Having a strong, stable and mobile core can help put the wind in your sails when running the trails. It’s obvious to most that to run quicker means improving your body’s energy systems through running specific workouts (interval training for Vo2max, long runs for endurance, hill reps for strength etc). But the benefits of core training for trail runners are less widely understood, perhaps to the peril of a PB.
The Benefits of a Conditioned Core
A conditioned core will make you a more efficient runner; you will have stronger power transition from your arms to your legs, your posture will be less likely to become compromised through fatigue (especially on a steep hill climb) which means breathing and biomechanics will remain effective. You’ll be able to descend over technical terrain quickly with more control, and you’ll have less unnecessary lateral movement.
Core training for trail runners will improve the activation of the prime movers used in running such as the glutes, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors. It will develop proprioception (the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement and action of parts of the body), and with polished proprioception being key to staying on your feet over rocky, muddy, gnarly trails, that has to be a good thing. If ultras or fell running are your bag then you’ll probably need to carry one – a conditioned core will also equip you to transport your equipment. So essentially, if you look after your core, your core will look after you.
Imagine two empty cola cans: One can is in good condition but the other has a dent in the side halfway up. If you were to apply equal pressure to both cans by pushing down on top of them, which one would crumple first? Well, the one with the dent of course… that one would allow less force / power to travel through it; you could say the can with the dent has a weak core.
What is the Core?
The core is the anatomical region that encompasses the trunk, pelvis and hips. It includes the glutes, hip flexors / adductors, transversus abdominis (TVA), pelvic floor, oblique abdominals, rectus abdominis (aka the six-pack), muscles of the mid and lower back such as the erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and multifidus, and others. These muscles facilitate movement and mobility of the spine as well as stabilizing it. They also stabilize the thoracic cage and pelvis. In addition, the core muscles are instrumental in providing internal pressure for your body’s biological functions. It is therefore of the utmost important, when it comes to staying upright on the trails, that you pay attention to core training for trail runners.
Strength, Stability and Mobility
There are three main types of core training: Core strength, core stability, and core mobility training – so it makes sense to practice a range of techniques that will develop all three areas. As a rule of thumb, core training should be carried out twice per week. I like to facilitate this by scheduling one dedicated core session into the week’s training plan, then incorporate elements of core into an additional session. For somebody who currently does no core training at all, I would start by scheduling in one 20 – 30 minutes long session per week. You should always warm up and cool down – I won’t go into detail of this here because a generic warm up should suffice (one that gradually raises the heartrate, mobilises the joints and includes dynamic stretches – such as a RAMP warm-up). Or if you want to kill two birds with one stone then you could pop a core workout on the end of a very easy trail 5K. Then cool down with static stretches of 10-15 seconds per stretch.
Activating Your Core Before Exercise
Before and during any core exercise, you will need to ensure that your core is activated / engaged: To activate your core, first adopt good postural position and a neutral spine. Then, inhale deeply and feel your ribs expand. As you exhale, contract your abdominals by pulling your belly button upwards and inwards toward your spine. Then, continue to breath normally all the while keeping your belly button pulled inwards and upwards. Great, you are now ready to workout.
Core Training for Trail Runners – Our Top Exercises
When it comes to core exercises there are literally hundreds of effective techniques and cool variations to choose from. However, I think the world needs more trail runners not less (I don’t want to kill any of you off just yet). For that reason, I have selected just 12 of my favourites that are great for complimenting the demands of trail running; they’ll strengthen, stabilize and mobilise your core whilst keeping the body guessing by developing those all-important proprioception and coordination skills:
12 Core Exercises for Trail Runners
For exercises 1 – 6, aim to hold for 15 seconds to 30 seconds. For exercises 7-12, aim to complete 10 – 20 repetitions.
The Plank (Low Plank, High Plank and Side Plank)
- Lie prone (face down) with your arms to the sides of your upper body and forearms against the floor
- Raise your body upwards by lifting your hips and pushing down through your forearms and toes
- Straighten your body to acquire alignment from your toes, to knees, to hips, to shoulders, to ears (Imagine a rod running through your body from your ankles to your ears). Your gaze should be straight down at the floor – don’t look down your body or forwards in front of you as this will compromise the alignment of your neck
- Keep your glutes tense and your core engaged, but remember to breathe!
Technique is as with the low plank but with straight arms and hands placed on the floor in line with your chest
- Start by lying on your side supported by your forearm, ensuring that the elbow is in line with the shoulder
- Stack one foot on top of the other
- Push yourself up on your forearm and outside of lower foot by lifting your hips until you achieve alignment through your body, then hold
The Sit-n-Lean (and Sprinter Sit-n-Lean)
Sit and Lean
- Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet resting flat
- Lean back whilst maintaining a neutral spine until you start to feel tension in your core
- Hold this position. If this feels easy go to the following step
- Lift your feet off the floor and straighten your knees until your body resembles a V-shape, then hold
Sprinter Sit and Lean
- Follow the above steps for the sit n lean
- Now bend one arm and opposite leg to mimic a running shape
- Lower and straighten the bent arm and knee whilst simultaneously lifting and bending the opposite sides
- Repeat as though you are running on the spot (whilst sitting down)
The Bridge (and Elevated Leg Bridge)
- Lie supine (face up)
- Bend both knees and bring your ankles in close to your bottom
- Push into your feet and raise your hips
- Squeeze your glutes and check that you have alignment from your shoulders through your hips to your knees, then hold this position
- To increase the difficulty, try raising one leg until your thighs are in line. Straighten the knee of the elevated leg. Ensure that your hips remain parallel
- Lie prone with your arms and legs wide
- Simultaneously raise your thighs and chest and arms off the floor to mimic the shape of a skydiver, hold
The Bird Dog
- Start on your hands and knees
- Simultaneously raise one arm and opposite leg until your hand is at shoulder height and your foot is at least the height of your bottom.
- Straighten the raised arm and leg by pushing forwards through your hand and backwards through your foot, hold
- Slowly lower your arm and leg to the start position then repeat on the other side
The Horizontal Balance
- Stand on one leg with both arms outstretched to the sides
- Hinge at the hips to lean your upper body over whilst lifting your other leg out behind you, until you reach as much of a horizontal position as possible
- Balance in this position, then repeat on the other side
The Knee Drive (and Knee Raised Arm Drive)
- Adopt a standing start sprint position
- Simultaneously drive your arms whilst you drive your rear leg forward and upward to lift the knee high in front of you and become balanced on one leg
- Pause for 1 second before lowing the raised leg to the start position
- Repeat on the same side for required number of reps, then change sides
Knee-Drive Hold with Driving Arms
- Follow the above steps of the knee-drive until you are balancing on one foot with the opposite knee raised
- Instead of lowering the knee after 1 second, hold it there whilst driving your arms as though sprinting. This will cause you to become unbalanced… brace your core to maintain your position and form. Repeat on the other side
The Mountain Climber
- Adopt high plank position
- Drive one knee forwards under your body towards your chest and place the ball of your foot on the floor at the furthermost position
- Immediately change feet in a running-type motion and repeat until you reach the required rep count.
Hip Rotations (Windscreen Wipers)
Windscreen Wipers (Hip-Roll)
- Lie supine with your arms outreached to the sides palms down
- Lift your legs to form a right-angle at the hips and knees
- Tilt your hips to lower both legs to one side, then tilt them the other way to lift and then lower your legs to the other side in a windscreen wiper motion
The Leg Raise
- Lie supine with arms straight by your sides, palms down.
- Lift both legs just off the floor
- Raise both legs (keeping them as straight as possible) until you form a right-angle at the hips (or as far as you can manage up to this point)
- Lower until your feet are just off the floor again. Repeat
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width to 1.5 shoulder widths apart
- Turn your left foot out until it is at a 90-degree angle to the other. Check that the heels of both feet are in line.
- Place the back of your left hand lightly against the inner thigh of the left leg and reach your right hand straight up ensuring that the elbow is straight. Fix your gaze on that right hand.
- Tilt your right hip backward and out to the side
- Reach your left hand down the inside of your left leg towards the ankle whilst bending sideways in the trunk. Be sure to keep your right arm pointing straight up at all times and keep your eyes on it
- Straighten your trunk and tilt your right hip back inwards and forwards util you are standing tall again, with your right arm still pointing skyward
- Repeat on the same side for the required rep count
- Now repeat on the other side
The Dying Bug
- Lie supine with both arms pointing straight up
- Lift legs and bend knees to form a right-angle at the hips and knees
- Simultaneously lower one arm behind you and the opposite leg until both are just above the floor
- Return that arm and leg to the right-angle starting position, then repeat on the other side
- Repeat for the required rep count
- To increase the difficulty, try keeping both legs straight at the knee instead of bending them
About the Author
Pete Clark is a Core and Outdoor Exercise Specialist who is also an experienced trail and fell runner. He has coached many runners specifically to improve their trail running skills through his Work Outside the Box Bootcamp running and PT sessions, including the affectionately named BEAST Bootcamp. Rafi is Pete’s four-legged faithful companion who also enjoys trail running and helping out with photos! We would like to thank them for their help in creating this piece on core training for trail runners.
Do you have any tips on core training for trail runners? We’d love to hear them.
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