Why is the Core Important to Runners?

Why is the Core Important to Runners

By Dominic McKinley, MD, CAQ and Joe Mullins, M. Ed., LAT, ATC

Core training continues to receive more and more attention by the sports conditioning industry. Medical professionals such as physicians, athletic trainers, and physical therapists along with personal trainers and workout partners are encouraging the physically active to begin core training. This is because a strong core improves overall strength, power, speed, quickness, agility, coordination and balance. The co-authors of this article agree that core training is essential to performance enhancement and injury prevention. The purpose of this article is to define the core, outline the importance of the core to runners, and define core conditioning.

What is the Core?

The core is defined as the muscular anatomy that controls and supports the spine and pelvis. (Some performance specialists define the core more broadly by including the shoulder blades and knees.)

The muscles of the abdominal region that control and support the spine and pelvis include:

  • Internal and External Obliques which rotate the torso from side to side and bends the torso to the side
  • Rectus Abdominus flexes the torso (commonly referred to as the “six pack”
  • Transverse Abdominus stabilizes the spine to prevent excessive motion in any direction

Some of the muscles of the back region that control and support the spine and pelvis include:

  • Erector Spinae that run along each side of the spine and extends the torso
  • Quadratus Lumborum, like the Obliques, bends the torso to the side and controls the hiking motion of the hip
  • Multifidus muscles are as extremely important as the Transverse Abdominus muscles as they too stabilize the spine to prevent excessive motion in any direction as the bigger muscles move the trunk and pelvis

It is the transverse abdominus and multifidus muscles that are often neglected in traditional training methods. 

What is the Purpose of the Core?

A mental image to understand the purpose and importance of the core is imagining a wagon wheel.  The hub of the wagon wheel represents the core as the spokes of the wagon wheel represent the extremities of the body.  All of the energy to move the wagon is created, controlled, and transferred at the hub of that wheel.

The same is true of our anatomical core.  The kinetic energy to propel and sustain our bodies in motion needs to travel through our core.  The core has a continuous cycle of creating, controlling, and transferring kinetic energy in a three dimensional manner.

During the running gait cycle, kinetic energy begins from when the heel makes contact with the ground engaging the hamstrings.  The kinetic energy is then transferred into the core causing pelvic rotation to swing the opposite leg forward.  If a runner’s core is weakened, there is an inefficient transfer of the kinetic energy.  Inefficient motion can cause another body part to receive more than its share of the kinetic energy to dissipate.  As a result, over a period of time, an injury to other body parts can occur.  Therefore, minimizing unnecessary movements of the limbs improves efficiency and conserves energy.

What is Core Conditioning?

Understanding what core conditioning is may be better appreciated by realizing that it is not a traditional training program where the goal is to generate maximum force by the muscle (i.e. bicep curls for bigger biceps).  Core conditioning involves coordination between the brain and the deep muscles (see list above) to fire in order to create spinal and pelvic stability.  This is extremely important if activities of daily living involve a lot of sitting, especially slouching.

Therefore, core conditioning’s primary objective is learning how to initiate (and ultimately sustain) the spinal and pelvic stabilizer muscles in a concerted effort with the extremities.  When this occurs, there is an efficient foundation for the functional interaction among the lower extremity joints during the running gait cycle.

Core Conditioning Example Exercises




Supine Bridge:

Lie on your back with knees bent at a 90-degree angle and feet on the floor. Tighten abdominal muscles and squeeze your buttock muscles while pushing your heels into the ground.





Supine Bridge With Leg Extension:

Follow the instructions from the Supine Bridge exercise above. Once you have achieved the bridge position, extend one leg out giving attention to keeping your hips/pelvis level. Return to lying flat then repeat with the opposite leg.




Front Plank:

Lie facedown in a prone pushup position with your forearms resting on the ground instead of your palms. Your elbows should be beneath your shoulders and bent at a 90-degree angle. Push off of your elbows to achieve a straight line between your shoulders, knees and ankles. Only you tip toes and forearms should be touching the ground.




Side Plank:

Lie on your side on your forearm with the elbow beneath the shoulder. Push off of your forearm to achieve a straight line between your shoulders, knees and ankles. Only the outside of your bottom foot and your forearm should be touching the ground. Repeat on the other side.












One Legged Touch Down With Rotation:

Balance on one leg.  Tighten your abdominal and glute muscles.  Squat down on the balance leg while reaching to the ground with the opposite hand.  Switch legs and repeat.

Dominic McKinley, MD, CAQ is a primary care sports medicine physician with Guilford Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Center in Greensboro.  He serves as team physician for N. C. A&T State University and Bishop McGuiness High School.  He enjoys running.  Dr. McKinley can be contacted at 336-275-3325.  More information about Dr. McKinley and the services he provides can be found at here.

Joe Mullins, M. Ed., LAT, ATC is Founder and Director of Athletic Training & Conditioning, Inc.  He specializes in functional evaluations and works with athletes from middle school, high school, and college to professional and Olympic athletes.  He can be contacted at joe.mullins@athletictrainingandconditioning.com.  More information about Joe Mullins and the services he provides can be found at www.athletictrainingandconditioning.com.