The core is probably the topic that comes up most often at my workshops.
“Will a stronger core make me a better runner?”
“Will a stronger core help with my dodgy knee/sore hip/lower back pain…?”
“What type of core exercises should I do?”
They’re big questions. And they deserve more than a 30 second answer.
As a younger runner, I was sold an idea that there was something magical about core training. If you had a “strong core”, you were bulletproof. So I planked. And I did sit-ups. With the occasional side planking thrown in for good measure. But did I become bulletproof? Nope.
For a while, I lost my “core” faith.
Two things revived my interest in all things core-related. The first was having a baby. After the birth of my son, my body just didn’t feel as strong or as well put together anymore. I experienced pelvic floor issues for the first time in my life.
The second was discovering ChiRunning, and changing the way that I ran. If I was expecting my core to do more of the work, it made sense that I needed to be strong in the centre.
But how to get that strong centre? There’s so much confusing and conflicting advice on core training, it can be tricky to know what’s best. Some have even accused the fitness industry of over-hyping the core, and challenge the idea that it needs specific training at all.
In this post, I’ll give my perspective on the core: why it matters to runners, how to train it effectively, and why my attempts at toughening up my centre didn’t get me the results I expected.
It’s a bit of a long answer, but I hope it’ll be a more useful reply to the question ‘will core training help my running’ than ‘well, it depends.’
Your running core
The core, huh, what is it good for? Absolutely…quite a lot actually.
As humans, we stand and walk on two feet, head balanced on top of the tall tower of our spinal column. Something we take for granted, but which is no easy task to achieve. Ask any toddler.
To give us the freedom to move in this upright position, we’re not solid bone between ribcage and pelvis. Instead, our core muscles act as a ‘pseudo-skeleton’, helping to stabilise the spine, protect our vital organs, and keep those same organs, as well as bodily fluids, where they’re supposed to be, while we walk, run, jump, dance, or whatever.
And the core is more than just a bit of scaffolding to hold us upright. It’s also smart. Our deep core muscles are packed full of sensors that are constantly telling our central nervous system where we are in space and how we’re moving. So when we suddenly need to swerve to avoid tripping over a tree root, it can step in to stabilise us before our conscious mind has even had time to register what’s going on.
In running, we up the ante, demanding of our body that it balances on one leg and then the other, over and over in rapid succession. Without integrity in our structure, we collapse, losing efficiency and potentially risking injury. Just watch runners at the end of a marathon to see what happens when core muscles get tired.
And ChiRunners? We ask even more from our core: to hold us relaxed and stable as we subtly fall forward, so we can cooperate with gravity and use less leg work to move us. Lose our structure, and we’re back to pushing and pulling with our legs.
One of the key ideas we take from t’ai chi is that the core is our ‘moving centre’, where movement begins. We move from the inside out, transmitting energy from the centre to the arms and legs, keeping us more balanced and powerful. Without stability in the core, we lose power. Or to quote Stuart McGill, ‘you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe’.
How to train the core?
So if the core does so much for us, how to go about training it? And why were my efforts so ineffective?
No core is an island
Try to find a definition for what the core actually is, and you’ll come up with a variety of different answers. I still see the word used interchangeably with ‘abdominals’, but the core is much more than your belly muscles.
Some consider the core as only the ‘inner unit’ of deep stabilizing muscles of the trunk, such as the transversus abdominis, multifidus and pelvic floor. Others also include key stabilisers of the pelvis, such as the glutes. And still others expand the definition to all the muscles of the trunk – basically everything that the arms, legs and head attach to.
Whatever your definition, in the end we need to keep in mind that individual muscles, or even groups of muscles, don’t work in splendid isolation but are affected by what’s going on in the rest of the body.
For example, if you’re very tight through the upper back and shoulders, that will affect the position and/or movement of the spine, ribcage, and diaphragm, which in turn will affect the ability of your trunk muscles to stabilise you. Just concentrate on training your ‘inner unit’, and you’re missing a big piece of the puzzle.
With my focus on planks and sit ups, I was working my belly muscles, but what about the rest of me?
The core doesn’t work in isolation. Train it as part of a whole body system.
I can’t go back and watch myself planking in my 20s. But I didn’t have a clue about alignment back then, and I suspect it would not have been pretty.
How you organize your body as you run makes a big difference to how fluidly and efficiently you move. Form matters in core training too.
When you run, you want your spine in a neutral position, i.e. with the natural curves in place. You wouldn’t run with a tucked pelvis and flat lower back – at least, hopefully not. It’s a position that reduces the ability of the transversus abdominis, one of the key deep stabilizing muscles, to do its job. Why train your core like this? And yet ‘keep your lower back flat to the floor’ is still a cue that’s used in core exercises.
Likewise, doing my planks with an over-arched lumbar spine or excessively rounded upper back and elevated shoulders, wouldn’t do my core – or my back – any favours.
Moving mindfully through an exercise, with awareness of alignment and form, makes all the difference to how effective it is.
Dynamic and unstable in multiple planes of movement
The law of specificity says that our body becomes stronger in exactly the way that we train it. Focus just on long hold planks for your training, and surprise, surprise, your core gets really good at…planking.
If you want your core to support your running, you need to train it under conditions that mimic what happens when you run. So that means exercises that are dynamic rather than static; that challenge your balance and stability; and that work more than just one plane of motion.
While we tend to think of running as being just about moving forward, there’s also a subtle rotation happening as well. As one leg swings rearward, the opposite arm does the same, stretching the slings of muscles that connect hips to shoulders like rubber bands, and then releasing them to create energy for forward motion. It’s a very efficient way to move in gravity, but it requires the spine to be able to twist.
If we’re stiff and immobile through the trunk, our bodies end up compensating by over-rotating in the shoulders and/or the hips. But we also need to be able to control the rotation. So exercises that train mobility, strength and control in all three planes of motion, in ways that mimic the pattern of running, are ideal. For some great examples, check out this video from my friend and colleague Gray Caws.
To train your core for running, challenge it in the same way that running does
Training for a functional, reflexive core
Above all, as a runner I want my core to know when it’s needed and to be able to respond. Quickly. When I’m cycling through roughly 170 – 180 single-legged balances every minute, I don’t have time to think: ‘I need to engage my core now.’
When I first heard the term ‘reflexive core’, or a core that reacts and responds appropriately to what you’re doing and how you’re moving without conscious activation, it made a lot of sense to me. I don’t have to think about which muscles to use when I go to pick up something heavy. My arm muscles just know what to do. Why should it be different for my core?
But while it felt like the way that our cores were designed to work – I’m sure our ancestors didn’t go around thinking ‘navel to spine’ – I really wasn’t sure how to go about finding this mythical reflexive core.
Fast forward to last year when I discovered Lauren Ohayon and the Restore Your Core (RYC ™) programme. I’d just been through months of surgeries and was feeling pretty disconnected from my body, so RYC arrived at the perfect time for me. It’s a progressive, whole body approach that uses exercise to restore function, mobility and strength to the core and the entire body. Through RYC, I learned that:
- the reflexive core really exists. And yes, you can train it – yay!
- breathing mechanics have a big role to play in developing a functional core, and vice versa;
- my body is incredibly smart at taking the path of least resistance. As mindfully as I thought I was moving, I’m still uncovering all sorts of compensations and blind spots, and learning how to change those patterns.
The right kind of core training has made me feel more centred, stable and stronger than ever. No more pelvic floor issues. And my running feels even easier. It’s made such a difference that I’ve now certified as an RYC teacher 🙂
Don’t just think about doing core exercises. Think about teaching your core to do its job
Will core training help my running?
So in answer to the original question ‘will core training help my running?’ if it teaches your core to work reflexively when you need it, and it’s whole body, mindful, and challenges your body in the same dynamic, unstable, multiplanar ways that running does, then yes, absolutely.
Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!
Photo by Myriams-Fotos