One key to running faster, longer and stronger is having a strong core – something many of us runners neglect. Here’s a quick 10-minute workout to activate those abs and obliques ahead of any run, which is designed to help you move better than ever.
To run, all you have to do is lace up and get out there. But to run well – i.e to run without feeling discomfort and without picking up umpteen injuries – you’ve got to be a bit more calculated in the way you train. You might decide to start strength training to help with your speed, or eating more iron-rich foods to stay energised on your runs. The one thing that many of us runners neglect and which can make a massive difference to our running performance, however, is our core strength.
Core muscles are those located in our trunks – extending all the way from the base of the head to your pelvis and including the abs, obliques and spinae muscles. These help us to rotate, bend, stand up tall, balance. They secure the hips, back and chest and work on deep and superficial levels (meaning that you may be able to feel or see the external obliques and rectus abdominis, but other muscles like the transversus abdominis and the multifidus are located deep within the body as part of the local muscle system). Just because you might not see core muscles, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t strong or working hard – the extent to which superficial muscles are visible totally depends on your body type. More importantly, you want to reap the benefits of having a strong core on the trail/track/road when you’re running.
Martin Yelling, performance coach and Garmin ambassador, tells Stylist: “Strong core stability muscles help runners in three main ways. Firstly, through maintaining general conditioning runners can stay robust and injury-free. A strong centre (not just the major muscles groups but the smaller, finer control stability muscles) helps to support training and reduce the risk of breakdown. Secondly, activating core muscles can help improve running form, posture and technique. Better technique can lead to improved efficiency and performance.
Finally, activating core muscles can keep fatigue at bay for longer. When the hips start to sink and the stride length shortens, recruiting core stability and strength helps runners keep going.” Neglect your core stability and you put yourself at risk of “injury, breakdown, premature fatigue and inconsistent training,” he warns.
“Whether you are a couch-to-5k, a jog around the park runner or a marathoner, there are some simple exercises that you can do daily to help your technique and prevent injury,” explains Amy Kellow, second-generation Pilates Master Trainer.
She asks us to imagine that we’re are enjoying a weekly run and our legs begin to feel tired, our hips feel tight or our knees start to niggle. “Now imagine lifting the load up into your core and keeping the energy in your centre when you run. You will have lighter legs, a move-efficient running gait and over time, fewer injuries.” Now that’s music to any runners’ ears!
The aim of running-focused core work is to increase the stability in those core muscles and the flexibility in the hips. But how often should we be honing that core strength? Martin says that that core work can be done as a standalone activity (for example, 40 minutes of focussed core conditioning a couple of times a week) or as a snappier 10-minute maintenance or HIT session three to four times a week after a run. “If you have a noticeably weak core, then spend more time on it. If you break down or keep getting injured, spend more time on the core. These routines can be enhanced with a wearable, such as the Garmin Venu which comes with built-in strength and cardio apps to monitor your progress. The Garmin Venu also has the ability to create your own workouts and on-screen animated workouts to make sure your core is never neglected.”
OK so, depending on your schedule, you want to be getting in around 40-minutes of core a week – either split up or all together. Don’t forget that the SWTC workout videos and training plans include lots of core-loving moves to help clock up those minutes!
So, here is Amy’s 5-point plan for “running from your core”:
1. One-leg circle
Why do it: The one-leg circle challenges your hip stability and your core muscles’ ability to hold a load in the centre, while increasing hamstring length.
How to (5 x each side):
1. Lie on your back with your arms pressed down into the mat. Load the weight of your leg into your core and lift the right leg up (imagine lifting it from the backline of the body).
2. Circle the leg across the body, down, around and back up to the centre.
3. Repeat 5 times and change direction.
4. Switch legs and repeat.
Common mistake: Using leg muscles instead of the core. If you feel this move in your legs, then you are using them too much! Make sure the pelvis stays anchored by turning on those core muscles.
2. The swan
Why do it: This is all about opening up the chest, stretching the front of the body and giving yourself a more lifted running position (necessary for getting more oxygen into your lunge and avoiding horrible backache!).
How to (x 5):
1. Lie on your front with your hands as wide as your mat and in line with your shoulders.
2. Relax the spine and use your core muscles to lift your body up into extension (like an upward dog in yoga).
3. Allow for an even curve in the body, keeping the shoulders relaxed. You want to get to a point where head-to-pelvis is off the mat, the elbows have a soft bend and you’re looking straight ahead.
4. Repeat up to five times, on the fifth rep, add a neck roll to release the neck muscles.
Common mistake: Overusing the core and the glutes. The glutes are such big muscles that they can often step in where they’re not needed – make sure that you’re not over-squeezing to come up and try to keep the core muscles just relaxed enough to extend. If you’re unable to get much height, you might be locking the core too much.
3. Shoulder bridge
Why do it: We’re all probably familiar with a glute bridge and this version is exactly the same except you want to make sure that you’re activating the core rather than the glute muscles – and the key to doing that is on the way back down.
How to (x 5):
1. Lie on your back, knees bent and arms pressed into the mat. Place your feet about hip-distance apart and evenly pressed into the mat.
2. Engage your core first before lifting up your pelvis to create a straight line from knee to hip to shoulder.
3. Keeping the core engaged, roll the spine down onto the mat – working through those tight points in the back.
Common mistake: Overusing the glutes. Although you should use your glutes, try not to over-squeeze – leaving the core muscles redundant. If you feel this at all in your knees or hamstrings, then you’re using those leg muscles too much. Keep those core muscles working!
4. Sidekick series
Why do it: This is the perfect opportunity to improve stride length (that’s how far you’re stepping with each movement during your run). The longer the stride, the faster you’ll go.
How to (5 x):
1. Lie on your side, feet slightly in front of the body. Lift the leg to hip height. Keep the foot flexed.
2. Kick the leg forward twice, reaching it back behind the hip line on the return. Repeat x 5.
3. Kick the leg up to the ceiling and back to the floor. Repeat x 5.
4. Circle the leg forward, up and back. Repeat x 3 forwards and x 3 backwards.
Common mistake: Not keeping the core engaged as you kick forward and back. You shouldn’t be wobbling at all as your leg moves. Make sure that you reach the leg behind as far as you can to open up the hip and improve your stride.
5. Wall squat
Why do it: This will test your core strength and see if you are working evenly! This is a good one for charting progress – try holding for 10 seconds at first then see if you can extend the amount of time under pressure over the course of a few months.
How to (3 x each side):
1. Sit in a squat position against the wall, keeping the back long into the wall and the core engaged.
2. Reach your arms out to the front and keep feet hip-distance apart.
3. Lift your right leg up and maintain the body alignment – hips and shoulders even. No shifting your body weight to cheat! Hold for 10 seconds.
4. Repeat on the left leg.
Common mistake: Overusing the leg muscles. The core should be engaged and holding you into the wall – if you feel it in the legs then you are using them too much!
Bonus move: dead bug
Why do it: This is a core classic –because you’re moving your arms and legs, it’s up to the core and back to do all the work.
How to (30 seconds):
1. Lie with your back flat on the mat – there shouldn’t be any gap between your back and the ground.
2. Bring your legs in tabletop position and extend your arms into the air above your chest.
3. Slowly extend the right leg and left arm, keeping that back flat on the floor.
4. Return to the starting position before extending the left leg and right arm.
Common mistake: Going too fast. If you can’t feel this, you’re going to fast or you’re letting the back come off from the mat. It’s an absolute burner if you do it correctly.
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.