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What if you could run faster and with less effort—without actually doing any running? Feels like a compelling, if not too-good-to-be-true promise at this time of year, no? Well, there’s a research-backed way to do just that: core training. Contrary to popular belief, the core is not just your “six-pack muscles” or your abs. It actually includes dozens of muscles, like your glutes and muscles around your spine, says Mike Simone, certified trainer and founder of HumanFitProject.com.
And a recent study in the journal Plos One found that focusing on those muscles three times a week for 8 weeks was enough for male college athletes to improve their running economy. Translation: They needed less energy to maintain a constant speed. (And while yes, the study was done on men, Simone says he “can’t think of any reason women wouldn’t experience the exact same results.”)
Here’s why it works for both genders: Strengthening the mid-section helps increase force production in that area—and think about it, your legs and arms (which propel you during a run) all attach at that midpoint of the body. If you can generate more force from the core to those working running muscles, it follows that you’ll be able to run better and faster, says Simone. What’s more, you’ll ward off pesky running-related injuries thanks to improved stabilization of the spine, according to the same study.
To help you score both of these benefits, Simone designed the following core training plan that you can do up to three times a week, after a run or on any non-run day. Each move was chosen thoughtfully and specifically for building running-bettering core strength. The best part? You need zero equipment so you can do it anywhere, any time.
Your 60-Day Core Challenge
Complete the following core training exercises as described, moving from one to the next with as little rest as possible. Perform as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes. Your goal: Try to get another round or stronger reps week after week! (For reference, 5 rounds is an impressive goal.)
One quick note to keep in mind: You can use the core training challenge as described, or work through the exercises at your own pace. Your goal should always be quality over quantity, so focus on keeping your reps controlled before aiming for extra rounds.
In addition to activating your abs, this move calls upon your glutes and all of the muscles surrounding the spine. “When you don’t have strong glutes, other muscles groups (like your hamstrings) have to pick up the slack, which can lead to imbalance and injury,” says Simone.
HOW: Lie facedown on the floor with arms extended in front of you and legs straight out behind you. Lift your left leg and right arm off the ground and immediately switch sides, lowering those limbs and lifting the opposite ones. That’s one rep. Continue quickly alternating sides for a total of 20 reps.
Plank to Extended Plank
Simone says this is “one of the best, if not the best exercises you can do because of how much it instantly wakes up the core.” In other plank variations, it’s easy to sit there without really activating the right muscles, but this version forces that, he says. (A note from Simone: If you can’t go all the way out to full extension, just start where you are and work to go further each week.)
HOW: Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor and extend your feet behind you so that your body forms a straight line from head to heels. Brace your core (as though someone is about to punch you in the stomach) and squeeze your glutes. From that position, slowly move one hand in front of the other in front of your body as far as you can go while maintaining good form. Pause, then return to start and repeat. That’s one rep. Do 5 to 7.
Loaded Beast Mountain Climber
“In addition to working your core, you’ll also be opening and mobilizing your hips—super important for runners who have
notoriously tight hips,” says Simone.
HOW: Get on your hands and knees in a tabletop position with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips; raise your knees an inch off the ground, then push your hips back towards your heels (what Simone calls the “loaded beast” position). In one smooth, controlled motion, shift your weight forward and bring your left foot as close to the outside of your left hand as possible. Reverse the movement to return to start. That’s one rep. Repeat on the other side, then continue alternating for a total of 20 reps.
This also makes a great warmup move! Use it to wake up your core and open up your hips before any run. [It should feel very flow-y in nature.]
Lying Windshield Wipers
Activate your obliques and transverse abdominis with this move, which also strengthens the lower lumbar spine.
HOW: Lie faceup on the floor with your arms extended straight at shoulder level (forming a T-shape), then raise both legs so they’re perpendicular with your hips, feet facing the ceiling. Brace your core, then slowly lower your legs to the left as far as you can while maintaining control. Return to start. That’s one rep. Repeat on the right and continue alternating for 20 total reps.