Core work. You hear it preached repeatedly, especially on this little blog of mine, about the importance of core work for runners. Strengthening your core boosts your muscular endurance, meaning your core muscles are less likely to fade during the tiring last few miles of a race. It reduces your risk of injury and improves your running form. Not to mention it can help us distance runners maintain muscle tone, especially during the high mileage of marathon training. Finally, there is one aspect of core training which I have not discussed in depth yet: stability. So today, I want to briefly talk about how core stability affects your running and share a stability ball core workout with you.
Core Work Increases Your Stability
Your core is composed of the muscles in your mid and lower back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, multifidus, erector spinae) abs (transverse abdominus, rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques), butt (glutes, piriformis), and pelvis (illopsoas and other hip flexors). Notice something about these muscles?
First, they connect your entire body together. Your arms and legs are both connected to your core. By building a stronger and more stable core, you thus stabilize your entire kinetic chain. The kinetic chain is composed all of your muscles and the connecting joints and tendons, which provide the strength to move your skeleton. A full body movement such as running relies on a strong, supported, and coordinated kinetic chain to efficiently move.
Second, many of your core muscles support your spine. Since your spine is connected to your nervous system, which plays a significant role in any movement, a stable and supported spine creates a better efficiency of movement. Think of how less efficient your movement becomes, whether it’s in running, cycling, or yoga, when you are slouched over.
Efficiency of Movement
Core work doesn’t just improve stability by strengthening the muscles supporting your spine; it also creates a more efficient transfer of energy throughout your kinetic chain. Imagine bouncing a sponge on the concrete: the sponge does not bounce so much as it splats. Now picture bouncing a tennis ball on concrete: it springs up from the ground and continues to move. Your core is like the sponge or tennis ball. If your core is weak, you will lose your energy into the ground and require more energy to keep going forward. If your core is strong, the energy will transfer back into your body from the ground and spring you forward, thus more efficiently using your body’s energy.
This metaphor only scratches the surface of how biomechanics work and is in no way a full explanation, but it should provide a sufficient picture of why a strong back, pelvis, butt, and abs are important for runners.
Stability Exercises for a Strong Core
So how do you create a more stable core? The key lies in functional, whole body movements that recruit all of your core muscles rather than isolate a single muscle. Work muscles in isolation can lead to muscular imbalances, which in turn can contribute to instability. Crunches may produce abs aesthetically appealing abs, but they do not work the deep muscles of your core, nor do they train those muscles to work together efficiently. Think instead of planks, bridges, lunges, and pushups, which engage multiple muscle groups.
Beyond bodyweight workouts, a great way to improve your core stability is by training on an unstable surface. The cheapest and, in my opinion, most fun and effective means of doing so is the stability ball. The stability ball forces all of your core muscles to coordinate and work together to perform the exercise without losing your balance. While the verdict is still out in the scientific community as to whether or not using a stability ball or other unstable surface actually makes a significant difference in core stability, the stability ball still provides a full core workout that will effectively strengthen all of your muscles in a short amount of time.
Additionally, many of these stability ball exercises require a flat and strong back, thus strengthening the muscles along your spine and habituating good posture. As you do this stability ball core workout, you should see an improvement in your running form as your posture improves, and find that long runs and speed workouts feel easier as better core stability makes you a more efficient runner.
Not only does the stability ball provide an excellent core workout, but it is an affordable piece of equipment that you can easily use to work out from home! Being able to do core work from the comfort of your own home while watching Netflix makes you more likely to stick to a routine. Most gyms have them, but a stability ball costs under $20, take up only a few feet of space, and can double as a chair. I even used to keep one in my dorm room in college! I currently use this one from Target (affiliate link).
Do this stability ball core workout two to three times per week as part of your strength training sessions or after an easy run. All you need is a stability ball and a mat. It takes at most 20 minutes, so it is very easy to fit into your schedule! You will work your back, abs, glutes, hamstrings, hips, and shoulders – pretty much, your entire core plus some!
With all of the movements, be sure to move slowly and with control. Relying on momentum in any strength training exercise will decrease the efficacy of the workout. Additionally, the slower you move, the more you are forced to stabilize.
Stability Ball Roll Out: Kneel on your mat with your knees hip-width apart and the stability ball directly in front of you. Place your forearms on the ball and keep your hands in loose fists. Straighten your arms to slowly roll the ball away from you as far as you can without letting your hips drop. Pause, and then bend your elbows and slowly roll the ball back in. Be sure to keep your back flat and your ab muscles engaged during the entire exercise. That’s one rep; repeat for ten reps.
Stability Ball Pass: Lie on your back on your mat with your arms extended above you and your legs beyond you, so your body forms a straight line. Hold the ball in between your hands. Brace your core and raise your arms and legs simultaneously off the ground. Pass the ball from your hands to your feet, and then slowly lower yourself back onto the floor. Repeat to pass the ball back to your hands. This is one rep; repeat for ten reps.
Stability Ball Hamstring Curl: Lie on your back on the mat. Place your feet on the ball and then raise your hips off the ground, so that your body forms a straight line from your shoulders on the ground to your feet on the ball. Brace your core, engage your glutes, and slowly bend your knees to pull the ball in towards you. Pause, and then straighten your knees to extend your legs and return the ball to start. Be sure to keep your hips level during the entire movement. This is one rep; repeat ten times.
Stability Ball Back Extension: Lie facedown across the stability ball, with your feet hip-width apart and resting on the floor behind your and your arms extended straight past your head. Squeeze your glutes and shoulder blades and slowly lift your chest off of the ball until your back is straight. Pause, then slowly return to start. This is one rep; repeat for 10 reps.
Stability Ball Ab Pull: Begin in a raised pushup position on the stability ball, with your hands on the ground directly beneath your shoulders, the stability ball under your feet, and your back straight and flat. Brace your core to keep your back flat and slowly pull your knees in, drawing the ball towards your chest. Pause, and then slowly reverse to return to start. Be careful not to pike your hips up or shrug your shoulder up towards your ears. This is one rep; repeat for ten reps.
Questions of the Day:
Do you use a stability ball in your strength training?
How often do you do core work?
What’s your favorite piece of equipment at the gym or your home gym?