Stronger Core for Faster Running: Perfect the Powerhouse

Now that Clove has issued a body image adjustment challenge and Salty has repeatedly told us we should run shirtless without shame during the summer heat, it is time to getting working on those rock hard abs!

I’m kidding – sort of.  This post is not about physical appearance.  While chiseled, rock hard abs would no doubt be fabulous, there is a higher purpose for this post.  Building a strong core will help improve your running and will help stave off injury – even if you are not rocking out a six pack like the people in that photo.   Nope, you and I can build our cores and improve our running performance too.

Your core helps stabilize your hips and spine.  If it is not strong, it can’t do its job as well.  Which means you are less efficient and much more prone to injury. Most runners know this.  But many have no idea where to start.   We are here to help.

First, it is important to know that you need to focus on much more than just your abdominal muscles.  While sit-ups and crunches are great, they are not enough to keep your stabilizing core strong.   Instead, you should focus on the area targeted in Pilates: the powerhouse.

The Pilates Powerhouse. Image from www.fitnessonline.at

As you can see from the image above, the powerhouse includes the muscles from your rib cage, through the hips, and down to your upper thighs.  It stretches all the way around your mid-section to your back and includes all the little (and big!!) muscles in the interior of your trunk.   We are talking about your abs, your back, your hips, your glutes, your pelvic floor, your inner thighs and many more muscles with highly technical terms (such as the psoas and piriformis).  All of these muscles work together to stabilize your body.  If they are all strong, you can avoid common injuries, such as IT band pain, runner’s knee, back problems, etc.

So how do you strengthen your powerhouse?  There are many different ways runners can strengthen their core and improve their running.  My favorite is Pilates.   There is no doubt that my running was at its best (as was my bod) when I was doing Pilates daily.  Unfortunately, as I try to fit one million and forty-six things in my life, it is any easy one for me to neglect.  But I know that is a huge mistake.

You can find Pilates classes as most fitness centers.  Don’t have time to take a class?  You can always buy a DVD series.  I did Winsor Pilates right after my kiddos were born and for years after.  (These are my favorites: abs and buns and thighs.)  In fact, I still do it, but I no longer need the videos since I’ve done it for so many years.  While I admittedly don’t do it regularly enough, I will tell you it has provided amazing results.

I know many women who swear by Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred – which is a combination of short bursts of ab work, strength and cardio.  I haven’t tried it, but have only heard very good things.

Many runners also swear  by yoga or yogalates.  Both are also great options.

Plank Exercise

Alternatively, you can find a plethora of running-specific core exercises you can do.  One of my favorites is the plank! Here is a great YouTube Video showing some great beginner core exercises:

If that is not enough and you want some Olympic ab inspiration, check out this awesome video by Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher.  I don’t know about you, but they certainly have inspired me to break out the exercise ball:

In the interest of full disclosure, please know that this stuff is not easy.  Shalane may make it look like a piece of cake, but it is hard work.  If you are not doing any core work, move into it slowly.  The first time I did planks, I did 5 60 second planks.  No problem right?  I have been doing core work for 10+  years.  Um, no.  My abs hurt so bad I couldn’t run the next day.  So work that powerhouse, just be smart at first.  🙂

And please share any tips you have for our readers!  What are your favorite exercises / workouts to keep the core strong?

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Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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10 comments

  1. Yoga is one of my favorite ways to stretch, Mint, but also to build strength. Rodney Yee has an excellent video called Core Cross Train (http://www.amazon.com/Yoga-Cross-Train-Rodney-Yee/dp/B000YV1L44). The 30-minute Core Strength segment is basic enough for those who are new to yoga but enough of a workout that you know it’s doing some good. Plus, Rodney has some very nice abs himself, a soothing voice, and always chooses workout venues that make you feel that you’re on vacation somewhere. If someone hasn’t been exercising the core, this is a great way to “move into it slowly” as you recommend.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! I tried a yoga dvd one time that was really bad, and in yoga and pilates, I think it is so important to have the right posture/pose, so good instruction is key. I’ll check this one out.

  2. Great post! I bookmarked the Shalane/Kara video. Maybe I can squeeze it in at work!

    I like the Yogamazing podcasts from iTunes. They’re pretty short (<20') but pack in a good workout that I can fit in to my schedule. The recent ones are free, not sure how much back episodes cost. The Yogamazing for Runners and Yogamazing for Upper Body Strength are my favorites.

  3. Thank you for this! I was actually wondering what all of you did in addition to running when it comes to toning and strengthening the body as a whole.

  4. Thanks for the reminder. My last injury struck my left glute/hamstring, and the sports doc said it was likely caused by a weak core. He further said my recurring IT band issues were tied into that. I’m feeling the beginnings of the glute/hamstring crud so I really needed this reminder to start doing my core work.

  5. I incorporated Kara and Shalene’s core work into my twice-weekly 30 minute circuit and let me tell you…it is hard! Effective, but hard.

    Also, I have been doing “functional” core work (planks, running-specific exercises) for 20 years now and have worked as a certified personal trainer and I just wanted to say that I have learned both from personal experience and from my education that the single most important aspect of any core work is proper form. If you don’t know what constitutes proper form, I suggest watching videos and then practicing the exercises in front of a mirror or working with a trainer (for even just one session). Proper core work works all parts of the abdominal muscles and can help protect from injury, improper core work works the hip flexors and back and can lead to injury!

  6. I know this is an old thread but I’m assuming people get e-mails for new comments. A friend is pregnant but still wants to have a strong core. Do you have some suggestions for exercises specifically during pregnancy? (She’s at 4 months right now and she’s active although not a runner).