Every runner looks for the exercise that will give them an extra performance advantage. Will beet juice lead to a PR? What about super shoes? Or, as I commonly hear runners ask, can a plank workout be the secret to a breakthrough? Nothing replaces consistent, smart run training. However, while a plank workout may not be a magic bullet, it can be a useful addition to a well-rounded strength training routine for runners.
Will a Plank Workout Improve Running Performance?
No resistance training workout is a substitute for a properly designed running plan. A running plan with varied intensities (including lots of easy running) will directly improve running performance. You cannot replace a run with a plank workout and see the same results.
Once you have a consistent, well-designed running plan, supplemental training with core exercises such as a plank workout can add marginal gains. A 2019 study published in Plos One found a 4.6% improvement in running economy in trained collegiate runners (as measured on a 4-stage VO2max treadmill test) after an 8-week core training program (including planks), compared to a control group.
It is worth noting that exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges improve strength in the trunk muscles more than a standard core workout will. So, if your training plan incorporates strength training, you may not need to add additional core workouts. A couple of core exercises as part of your strength plan will suffice.
Wil a Plank Workout Prevent Injury?
Running injuries are often complex in their origin. Many running injuries are a combination of overuse (too much training and/or weak muscles), inadequate nutrition, inadequate sleep, and individual biomechanical irregularities.
Planks will not definitively prevent injury. However, for some runners, including planks in their workouts may strengthen weak areas that could contribute to overuse injuries. A 2016 review in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology explains how a weak gluteus medius can cause poor control of the hips in the frontal plane, which can cause overuse injuries such as patellofemoral knee syndrome. A weak glute med is often associated with IT band syndrome. The side plank (sometimes called the side bridge) and its variations target the glute med, more than even the traditional clamshell (according to a 2019 systematic review in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation).
Plank exercises may also reduce the occurrence of low back pain in runners. According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Biomechanics, weak trunk musculature can increase spinal loading during running. Over time, this increased loading can lead to low back pain. Anecdotally, in coaching, I have observed numerous runners report that core exercises reduce their low back pain during running.
However, a plank workout is not a panacea for running injuries. You can do a plank workout and still get injured, especially if you commit other training errors or do not eat enough.
Important Form Cues for a Plank:
Like all resistance training exercises, a plank workout requires proper form to be effective and safe. A proper plank involves a neutral spine, even hips, and isometrically engaged core musculature. If you can hold a plank for several minutes on end, you may not be using enough of an isometric contraction.
In any plank variation, good form includes:
- Maintaining a neutral spine (unless specifically directed otherwise)
- Hips, knees, and shoulders in a straight line
- Neutral position of the head
- Isometrically holding the torso
You can modify a plank workout based on your experience level. Shortening the lever makes an exercise easier; in a plank or side plank, that is achieved by dropping the knees to the ground. You can also modify a plank by elevating the hands to a step or table. This elevated modification is also appropriate for pregnant athletes.
Effective Plank Variations
These variations of the standard plank change the musculature used and the degree of muscle activation. Generally speaking, you should be able to hold a standard forearm plank for 30+ seconds before incorporating these planks into your workout.
- Side Plank: This variation of the plank activates the internal obliques, external obliques, and glute medius more than the standard front plank.
- Side Plank with Clam: This progression from the side plank incorporates a clamshell. Both glute meds are worked: the top one through external rotation, the bottom one isometrically as a stabilizer.
- Plank With Alternating Shoulder Tap: Adding dynamic movement to the front plank increases the anti-rotational emphasis. Your core muscles work harder to maintain a neutral pelvis and spine. An alternating shoulder tap is only one example of how to increase the difficulty of a front plank.
- Plank Pull-throughs: The addition of a KB or dumbbell drag transforms the plank into a total body exercise. Your core muscles and glutes engage to stabilize your trunk, while your lats and deltoids work to horizontally abduct as you pull the weight.
Plank workouts are not the only type of core exercise for runners. It can be beneficial to incorporate other core exercises, such as anti-rotational exercises, into your strength training routine. Read here for more functional core exercises for runners!
How Often Should Runners Do a Plank Workout?
Planks are best performed when integrated into a well-designed, total-body resistance workout. If you spend 20 minutes only doing plank variations, you will neglect other muscle groups. A more effective approach is to add one to two plank variations to your strength workouts (such as this quick strength workout for runners.) For most runners, strength training itself is best done one to three times per week, depending on the training phase.
References not listed:
Haff & Triplett. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. (4th ed.) Human Kinetics