The importance of core training in runners

More and more people are becoming aware of the positive benefits from running.  Whether it’s to strengthen their heart, reduce stress, lose weight or just to get in shape for the upcoming summer running is becoming a popular activity.  Unfortunately, both novice and expert runners often experience preventable running related injuries.  The truth is the majority of running related injuries can be prevented by strengthening the core musculature. No matter if a person is a beginner who aspires to run a 5k or an avid runner who’s planning on running a full marathon core conditioning is essential in preventing injury and maximizing a runner’s overall performance.  Although strengthening one’s core is extremely beneficial most runners only focus on planning out and grading their running programs and as a result they completely neglect core conditioning.

Before a runner can begin to strengthen their core a basic knowledge of what muscles make up the core and how they function to protect the runner from injury is required. When a person thinks of a strong core a well defined six-pack is usually visualized.  However, this muscle is one of the least important muscles of the core. The muscle responsible for the six-pack is the rectus abdominis and it’s a very superficial muscle that allows the trunk to bend and is activated during crunches or sit ups. The muscles that truly strengthen the core are very deep muscles that are located near the spine and pelvis.

The five most significant core muscles are the transverse abdominis, multifidus, erector spinalis, quadratus lumborum and the hip abductors. The transverse abdominis is your deep abdominal muscles which aid in stabilizing the spine and keeping it in a neutral position. The multifidus is located deep in the lower back and its main function is also to stabilize the spine and prevent any excess motion.  The erector spinalis aids in extending the trunk. The quadratus lumborum aids in bending the trunk to the side and helps stabilize the hip.  The hip abductors aid in controlling the hip and control the knee while the foot strikes the ground.  All of these muscles must be properly conditioned in order to reduce the likelihood of developing a running related injury.

High Intensity Interval Training

To better understand this we can think of the core muscles as the foundation for the entire body.  If the foundation is unstable and prone to fatiguing then everything that attaches onto the core (i.e. the hips and legs) will be unstable.  As a runner strikes their foot on the ground energy is transferred from their foot up through their calf to their thigh and finally to their core.  This causes the spine and hips to rotate which helps drive the other leg forward to take the next step. If a runner has a weak core then their “foundation” will be unstable and the runner will waste unnecessary energy during a run.  Because running requires such a great deal of stamina the core must be conditioned in order to have a high level of endurance to prevent the core from fatiguing during a lengthy run. A conditioned core will also help maximize the efficiency of each stride which will reduce the overall amount of energy needed during a run.

In addition to improving performance, a well conditioned core will allow a runner to maintain proper posture and running mechanics during a long run.  As a result the runner will place minimal stress on the spine, joints and muscles.  If a runner has inadequate core strength they will demonstrate improper posture (i.e. forward slouch) during long runs which will place the runner at risk of developing trigger points, damaging their joints and muscle strains.  Furthermore, as the runner fatigues other muscles will begin to work harder in order to attempt to compensate for their insufficient core strength which will result in poor running mechanics.  Compensation strategies include excessive hip drop and trunk sway, inward bowing of the knee and uneven stride length.  If left untreated these compensation strategies can lead to Iliotibial band syndrome, shin splints, herniated discs, osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease.

If you are experiencing difficulty or pain while running a physical therapist will identify any muscle imbalances, trigger points and strength deficits.  The therapist will also analyze the runner’s running mechanics to identify any compensation patterns.  With this information the physical therapist will develop an exercise program that will gradually strengthen the core.  Typically, the physical therapist will select exercises that utilize the runner’s own body weight as resistance and that force the runner to stabilize the spine by activating these deep core muscles.  A classic example of this is a plank.  The therapist will also focus on balance exercises.  Balance exercises force the patient to utilize their core muscles in order to stabilize their body from external forces.  This is especially important for outdoor runners.  People who enjoy running outdoors often will not be running on even track.  This will prepare the runner to maintain proper running mechanics and posture while avoiding obstacles while running and when running on uneven terrain.  As the runner progresses, plyometrics will then be incorporated.  This will help strengthen the core and adjust the body to excessive forces.  An example of this is when a runner is running up and down hill which requires more energy and requires much more control of the core musculature especially when running down hill. For all of these exercises proper form is crucial and the physical therapist will assess and correct any compensation strategies observed.

It’s important to note after a run our muscles become tense and more often than not trigger points will develop which usually lead to pain. To help prevent this, a great post run protocol is to use a foam roller to release any trigger points.  In addition to instructing the patient on foam rolling the therapist will also help develop a running program that will properly grade the runner’s mileage in order to reach their goal.

No matter if you’re a veteran runner or if you’re just starting out, preventive care is paramount in reducing running related injuries. If a person is a fairly sedentary then they may be able to get by with having a weak core, but if a person wants to maintain an active lifestyle without developing an injury core conditioning is a must. If you are experiencing pain, instability or fatigue while running contact Total Performance Physical Therapy for an examination today.


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