How Ab Workouts for Runners Work

By: Nathan Chandler
Two men working out
workouts aren't just for gym fanatics who want a ripped, six-pack look. These exercises are also extremely beneficial to runners.
Comstock Images/Comstock/Thinkstock

Rippled, powerful abdominal muscles are a trademark of serious weightlifters and the envy of owners of the flabbier variety. But ab workouts aren't just for gym rats -- these exercises offer tremendous potential benefits for runners, too.

Many runners do nothing but run to stay in shape, eschewing weights and even cross-training techniques such as bicycling or swimming. Ignore your abs, though, and you're ignoring keys to a longer, faster running life.


At any given point during a typical run, your body weight rests entirely on one leg or the other. That means the muscles in the core (abdominal) area of your body must remain contracted in order to help you keep your balance. A weak core means other muscles, like those in your back and neck, must pick up the slack, which can lead to aches, pains and even serious injury. At the very least, weak abs compromise your running performance, making you slower and causing you to tire faster.

You can dive into one of many classic abdominal exercise routines to improve your conditioning; however, to really get the best benefits from ab workouts, runners must use routines that mimic the stresses of running. That way, when you hit the road your abdominal muscles will already be acclimated to the challenges that running presents.

Before you begin a new ab workout routine, evaluate your goals and your overall health. If you have a history of issues with any sort of injuries, particularly to your back, you may want to consult your doctor before adding these kinds of exercises. Also understand that you'll need a certain amount of precision and good posture to avoid injury during ab workouts. If you're not sure how to perform a set, seek the help of an expert before you proceed.

Once you've set your training goals, you'll be happy to learn that you may need to do these kinds of workouts only two to three times per week (20 to 30 minutes for each workout) to yield big benefits. Another great thing about ab workouts is that they don't necessarily require a gym membership. Many of the best exercises can be done at home with no gizmos or weights whatsoever.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to starting is that there's no standard ab routine just for runners. Many running coaches have tweaked specific core conditioning programs for their fleet-footed, elite athletes, but ordinary runners without personal trainers must feel their way through an ab workout routine, monitor their results and decide what works best for their bodies. Keep reading to see some of the best exercises you can use to strengthen your core with your running interests in mind.


Ab Workouts for Runners at Home

Woman with an exercise ball
You don't need any fancy equipment to do ab workouts at home, but an inexpensive exercise ball is a helpful accessory.

You don't need to buy expensive exercise machines or join the latest exercise gadget fad in order to work on your abs at home. All you really need are a few basic exercises and the persistence to stick with them until you see results.

You may want to start with classic bent-knee crunches. Lie on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Without dropping your chin towards your chest, lift your shoulder blades about 2 inches (5.1 centimeters) off of the floor. Slowly lower your shoulder blades, but not all the way to the floor, and keep your abs tight throughout the exercise to work core muscles. Do crunches every other day, working up to 40 or so per workout.


You can mix these crunches with bicycle crunches. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and your hands on the sides of your head. Contract your abdominal muscles as you bring your knees up to a 45-degree angle. Straighten and bend your knees as you alternate crossing and touching your right elbow to your left knee. Then switch and touch your left elbow to your right knee. Do two sets of 10 repetitions (reps) for each leg.

Arm running sounds silly but it helps build up your back and side muscles to balance abdominal strength. To do the exercise, stand erect, hold onto the small hand-held weights and begin moving your arms as you do during running, while keeping your feet stationary. Keep your elbows bent at roughly 90 degrees as you pump your arms. Repeat these motions until you're worn out.

Some runners use only one kind of crunches, along with arm running, as their primary core workout. Others recommend a more extended session including the following exercises:

The plank and side plank maneuvers begin when you lie in a push-up position, but with your forearms on the ground instead of your hands. Hold your body in a straight line and keep your elbows directly below your shoulders. Tighten your abs and hold. Then, shift to your side, leaving the elbow directly under your shoulder and both feet on the floor, with your top foot in front. Raise your hips until your body is in a straight line. Start with 30 seconds and work towards two minutes.

The bird dog is a little simpler. To perform this, start on your hands and knees, with your back straight. Raise an opposite leg and arm to the height of your torso. Hold for 10 seconds and work towards 30 seconds. Repeat the move by alternating arms and legs.

The lunge crunch may help you round out your routine. Stand up straight, and then step forward into a lunge. Try to contract your abs and keep your buttocks tucked under your torso as you lunge forward. Step back into your starting position, and then repeat 10 times. Use the same routine for your other leg.


Ab Workouts for Runners at the Gym

Working out
You need strong side and back muscles to counter the increasing strength in your stomach area.

For runners, a complete gym is a candy land of choices that lead to better running performance. But there are so many workout options that you may not know where to begin. The following exercises use gym equipment to help you get stronger and faster:

Back extension maneuvers are very good for core conditioning. Start face down on a Roman chair with your legs wrapped securely and then lift your torso up until it's parallel to the ground. Be sure to keep your back straight. Arching your back greatly increases your chances of injury and reduces the effectiveness of this exercise. Hold for 45 seconds, and as you improve, up to three minutes.


Body curls are another highly recommend ab workout. Hang from a pull-up bar with the palms of your hands facing away from your body. Use your core and ab muscles to curl your body up until your knees are between your arms. When you've reached the best position you'll be nearly upside down. Hold this for a moment and then slowly carefully lower your body into your starting position. Begin with one to two reps, build to four, then add a second set, with a minute or so of rest between sets.

Next, find your gym's captain's chair. Start with your forearms supported on the padded arms of the chair, and your legs hanging straight down. Lift your knees toward your chest by contracting your abs. Lower your knees slowly. Do two sets of 10 reps.

Now try some erect lateral bends. With both hands, hold a free weight bar across your shoulders. With your knees bent a little, keep your weight on your heels and tip your body to your right side, moving the bar toward your ankle, but without bending forward at the waist. Repeat this move to your left side. Use about three seconds to move the bar down and about one second in raising the bar back to your original position. Do two to three sets of five reps on each side.

You can do Swiss hip extensions at the gym or at home. Sit straight up on a stability ball and walk your legs forward so the ball moves up your spine. Keep moving until the ball reaches your shoulder blades. With your arms extended outwards to your sides, lift your hips up until your torso is parallel to the floor. Lift one knee about 45 degrees, lower it, and then lower your hips toward the floor. Repeat these moves for the other side of your body. That will count as one rep. Plan to do three sets of five to seven reps, and for the best workout and optimum results, rest for a few minutes between sets.


Benefits of Ab Workouts for Runners

Runner's abs
Well-toned abs are a sign of good muscle strength in your torso. That strength improves balance and power.

The benefits of ab workouts are many, but runners in particular will see that these exercises help them run farther and stronger than ever before. If you persist with your ab-strengthening workouts you can expect to see real improvements in your endurance and speed, and if you've been experiencing back or neck aches, ab conditioning may help reduce pain.

Strong abdominal muscles help stabilize your pelvis and spine as you run. Without adequate ab strength, during a run, your body automatically recruits other muscles to do this work. That can have a domino effect on other muscle systems, causing aches, pains or outright serious injuries.


Lower back pain and hamstring injuries are particularly common in runners with insufficient ab strength. Other common ailments include sciatica pain, piriformis syndrome and patella syndrome. These are the types of injuries that can leave runners laid low for months at a time.

In addition to helping you ward off injuries and aches, stronger abs improve your alignment, posture and running form. What's more, you can maintain good running form for longer distances before you begin to tire. Better form also means less wasted energy, which in turn means you don't wear out as fast.

In other words, fit abs mean better efficiency. A strong core results in easier transfer of energy from your legs through to your upper body, meaning there's less wasted energy as your legs propel you forward.

One of the great aspects of ab workouts is that it doesn't take long to feel and see results. Human abdominal muscles simply respond quickly to exercise, so after only two to four weeks of regular workouts you'll notice that your core muscles feel a lot different.

Another thing to consider is that once you have these muscles in good condition, it doesn't take much to keep them in shape. Two workouts per week should help you maintain them.

Whether you're a new runner or an experienced racer looking for a new edge, you'll find that ab workouts are an extremely effective way to increase efficiency and endurance with a minimal investment. Plan your goals before you begin training, track your improvements and listen to your body to make sure you're not aggravating old injuries or creating new problems. With careful training you'll be faster and fitter than ever.

For more on running and other forms of exercise, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Adams, Caitlin E. and McCall, Pete. "Become a Stronger, Leaner Faster Runner with Core Conditioning." Washington Running Report. March/April 2005. (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Amercian Running Association. "Absolutely Effective Abdominal Exercises." Running & FitNews. Volume 20, Number 6. (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • "Core Conditioning for Runners." (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "The Abs Plan." Runner's World. August 2004. (Aug. 5, 2010),7124,s6-238-263-266-9261-0,00.html
  • Galloway, Jeff. "Posture Perfect." (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Hanc, John. "How to Get Ripped Abs." Runner's World. Jan. 10, 2008. (Aug. 5, 2010),7120,s6-238-267--12417-0,00.html
  • Hanc, John. "The Ultimate Ab Workout for Runners." Runner's World. Jan. 10, 2008. (Aug. 5, 2010),7120,s6-238-263-266-12415-0,00.html
  • Maguire, Justin. "Hard Core -- Exercises to Strengthen Your Abs for Better Performance." May 3, 2005. (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • McKinley, Dominic and Mullins, Joe. "Why is the Core Important to Runners?" Guildford Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center. 2010. (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Wadyka, Sally. "The Runner's Six Pack." Runner's World. Jan. 10, 2007. (Aug. 5, 2010),7120,s6-238-263-266-11400-0,00.html