As runners, when we think of strength training , our legs are usually what comes to mind. Makes sense, right? Your legs are doing most of the work, so of course you want them to be strong and powerful.
But did you know that a strong core and upper body are just as important? If your hips, glutes, abs, back, chest, shoulders, and arms aren’t up to the task of running, your form will suffer and injuries may arise – the body is only as strong as its weakest link. As the title of this article suggests, the (deceptively simple) plank is a great way to strengthen all these areas and activate the core muscles that don’t get much action during moves like crunches.
Here’s a quick review of what muscle groups, besides the legs, are involved in running.
Running Muscle Groups That Aren’t In Your Legs
Hips & Glutes
If your core is a column, think of the hips as the pedestal that supports that column. The muscles that stabilize the hips need to be strong and stable. If they aren’t, your running form will likely be inefficient and, what’s worse, you might get injured. Weak hip flexors and abductors can lead to IT band pain
, runner’s knee, and plenty of other lower body running injuries.
There are actually lots of muscles in your abdominal area, not just the ones that form the proverbial “six-pack”. In fact, your six-pack muscles might even be the least important of your abs when it comes to running. The obliques – external and internal – as well as the transverse abdomimus (a cylinder of muscle that circles your trunk and helps stabilize your lower back) are far more important. These muscles also help support proper breathing.
The muscles in your back help keep your upper body from collapsing forward, which compresses the lungs and impedes breathing. Leaning or slumping from the waist can also throw off your center of gravity and your running gait which can lead to – you guessed it – injuries.
The pectoral muscles help support the shoulders and upper body and aid in keeping a strong and solid breathing rhythm – a very important function!
Shoulders and Arms
Arm movement is actually pretty important in running. Too much side to side swinging and you’ll waste energy trying to counteract that motion and keep your body moving forward. The arms also stabilize the torso by counterbalancing the opposite leg while running, and driving the arms forward with purpose assists with the forward motion of the body. Strong shoulders provide support for the arms, as well as the chest and back.
Planks & Running
OK, now that I’ve convinced you that the upper body is just as important as the lower in running, let’s talk about planks.
What is a plank? Just like it sounds – holding your body in a fixed pose resembling a board, or a plank. Try all three of the plank variations below for best results, working your way up from holding 20 seconds at a time to 2 minutes.
Also called front plank or just plain plank, this is the most common version of plank. It predominantly works the abs, lower back, upper back, and shoulders. Keep your elbows directly below your shoulders, and ensure your hips don’t drop too low or raise too high. Your body should be in a straight line, from ears to ankles.
If this pose is too difficult to hold for 20 seconds, you can modify it by straightening your arms so your weight is supported on your hands (which should still be directly below your shoulders). A further modification is to drop to your knees, holding a straight line from ears to knees. Once you’re able to hold either of these modifications for a minute, you can progress to the full pose.
If you need a more challenging progression, try lifting one leg off the ground for 20 seconds, then repeating on the other side.
Also known as reverse plank, this is an often-neglected form of plank that emphasizes the glutes and lower back. Just like front plank, keep elbows below shoulders and your body in a straight line from ears to ankles. Keep the hips high. Modify (shown below) if necessary by using straight arms and keeping wrists below the shoulders.
This is an especially good pose for runners, because it works the hips even more than the other two versions. The obliques and shoulders also get a workout, and it’s the version that requires the most balance! As with the other types of plank, your elbow should be directly below your shoulder and your body should be in a line from ears to ankles. The top arm can either rest on your hip or raise straight up towards the ceiling. Modify if necessary by bending the lower leg and resting on the knee instead of ankle. If you need a more challenging progression, try raising up that top leg by about 12 inches.
Planking daily will increase your muscular endurance and help you take your runs to the next level. And, if you’d like a little extra help and accountability to get into the planking habit, we’ve created a 30-Day Plank Challenge
on Facebook to get you planking for 2 minutes in 30 days!
Share RunBuzz running tips with your friends and join us in The 30 Day Plank Challenge!
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Jill is a personal trainer, coach, runner, triathlete, blogger and author, who wants to live in a world where everyone is free to feel fit and fabulous at any size. She writes about the joys and challenges of being a curvy runner, and shares her experiences, knowledge and expertise to help her readers embrace their inner athlete. In addition to running, she has an unbridled passion for kettlebells, cupcakes, champagne, fuchsia and murder mysteries (not necessarily in that order).