Core exercises for runners phase in and out of popularity. Sometimes, 20-minute core exercise routines trend on social media. Other times, weight lifting routines with no core exercises are popular. One common question is whether core exercises for runners are valuable – and if so, how much time should you spend doing them?
Basic core exercises such as crunches and V-ups aren’t detrimental. However, these traditional ab exercises are isolation exercises. They may target one or two abdominal muscles – not your entire core in a functional manner. And for time-crunched runners, functional core exercises simply offer greater benefits for the time invested.
What Are Functional Core Exercises?
The “core” is composed of several muscles that serve to stabilize the trunk and move the spine. The core musculature includes the rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, transverse abdominis, erector spinae, multifidus, and quadratus lumborum. Functional core exercises that target all of these muscles improve spinal stability and core strength – not just hypertrophy of a single ab muscle.
For some runners, spinal stability and core strength can translate to lower incidence of low back pain. Even if you don’t experience low back pain, functional core exercises are beneficial. According to a 2016 review in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitative Clinics in North America, core strength may reduce fatigue and improve efficiency in long-distance runners. Even elite runners prioritize core strength. A 2020 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that 70% of competitive long-distance runners performed core stability exercises in their training.
Several functional core exercises are not strictly core exercises. These are, after all, functional exercises – meaning that you work a variety of other muscle groups in coordination with your core. Coordination is one of the goals of strength training. When you run, you aren’t simply only working your legs or using your core, you are using each of your muscle groups together. Most of these functional core exercises are anti-rotational, meaning they require your core to resist rotation against external forces (such as weight or movement of other body parts). While a small degree of thoracic spine rotation occurs in running, this should only be a small degree. Anti-rotational core exercises can encourage functional stability in the running gait.
You do not need to include all of these core exercises for runners in a single workout. Instead, you can incorporate them as is appropriate for your strength training routine.
Functional Core Exercises for Runners
Contralateral Single Leg Deadlifts
Especially when weighted, single leg deadlifts are an anti-rotational exercise. Your entire complex of core muscles must work together in order to keep your body from rotating as you hinge at the hips. You also strengthen your glutes, hips, and hamstrings in this exercise.
For even more challenge to your core, hold a single weight in the opposite hand of the standing leg. You will need to work harder to avoid rotating in either direction.
A single leg deadlift is a hinge exercise, so the movement should predominantly occur in the hips. Stand on one leg, holding a weight in your opposite hand. While keeping your core engaged and hips level, hinge at the hips to lower down your torso and extend your other leg behind you. (You will have a slight bend in your standing knee). Focus on keeping your hips square – imagine a belt buckle that you keep facing towards the ground – and not rotating your torso. Slowly return to start.
Deadbugs are a deceptively challenging core exercise. They appear relatively simple, but in reality, your entire core will be quaking if you do the exercise properly. Deadbugs are especially effective at strengthening the transverse abdominus and muscles surrounding the pelvis.
Unlike planks, you can’t as easily sag your hips or hunch your shoulders in a deadbug. If you are pressing your back against the floor, you are keeping your core fully engaged. Deadbugs are functional in the sense that they train your core to stabilize against motion in the limbs, improve mobility of the hips and shoulders, and increase range of motion.
For the deadbug, lie on your back with your legs in a tabletop position (90-degree angle between the floor and your thighs, 90-degree angle at the knees) and your arms extended straight up and perpendicular to the floor. Your back should be flat against the floor/mat and you should pull your navel in to engage your abs. Slowly lower the left leg and right arm down, maintaining a flat back and tightened core throughout.
To advance this exercise, you can hold a weight such as a dumbbell or light kettlebell in both hands, arms straight above your chest, and lower one leg at a time while maintaining a flat back. You can also use a stability ball held between your arms and needs to progress the exercise.
Plank pull-throughs progress a basic plank into a total body exercise. In the plank pull-through, your trunk musculature stabilizes the spine as you resist rotating with the drag of the kettlebell. Your glutes and shoulder are also worked in this exercise.
To perform the plank pull-through, begin in a straight-arm plank. Keep hips aligned with your trunk. Place a KB just outside of one shoulder, then pull it through under your body with the opposite arm. Repeat on the opposite side to complete one rep.
Like many of these exercises, side planks are anti-rotational. You work your core to stabilize your spine while also strengthening the sides of your body. Lateral strength is vital for runners, who can develop imbalances due to the forward nature of running.
The variations and progressions of a side plank are numerous. You can add twists, leg lifts, knee drives, dips, or instability (with a TRX, Bosu, or stability ball). No matter what variation you choose, aim for 30-40 seconds in the plank per side. Focus on keeping your hips and shoulder blades stacked and tighten your core throughout.
Total body exercises such as squats and deadlifts work the core musculature more than many exercises such as crunches – especially when loaded enough. This particular variation of the squat adds an anti-rotational challenge. Loading the weight on the side of the body forces you to work harder to maintain good shape. This movement improves works both the spinal stabilizers and trunk movers. If the offset squat feels too advanced, you can start with a basic goblet squat.
To perform an offset squat, hold a single weight (dumbbell or kettlebell) in a racked position (by your shoulder) with one hand. While keeping your torso upright and facing forward, lower down into a squat (the movement is driven by knee flexion). you only hold the weight on one side, so repeat the reps on the opposite side.
Looking for more workouts? Try one of these:
Stability Ball Core Workout for Runners
Plank Workout for runners
Functional Kettlebell Workout for Runners
Hip, Core, and Glute Resistance Band Workout
What’s your favorite core exercise?