While watching the Olympic runners this summer, I was impressed by their overall strength, muscle development, and amazing abs. As they propelled themselves forward, their legs moved almost independently below a stable center that had minimal movement. There was very little power wasted through side-to-side, up-and-down, or back-and-forth motion. Comparing their incredibly efficient and elegant form with that of the amateur runner, what are the Olympians doing differently? At least one of the main differences is the development of a high level of core stability through strengthening of the primary core muscles.
Primary Core Muscles
The primary core muscles that stabilize the pelvis and lumbar spine are:
Obliques: These muscles rotate your torso and help support your center during movement.
Rectus Abdominis: The ‘six-pack’ muscles that flex or curl the trunk of the body and run vertically down the abdomen.
Transversus Abdominis: The deepest of the abdominal muscles, which wrap horizontally around your center, provide support during movement.
Psoas Major & Iliacus: These are the hip flexor muscles, which lift the thigh toward the abdomen and limit excess motion of the hip joint.
Erector Spinae: This is a group of muscle pairs that run vertically the length of your back near the spine. These muscles support the spine and allow it to extend backwards.
The repeated pounding of running can cause lower back pain, particularly when you have weak abdominal or lower back muscles. Strengthening all the core muscles can help runners avoid this problem, and also can improve their running efficiency.
Exercises for Core Stability:
Supine bent-knee raises: Lie on your back with knees bent, arms along your sides with palms on the floor, abs contracted. Keeping your knee bent, lift one knee at a time toward your chest. Hold for count of five. Return that leg to starting position. Repeat this move slowly 10 times on each leg. Focus on keeping your abs contracted and your pelvis and back stable as you move your legs.
Quadruped with arm and leg raises: Start on your hands and knees on your mat. Bracing your abdominal muscles and keeping your hips still, simultaneously raise one arm straight out in front and the opposite leg straight out behind you. Maintain a straight line along your back and hips. Hold for a count of five and slowly lower your limbs. Repeat with the other arm and leg. Repeat on each side several times, always keeping your abs in and hips still.
Bridging: Lie on your mat on your back with your arms at your sides, and knees bent, feet flat on floor near your butt. Press your heels down as you lift your hips off the floor. Squeeze your glutes tight and hold for a beat, then lower back down slowly to the floor. Repeat 5-10 times.
Prone plank: Start in a push-up position, with hands directly under your shoulders. Balance on your palms and the balls of your feet. Hold this position as long as you can, making sure your abdominal muscles are contracted and there is a straight line from your shoulders to your heels.
Side plank: Lie on your left side on your mat, with legs extended, and right foot stacked on top of the left. Support your body weight on your elbow and hip. Keeping your abs tight, raise your hips up till your body forms a straight line from head to heel. Hold for as long as you can. Repeat, then switch sides.
Perform these exercises two to three days per week to feel results. There are many other exercises that you can explore, including Pilates and yoga regimens, balance board work, and functional movement exercises. Whichever regimen you choose, you will find that strengthening your core improves your running form and performance, and reduces your chance of injury due to instability. It will also make for a more enjoyable running experience!
Guest Post by Adrian Dunn, American College of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer, Wellness Coach, and Fitness Coach for EverydayHealth.com and its calorie counter.