The Runner’s Core
By Peter Colagiuri
“Core” exercises: very popular and very, very misunderstood.
Of all the runners we see in our physio clinic, about half of them have a strength program to augment their running. Most have designed the program themselves, based on info gathered from the web or from friends. But the “core” exercises in their program are often inappropriate for runners; at best they are a waste of time, at worst they can lead to imbalances and injuries.
So where does it all go wrong, and what are the best core exercises for runners?
There are a variety of core exercises to choose from; some work well for runners, some are good general exercises but not useful for runners and others are worthless, not linking to functional improvements at all. It all comes down to specificity. How well does the exercise mimic the demands of running? To tick all the right boxes, it should:
- Target a muscle or muscles that are challenged during running
- Use the same action as the muscle performs during running (eg. static/fixed, shortening or controlled lengthening)
- Coordinate a group of muscles in the same patterns as used during running
Not every exercise covers all those points but the more you can satisfy, the better your core exercise will be for running. If it fits all three points, you’ve found yourself a winner. If it doesn’t match a single point, you’re doing clams!
Let’s start with clams. It’s supposedly targeting gluteus medius, one of the key hip/leg stabilisers in running (unfortunately this muscle actually rotates the leg inwards, not outwards, so it’s not actually targeting gluteus medius). The muscle’s job during running is to minimise the inwards tilt and rotation of the leg, not to lift it sideways away from the body, so it doesn’t match the muscle’s action either. As far as coordinating a group of muscles in a similar pattern to running, well, umm….let’s call it a big miss there as well. So with zero from three matches, clams is officially one of the worst “core” exercises for runners.
Other exercises to join the naughty list are:
- Front planks (hip flexor-dominant bracing exercise, good for collision-based sports or runners who frequently run into trees)
- Sit-ups/crunches (mimics resisted forward bend, which is never performed while running. This exercise is suitable for runners who frequently fall down and need to get up)
Then there are good strengthening exercises but without any functional links to running, such as side planks. It targets the oblique abdominals and gluteal muscles, building strength, but doesn’t use them in a functional movement or pattern. It only matches one of the key criteria so it’s not great, but it’s better than doing nothing. Other exercises in this category include weighted squats and supine bridges.
Now for the “good” list, the exercises that tick most/all of the boxes. These are highly effective exercises and will help you maintain form throughout your run. This is not an exhaustive list but just a few samples of exercises that get the job done.
Single leg band twist
This is a good introductory exercise for most people. It involves all the key running stability muscles, although it compromises on complexity and leg movement, to provide a challenging but achievable starting point. A video of this exercise is available on youtube, search for "Bioathletic Single leg band twist". By focusing on keeping the hips and pelvis still during the trunk rotation, the stabilisers strengthen and work together to maintain balance.
The Band Runner
This exercise uses a running action with resistance band to increase the stability challenges of running, heightening the load on core, while still keeping it in the context of running. You can see a video of this exercise on youtube, search for "Bioathletic The Band Runner". The band held in front of the body adds rotation, similar to the rotation created by leg drive, and makes the foot/ankle stabilise to resist the sideways pull.
Oblique Hop & Balance
For more advanced core/stability exercises, adding more instability and/or speed can increase the challenge, but again it must remain in the context of running. This exercise (youtube search "Bioathletic Oblique hop and balance") involves an oblique hop and balance. The oblique nature of the hop emphasises hip or ankle stabilising muscles, depending in the direction. The balance component of the exercise makes the stabilisers activate quickly, working hard to control the centre of mass so the further you hop (at a 45 degree angle), the higher the load.
So before you add “core” exercises to your list or continue with your usual “core” routine, ask yourself if your exercises are actually doing what they’ve promised. If in doubt, try one of the above exercises and see how it feels. Just remember, the hopping exercise is for advanced players only so if it seems too tricky, start with one of the other exercises and get back to it later. You’ll get far better results with an exercise that’s matched to your ability rather than just finding the hardest one possible.
Peter Colagiuri is a Sports Physiotherapist, specialising in running injuries. He practices in Miranda and Manly in addition to researching at the University of Sydney. For more information see bioathletic.com.au, firstname.lastname@example.org or book an appointment (02) 9977 1580.