position, alternate reaching one hand out in front of you and touching a spot forward on the floor, then return. Another form is to alternate lifting one arm and the opposite leg in the air for a few seconds. Finally, you can alternate pulling one knee forward to the outside of your hip, like you crawling.

The key with the plank is obviously holding the position for as long as possible. Work up to at least 3 minutes of total time in the plank, even if you need to take short rests along the way. Side planks should be at least 75% of the time spent in front plank. This is an exercise you can do just about every day, so make it part of your routine.

2. Hollow Rock
While the plank is an excellent static hold exercise, it does not really mimic the dynamic forces we experience while running. As we are moving, our core is being slightly pushed fore and aft and must respond to this with stabilizing effort. The hollow rock better mimics this experience and prepares us to deal with it while running. Lie on your back on the floor with arms straight over your head, elbows by your ears, feet pointed. Lift your head and feet about 6-12 inches off the ground, holding a hollow position in your stomach. Now rock from feet to shoulders on the floor, focusing on keeping your core tight, neither straightening nor bending at the waist. You should maintain the same hollow position throughout the movement. Stomach is tight along with quads and shoulders.

It may be difficult to do many reps at first, but progress will come quickly. Here again it’s fine to take some short breaks during the exercise. Build up to 50 reps. Perform this exercise three times a week and you will definitely see improvements in core strength and stability.

3. Overhead Squats and Lunges
To further challenge the core and midline stability we need to get vertical and to add weight. Since we expect to be running for an hour or a great many hours, we do need to include some intensity. The overhead squat and overhead lunge further challenge the core to remain straight and tight while under load and moving.

Note that this is an advanced exercise that requires not only a strong core but also a solid squat. If you do not already perform weighted squats as part of your regular strength routine, then DO NOT attempt this exercise. Even if you do have a solid squat with good form, it is smart to start with extremely low weight. I use a PVC pipe to get warmed up and check my form before moving on to a bare olympic bar. You can also use dumbbells. Performing squats or walking lunges with weight overhead will challenge your core and legs, requiring constant tension and adjustment.

This video is more extensive than the others as form and mobility is critical. Take the time to learn the movement and progress slowly. If you can master this exercise, you will be very well prepared for running long.

Your progression should work up to three sets of 12-15 with low weight before increasing weight at all. This is not an exercise to get macho with and throw around a heavy load. Save that for your back squat. Perform this exercise once a week.

The order of these exercises is important as they get progressively harder. You need to have a solid plank before you are able to perform an effective hollow rock. And the overhead squat requires core strength from stomach through quads and also back. To that end, I don’t recommend you toss all these into your weekly routine right away. If you are not religiously performing core exercises multiple times a week, you should spend some quality time with the plank before progressing to the hollow rock. And the overhead squat should come only after you have built up a strong core and a weighted back squat with excellent form.