I remember sitting in the athletic training room my junior year of college, doing some sort of treatment for a sprained ankle or some other nagging injury. I was playing close to 40 minutes a game that season, on top of 2-3 hour practices 6 days a week, and my body was somehow holding out. I reflected on this -- I was amazed that, despite all the wear and tear, I was relatively healthy while other teammates couldn't make it through the week without an injury. My trainer smiled, shrugged, and said, "Well, yeah. You've got a strong core. That makes a difference."
I looked back and asked what she meant. So she broke it down -- despite the fact that I wasn't lifting the most weight, or running the fastest sprints, she could see how strong my core was when we did core work in the weight room. And she saw how some of the more injury-prone athletes could barely hold a 30-second plank. "Your core is what allows the rest of your body to endure stress. If you have a weak core, everything else works harder -- and is more prone to injury."
I always knew core strength was important, but that moment was really the, "Ah-ha!" moment for me. See, the core really is the foundation of fitness. It consists of about 29 pair of muscles in your midsection and lower back, that wrap around to provide stability and balance. All your limbs, and the muscle groups they contain, are connected through the core. If you're trying to do any activity that involves transferring power from one limb to another, you'll perform more efficiently with a strong core.
Think about running on pavement versus running in sand. When you run in the unstable sand, it moves and absorbs some of the force you are using. But when you run on pavement, it pushes back. It's essentially amplifying the force you exert. Because of this, you can run a mile on pavement with significantly less effort than you can on sand.
No apply that to your core. A weak core is the sand. It absorbs force as you run, making it more challenging for you to propel forward. A strong core is the pavement. It efficiently transfers power, and amplifies your performance.
You already need a strong core to run. I shared these core exercises (banded pull downs, push outs, and pull forwards) a few months ago after learning them from a pelvic floor physical therapist. If you're running, you should be able to perform all of them standing on one leg. It mimics the stability required to stride forward. If you can do them, that's great! If not, you're probably relying on other body parts to keep you stable. It may work in the short term, but sets you up for injury in the long term. Either way: strengthening your core is always a good idea!
If you have no idea where to start, try these plank routines:
Set a timer for 4 rounds of 30 seconds. Do a front plank; left side plank; right side plank; and glute bridge. Rest about one minute, then repeat the sequence. Perform this 2-3x a week, adding 10-15 seconds each week.
More Advanced (full demo here):
Set a timer for 4 rounds of 30 seconds. Do the following in order (demo here):
Plank toe taps
Plank up downs
Side plank with front-back toe tap
Let me know if you try it!