A coach I had once told me that the best thing you can do be a better runner is to run. Those simple words have been surprisingly valuable, especially when it comes to trying to fit your training around an already busy life schedule. That being said, the development of core strength is an important way to improve running form and correct imbalances that can lead to injury. Core training for distance runners should be reflective of the muscles we use to stabilize and propel ourselves while running. In contrast to most core routines you see, this does not include crunches until your abs bleed. Most of the core strengthening you should be doing should be centered on hip stability and strength.
When we do video analysis on our campers at our adult running camps most of the comments we make refer to hip strength, stability, or range of motion. To have a stable platform for running, the best use of your time in the gym should be spent on hip exercises. However, it’s critical to perform the exercises in a way that is consistent with how your muscles work while you are running, and that means being diligent so you are executing the exercises correctly. A good exercise performed poorly is a poor exercise, and will leave you missing out on the benefits.
In order to do this effectively we must understand a little bit about muscle firing patterns while running. When your body braces for impact your body should automatically engage the transverse abdominus. An easy test to finding this muscle and activating it is to find the front side of your iliac crest and place your fingertips on your abdominals about one inch in toward your belly button on each side, then cough. When you cough you will feel the transverse abdominus flex and notice your belly button sink in towards your spine. This is the activation you want at the beginning of all the exercises because that is the first thing that should engage for proper stabilization while you are running.
In addition to activating the transverse abdominus it is also important to pay attention to your posture making certain your spinal position is long and neutral, just the way you want it while running. One of the most common issues with athletes performing core stabilization exercises is the collapse of the lower back. You want to focus on keeping the transverse abdominus engaged by keeping your hips tucked underneath your body so your lower back is relatively flat. You will have some natural curvature to the lower back, but we want to focus keeping the lower back as quiet as possible while stabilizing the core.
These two primary focal points are what you want to pay attention to regardless of what core exercises you are doing. However, I want to give you 4 simple exercises you should do 3-5 times a week that will help you become a more stable and efficient runner. When performing these exercises remember the execution is more important than speed or reps. If you find yourself unable to perform the exercise correctly as you fatigue you should stop and rest because doing the exercise incorrectly only reinforces bad habits.
Start by lying on your side with your legs bent and stacked on top of each other. Keep your ankles together while raising your top knee up as you squeeze your top glute muscle. This exercise is a gluteus medius activation and strengthening exercise. You want to make sure that your hips remain stable through the motion and you avoid rotating your hips as you lift your knee, even if it limits the motion. You should keep your spine in a neutral position which means you want to rest your head even with your hips.
Hip Raises: 2 sets of 10, progress to 3 sets of 15
This exercise activates the entire stabilization chain from the transverse abdominus to the glutes to the hamstrings. Lay flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Start by activating the transverse abdominus and tucking your hips. This position will enable you to roll your spine off the ground one vertebra at a time and maintain a neutral spine. Focus on using your glutes to raise your hips, not activating your lower back to push your hips up. Hold the position at the top for a few seconds and then return your hips to the ground, again, one vertebra at a time.
Stability Ball Squat: 2 sets of 10, progress to 3 sets of 15
Place a stability ball between your back and a wall and lean into the ball. Begin the squat by activating your transverse abdominus to achieve a neutral spine position and maintain that throughout the squat. You want to think about keeping your center of gravity directly over the bones in your rear end, maintaining the neutral spine through the motion. As you squat down you will roll your back down the stability ball. Your feet should be shoulder width apart and positioned far enough from your body so that your knee remains directly over your ankle in the squat position.
This exercise targets the glute medius in a similar way as the Clam Shells but with the addition of being in a single leg stance where posture plays a more important role. Stand on a stair with one leg hanging. Start with the glute relaxed and your non weight-bearing hip below the standing hip. Then, squeezing the glute in your stance leg, allow the non-stance leg hip to rise above the hip on the stance leg. Hold the position at the top for a 5 second count and return to the starting position.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the October 2014 Issue of Running Journal