Staying Centred: what are the benefits of a strong core?

As runners our training often focuses around two key areas: improving our legs and improving our cardiovascular system. It is easy to see the connection between these and increased performance, and so we find ourselves closely monitoring heart rates, splits and pacing in pursuit of our goals. However the area between our lungs, legs and heart is also fundamentally important and all too often neglected. Developing this region of core muscles that connects the pelvis, spine, hips and upper body together is vital to staying injury free and performing to our greatest ability.

Despite being neglected, core exercises are easily accessible and simple to fit in to a weekly training routine, however few of us remain committed to doing them. As with any successful training building a regular routine which you can stick to is the key to getting these sessions done but you don’t need to do a lot to see a benefit. There are a multitude of exercises to improve your core strength that it’s difficult to know where to start. As ever professional and personalised advice is a must but here we outline the benefits and consider a few pointers to get you on your way.

Posture

Your core muscles are not just limited to the obvious abdominal muscles that everyone immediately thinks about. Instead they should be thought about as the full chain of muscles that keep the centre of the body in the correct upright posture, but also co-ordinate movement patterns between the upper and lower body.

By targeting your core muscles you are considering the entire middle region of the body including round both the front and back. A strong core will keep you in a solid upright position which will not only improve your daily posture and reduce the risk of potential back injuries, but also keep you strong in the late stages of any long run or race where your form can begin to deteriorate. For marathon and ultra distance runners this can pay dividends in the latter stages of a race when lactate begins to build in the body.

Improved technique, greater efficiency

A further benefit to consider is improvements in technique from a strong core. We need to ensure when running that any energy we are expending is directed towards forward motion. Legs, arms and torso should all be aligned towards the front so that the stride length is all kept moving forward. Those with a weak core will often see a greater rotation through the shoulders, torso and/or hip whilst running which is wasted sideways rather than helping propel the runner forward. Working on the core region of muscles will keep the runner taught and less prone to wasting energy through over rotating.

The second benefit is that by keeping the runner’s posture tall and upright means that the stride itself is more efficient. A runner who is bent over is more likely to over-reach their stride and therefore create a breaking force as their foot lands out in front of them. Instead, with a fully engaged and strong core, the runner is pulled more upright which encourages the foot to land underneath the body’s centre of gravity rather than out in front. This in turn engages the glutes which as we discussed here is vital to creating a more powerful and resilient runner. With the added benefit of a strong core this becomes far easier to achieve.

Both these add up to a more efficient runner whose effort is maximised to its full potential.

Better movement

More generally a runner with a stronger core will move more fluidly throughout their body as the arms and legs all work in a co-ordinated manner. Core is particularly important for trail runners and cross-country, where uneven ground and tight corners can make it harder to maximise the stride. Having a strong core in these kinds of events makes for a more stable runner who’s upper body movement is less likely to be thrown out as the legs cope with the uneven terrain underneath. With a stronger core you’ll be able to respond quicker to changes in terrain and move with more confidence since your entire body is that much more co-ordinated and under control.

Even beyond this in to everyday life a strong core will provide noticeable differences in your balance and stability, reducing the risk of common work injuries in the lower back.

Breathe easy

It might seem counter-intuitive but there’s an added benefit to the cardiovascular system when a runner works on their core strength. This is down to the fact that right underneath the abdominal’s sits the diaphragm which is the driving force behind changing the lungs capacity and allowing us to breath in and out. With greater control over our core, and with the diaphragm and pelvis aligned parallel to each other, we are able to better breathe using the diaphragm rather than the chest which creates more capacity and thus more oxygen to circulate to the muscles. Cramp and stitches are all also linked in part to poor breathing and can be aided by creating a stronger core.

Where to begin

Our Pilates classes are a great place to start actively improving your core strength. In each hour long class we work through the whole body, toning, strengthening, articulating and stretching. This oils the joints with controlled movement of the hips, knees, lower back, glutes and even arms and shoulders whilst all the time remaining focused on the deep abdominal muscles for support. We work to build balanced muscular strength which helps alignment and counteracts imbalances. Every movement originates from the spine so a strong core is vital in preventing injury and overall health and mobility. You can find information about joining one of these classes here.

Beyond this there are numerous exercises which you can do, all of which can be started and progressed with minimal equipment. When developing a group of exercises to focus on it’s important to think about not only the front muscle groups in the abdominal region but also to think about those around the back and side such as your obliques, latissimus dorsi and erector spinae. These are equally important to develop and ensure that imbalances don’t develop as you progress. Another area that often goes unnoticed is the intricate group of pelvic floor muscles that sit at the inside and bottom of the pelvis around the reproductive organs.

Which ever selection of exercises you choose the emphasis should not be on excessive overload but rather on moderate strength training. You should not be doing any exercises to the point of failure as this will begin to increase muscle mass. Focus instead on lower reps and sets; and controlling your breathing and movement during any exercise.

Frequency should be around 2 -3 times a week and could be developed alongside a more general strength programme. It’s important however to not simply bolt a few exercises on to the end of any gym work out, but instead work it in to the schedule so that each strength session is focused around a particular area. i.e. legs for the first session, core for the second session and upper body for the third. For those starting out these gym sessions can be a good alternative to an easy run, whilst those more advanced could combine and gym session with a slow recovery run on easy days.

Progress for success

As with the exercises themselves, there are a multitude of ways which you can progress them as you increase in strength and capability. Some general pointers to consider include:

  • Using a stability ball
  • Reducing floor contact; i.e. less arms and legs
  • Increasing weight

At Fitstuff Clinic and RunLab we are ideally placed to aid any athlete either before or after injury. Our team of physiotherapists, osteopaths and technique specialists can develop a joined up approach to training and treatment which can see this kind of core and stability training developed alongside strength, massage and rehabilitation work to improve a runners performance and injury prevention. Get in touch with our team today.

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