You don’t have to read runner’s magazines and resources for very long to realize that there is a strong message about the importance of core training for runners. Even so, core training is a little like stretching: it’s a thing you know you should do, but it can easily fall by the wayside because, well, it’s not running. And you love running.
We do tend to stop something we don’t see results from, and it’s hard to measure results from core training. The bottom line is, you want to do things that help you run better and protect your body from injury so you can keep running. You just don’t have time for things that don’t make a difference. Rest assured, core training does.
There are some key rules of thumb that will ensure that the time you spend on core training makes a difference. The first principle is to approach it the same way you plan your running. Even though information about running comes in randomly—from the internet, magazines, or training buddies—you don’t train randomly. You organize the best ideas into a training plan. You don’t approach your running in a haphazard way; you make a plan that spans several months. The plan is designed to gradually and systematically improve the components that help you run, because that is best practice in sport conditioning. Successful core training is done the same way.
There is no crash course to core fitness. It’s your investment fund against injury that has compound interest: a little, often with consistency, and consistent, gradual increase in load is best. When you are awesomely core-fit, your maintenance workouts can go down to a few intense core sessions a week, but at first you should be doing a little as many days of the week as possible. You should also have a clear progression in your training: spine stabilization, then movement, then power and endurance.
The most important component to establish first in core training is not movement, but stability. You need the ability to recruit deep core muscles to stabilize and protect your spine, over time and repetitive motion. Exercises that do this best are often of the isometric type (holding the position, not moving) and involve critical attention to posture. Your body has to memorize what a neutral spine is, and what muscles are recruited to maintain spine neutrality despite resistance and loading, because this is what protects your back from wear and tear with the highly repetitive motion of running.
If you run on varied terrain such as trail running, having very strong spine stabilizers is especially critical. An example of an excellent exercise for spine stabilizers is the plank, but make sure you are using correct technique. Poor technique will put negative strain on your lower back. So, before you do that super-duper core exercise you read about or saw online, spend about two weeks on your deep inner layer of core stabilizers. You’ll notice a difference in your posture, endurance and joints while running because your body will be carrying itself better.
Heather Sansom is the author of Killer Core Workout for Runners.