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06/11/2021

Core Strengthening for Runners

By Erin James DPT, Cert. MDT, Marsh Brook Rehabilitation

What are your running goals?
Are you aiming for the top 7 on the xc team? Do you want to drop your mile time? Are you trying to increase your weekly mileage? Are you looking to keep up with your kid on your weekend runs?

Start working on your core! Huh? What about speed workouts, hills, warm-up drills, stretching, foam rolling, nutrition, footwear, etc.? They are all important but not nearly as valuable if your movement system is not in its best alignment! One of the most important things a runner can do to increase performance and reduce injury is improving their form. And what dictates our form: CORE.

What is “the core”?
The core is any muscle that can impact the position or movements of the spine, pelvis, and hips. The body is a mechanical skeletal system stabilized and moved by our muscles, with the core being just that - the foundation for how muscles can generate force to move a limb or steady a limb.

Form matters
Running is essentially jumping from one foot to the next repeatedly - typically about 160-180 times each minute. When running, high impact forces occur from our body hitting the ground, and the ground reaction forces back up through the leg to the pelvis and spine.

In order to reduce how stressful this impact is on our muscles/tendons/bones, it is essential to land in an ideal position to absorb and react to these forces. The aim is to land as close under our hips as possible with the foot and knee facing forward, and trunk slightly leaned forward from the ankle. This allows you to use large muscle groups, including the glutes, quads, and calves, to absorb the ground reaction forces more softly. Once landed, power is necessary to remain tall through the foot/knee/hip and then pull the leg behind you for propulsion over the ground. It also requires a steady anchor - the pelvis and spine - to be able to generate force through leg muscle contraction. Think of this as throwing a ball from a stable platform like the ground versus a stand-up paddleboard.

As if keeping the spine and pelvis steady for the legs is not enough to ask, you also need to allow for some counter-rotation of the upper half for appropriate arm swing. A stable lower core with a forward arm swing can add to efficient propulsion and reduce wasted momentum with a side to side or crossover (past belly button) arm swing. Let’s talk about how to strengthen your core so that we can meet your running goals.

Where do we start?
First, you need to understand the neutral or “ideal” spine and hip position. Stand with a straight line down through the ear, the shoulder, hip, and ankle. There should be an arch in the small of your back without jutting ribs forward or tilting your pelvis to achieve this. Neutral posture is where the joints, ligaments, and attached muscles are in the best position to absorb forces and produce movement.

To strengthen your core, you aim to improve your ability to support this neutral position with muscles for long periods of time/distance while also increasing the strength of the muscles that power your running stride to increase speed. The more sport-specific your exercises are (trying to mimic the same types of movements involved in running), the more effectively they carry over into your run.

So now I know my “neutral” what’s next...
Tighten the muscles in your lower abdomen to brace your core in this position while breathing normally. Maintain this “brace” while performing the following exercises.

Front Planks:
Builds endurance in deep core stabilizers (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, multifidi, and obliques)

Progression:
Add alternating arm raises > Alternating leg raises for cross-body stabilization >Attempt using forearms or feet on physioball for additional stability challenges

Side Planks:
Builds endurance in oblique abdominals and lateral pelvic stabilizers (gluteus medius)

Progression:
Add leg raise > hip drops > Arm drops (in front of body) > Arm rotational reach under body

Bridges:
Coordinates core stability with glute and hamstring strengthening (stabilizes the upper leg in the stance phase of running)

Progression:
Bridges with a band around knees > Single leg bridges with hips remaining level > Bridges with feet on foam roller > Bridges heels on physioball > Bridge with hamstring curls on a physioball

Standing Kicks - 3 Directions:
Improves stabilization for when the foot hits the ground and strengthens hip and pelvic muscles

Progression:
Runners stride kicks > Standing on balance board or foam

Squats:
Strengthens core stabilizers with power movers of the hip (erector spinae, transverse abdominis, glute max, hip flexors, quadriceps, and calves)

Progression:
Offset squats - weight in one hand > Squats on balance board > Single leg squats

Lunges:
Coordinates trunk and core stabilization while challenging pelvic and hip stability of the lower leg (erector spinae, transverse abdominis, glute maximus & medius, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves)

Progression:
Backward lunge with high knee march > Lunge with trunk rotation > Lunge onto unstable surface

Just like finding what pre-race dinner works for you, finding the right starting point for these exercises is going to be personal. Prioritize doing them right. Making time for at least 20 minutes of core strengthening 3-4x/week is the goal. See attachment for more specific guidance on your key to the core. And most importantly, keep having fun with it all!

View these exercises in a printable PDF.

Headshot. Erin James.JPG

Erin James received her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Thomas Jefferson University in 2016 after graduating from Saint Joseph’s University in 2014 where she competed in Division I Cross Country & Track. She started her PT career in Philadelphia where she also completed her McKenzie Certification for Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy in 2018. Since then she has moved to New Hampshire to be closer to family and the mountains where she likes to trail run, bike, and hike. She has been working at Marsh Brook Rehab for 3 years completing the Advanced Spine Training Program (ASTP) as well as developing skills specific to assessment and treatment of endurance athletes, active individuals with orthopedic overuse or traumatic injuries, and running specific analyses. 

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