Why are strong abs important for running and how do they help you run faster?
Strong abs not only provide stability but also help your running form and forward propulsion. Chartered physiotherapist Sarah Green explains the role strong abdominals plays in running
What are your abdominal muscles (abs) and what do they do?
We’re not just talking about your ‘six pack’ muscles. The abdominals are a group of four different muscles: the internal obliques, external obliques, transverses abdomens and rectus abdomens. These muscles sit in layers and attach from the pelvis, up to the ribs, and surround our trunk. They work together in order to form a firm wall to support the muscles of the spine. They play an important role in maintaining an upright posture, preventing hyperextension of the lumbar spine, protecting and supporting internal organs, and assisting with forceful expiration necessary for coughing, sneezing and lifting.
The deepest layer of the abdominals is the transverse abdominis. Its fibres run horizontally across the abdomen and its primary role is to stabilise the lumbar spine and pelvis before you move your limbs.
The fibres of the internal and external obliques run in opposite, diagonal directions and work unilaterally (one side of body) to assist with trunk rotation and side flexion, or bilaterally (both sides of body) to assist with trunk flexion and abdominal compression.
The rectus abdominis is the most superficial muscle sitting just below the skin. Commonly known as the ‘six-pack’ muscle, it extends the entire length of the abdomen and lies close to the midline. Its primary role is lumbar flexion (bending forwards), but it also plays an important role in forced expiration and pelvic tilting.
Why are strong abdominals important for running?
All four abdominal muscles work alongside the muscles in the lower back, glutes, diaphragm and pelvic floor, together they are often known as the ‘core’ muscles.
Firstly, abs work together to provide stability around the lower back, pelvis, hips and knees. A strong and stable base will minimise wasteful movements and therefore, running form becomes more economical. A lack of stability around the trunk will cause increased load on other joints, and often results in overload running related injuries such as knee pain, tendon problems or ITB issues.
Secondly, the abs play an important role in running form. As the foot comes into contact with the ground, a counter rotation is produced at the spine from the abdominals and other core muscles, helping with forward momentum.
Finally, breathing through your tummy when running is much more efficient than chest breathing, do this by using your diaphragm to breathe deeper. The abdominal muscles contract and force the diaphragm upwards therefore providing further power to empty your lungs.
Stronger abdominals will give you the ability to run faster and for longer periods of time. Although high intensity explosive sprint training will contribute to building muscle tone in the abs, running alone will not give you stronger abs. It is therefore important to strengthen the abdominals, as you would do for other muscle groups.
Does running give you abs?
But can running actually give you good abs? Well it depends on what we mean by good abs. If you are looking for strong, efficient and athletic muscles that improve performance then yes running will give you good abs. As discussed, your abdominal muscles work in a variety of dynamic ways when running which will undoubtedly strengthen them and improve their function. However if it’s killer abs for summer you are after then unfortunately it’s not that easy. Running can help tone them but you will need to have your nutrition, strength training and recovery on point if it’s a 6 pack you are after.
What are the best abdominal exercises to improve your running?
Functional, running-specific exercises which work the abdominals at the same time as working other core stability muscles are shown to be the most beneficial for runners.
Try these following key abdominal exercises to make you a healthier and stronger runner:
Plank with knee pulls
Activate your lower abdominals (transversus abdomini) by bringing your belly button inward and by activating your pelvic floor muscles (inner thigh) with 20-30% of maximal contraction, whilst in high plank position.
Maintain a steady abdominal breathing while you slowly bend one knee and lift your thigh towards your belly without letting your pelvis turn, try to keep your body as horizonal as possible and don’t raise your glutes.
Slowly lower your leg and repeat on the other side. Hold the position without arching your back.
Side plank with leg lift and hold
Lie on your side with your legs straight and in-line with your body.
Support yourself on the elbow that is directly under the shoulder.
Lift your pelvis, creating a straight line with your body.
Lift the top leg and hold for a few seconds then repeat, lifting and lowering the top leg each time.
Single leg oblique twists
Stand on one leg, lift the chest and stay up tall. Attach a resistance band attached to an immovable object at your side at waist height.
Keeping the abdominals engaged and the hips facing forward, rotate the upper body to the opposite side of where the band is attached.
Keep the movement slow and intentional, with the core tensed. Return and repeat.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Squeeze a small ball between your knees.
Place your hands to each side of your head so that they are incontact with your head, but not pulling on it.
Keep the pelvis stable and gently engage your stomach muscles.
Lift one shoulder off the ground to bring it towards the opposite knee (rotate your trunk to one side). Don’t let the pelvis tilt or the back arch.
Repeat on the opposite side.
Can your abs get injured?
Like any muscle, the abs can be injured by being pulled or strained. This is most commonly caused by a sudden twisting or turning motion and therefore more regularly seen in sports that require powerful rotational movements such as basketball or gymnastics.
Following an abdominal strain, it is key to avoid any excessive rotational movements. Muscle strains will settle, but this will take time depending on the severity.
Abdominal discomfort can also occur after a long run, or with increased training intensity or speed. This can be due to abdominal fatigue or delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). By incorporating regular abdominal strengthening exercises into your routine, this can prevent muscle strains and soreness from overuse.
If you have any health concerns at all or are worried about injuries always consult a doctor, pharmacist or chartered physiotherapist.
Sarah Green, is a rehab consultant and running guru at Six Physio Fitzrovia
Image credit: Jonathan Borba, Unsplash