Running is one of the most popular sporting and fitness pursuits around the world. In the US alone, almost 60 million people take part in running, jogging, or trail running activities. (1)
Many folks do it just to keep their bodies fit, while others compete in sporting events or use running as a way to control their weight. Whatever the reason, running is big business. In 2019, sales of athletic footwear in the US, including running shoes, topped $14 billion. (2)
There are many health benefits of running and jogging, including:
- Building strong bones
- Strengthening muscles
- Improving cardiovascular fitness
- Burning calories
- Helping to maintain a healthy weight
- Improving sleep
- Supporting mental health through the release of endorphins
Running Is Also A Pain In The Back
Although the benefits to health and fitness from running are well known, many runners also suffer from low back pain as a result of their chosen pursuit. This is mainly due to constant stress and impact on the lumbar region while running.
There are three types of back pain, all of which can be associated with running – acute, sub-acute, and chronic. Acute back pain lasts less than a month and usually disappears without treatment, sub-acute lasts over a month but less than three months, and chronic lasts over three months.
A study carried out by Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center examines the possible causes of chronic back pain in runners and what exercises can help prevent it.
Researchers found that runners with weak deep core muscles are at greater risk of developing low back pain. The study also concluded that most people’s deep core muscles aren’t as strong as they should be.
Core And Deep Core Muscles – The Difference
Core muscles protect the spine, from the hips to the shoulders, and keep it stabilized from excessive load. The spine itself helps control movements such as standing, walking, or running.
The core muscles have two main functions:
- To safeguard the spine from excessive load.
- To transfer energy from the lower body to the upper body and vice versa. Having a strong core can help prevent injuries and allows the body to function at its physical best.
Many people tend to think of the core as “abs” (6 pack), back or gluteus (buttocks) muscles. While these certainly are part of your (outer) core, and do play an important role in running and exercise, there are many more muscles that are often forgotten about. These are called the deep core muscles.
The deep core muscles consist of – the diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidus (attached to the spine), and transversus abdominis (inner ab muscle). These muscles provide greater stability and protection to the spine. (3)
New Study May Help Prevent Back Pain
The study, published in the Journal of Biomechanics, suggests that runners with weak deep core muscles are at higher risk of developing low back pain. During the study, researchers used motion detection technology and force-measuring floor plates to estimate muscle movements during activity.
First, dimensions of runners’ bodies were measured, and data on how they moved captured, which was then used to create a computer model specific to each person. This allowed researchers to examine how every bone moves and how much pressure is put on each joint. A simulation could then be used to virtually ‘turn off’ certain muscles, observing how the rest of the body compensates.
Results showed that weak deep core muscles force more of the superficial (outer core) muscles, like those abs, to work harder… and become tired more quickly. When those superficial, outer core muscles are doing the majority of the work, low back pain may occur.
Ajit Chaudhari, associate professor of physical therapy and biomedical engineering at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who led the study, said. “When your deep core is weak, your body can compensate in a way that allows you to essentially run the same way,” Chaudhari said. “But that increases the load on your spine in a way that may lead to low back pain.” (4)
Deep Core Muscle Training
During training, runners or athletes often concentrate on traditional ab exercises such as sit-ups or back extensions. And while this gives a nice aesthetic, a “six-pack”, it won’t generally condition those deep core muscles that can not only prevent low back pain, but increase performance.
Instead, Chaudhari says exercises such as planks that focus on stabilizing the core, especially on unstable surfaces, are what’s really going to make you a better runner.
“Working on a six-pack and trying to become a better runner is definitely not the same thing. If you look at great runners, they don’t typically have a six-pack but their muscles are very fit,” Chaudhari said. “Static exercises that force you to fire your core and hold your body in place are what’s really going to make you a better runner.”
Exercises To Improve Deep Core
The study recommends planks and side-bridges to improve deep core muscles. Let’s take a look at those two exercises and the techniques involved:
- Lie on one side, with legs extended. Place the elbow of your right arm directly under the shoulder. Ensure the head is perfectly in line with your spine. The top arm can rest along the top side of your body.
- Using your abdominal muscles, draw the belly button toward your spine.
- Lift everything off the floor with an exhale. Keep the whole body in a straight line.
- Return to starting position when ready, then switch sides. Work up to a 60 second hold on each side.
The Side-Bridge works with your body weight and is an exercise that trains your abs, deltoids, glutes, and obliques. When done correctly, it successfully targets your buttocks, core, legs, lower body, shoulders, upper body, and waist. (5)
- Begin on your belly,with your elbows beneath shoulders, and forearms parallel like railroad tracks. Relax your gaze ahead at the floor.
- Using your abdominal muscles, push down through forearms and draw your belly toward your spine as you lift your body off the ground. Keep everything in one long line from head to toes. Make sure the shoulders are not creeping up towards your ears. Send down through the forearms and rebound the energy up through strong shoulders.
- Hold for 10 seconds.
- Work up to 60 seconds.
Planking strengthens the entire body, especially the core. (6)
By taking the time to focus on developing your deep core muscles so your running form improves, you’ll also be improving your form in every action you do each day. Working smarter, not harder, is what building core intelligence is all about.