Running is one of the most popular ways of keeping in shape. It increases cardiovascular fitness and can be done anywhere, so it is a very accessible form of exercise. As running grows in popularity, so do the number of “fun runs” and competitive races of varying distances to challenge the runner.
As a high intensity form of exercise, running places a great deal of strain on the body, particularly for half or full marathon runners. Add to this poor technique, poor posture, misalignments or asymmetries in the body, and certain muscles often become overused. This results in muscle fatigue and commonly leads to painful strains and tears. Common injuries experienced by runners are those to the knee, hip, lower back, calf and ankle.
Pilates can help with both rehabilitating existing injuries and preventing future ones.
Pilates’ holistic approach to movement focuses on breathing, alignment, core stability, coordination, good body awareness and concentration. Let’s consider each of these in more detail…
Good breathing is essential for runners because it increases lung capacity, resulting in better muscle endurance while running. The heart is a muscle too of course, so cardiovascular fitness is improved by breathing effectively.
Proper alignment has the benefit of promoting good posture, which in turn facilitates effective breathing. With good alignment, the muscles work in a much more balanced way, allowing optimal and efficient movement patterns, which help improve performance and prevent injuries.
Pilates exercises generally focus on strengthening the muscles eccentrically, i.e. the muscles contract whilst at the same time lengthening. This improves elasticity in the surrounding connective tissue. For runners this is essential as the leg muscles need to be both strong and flexible to allow for the dynamic movement in the leg swing, landing and push off phase. A good sense of balance too is essential. Good balance plus body awareness starts with the feet, our platform for standing, walking and running. Strong awareness of the feet, particularly if a runner has a tendency to pronate, i.e. roll in or out at the ankle, is essential to avoid instability in this joint and potential injuries. Pilates is a great way of reintroducing a runner to their feet, how they are placed and the way the weight is distributed on them.
Pilates can also help achieve better pelvic alignment and improved core stability. Effective engagement of the deep abdominals enables the body to run in a much more balanced way. Exercises such as the Pilates sit-up and the clam are excellent for strengthening those muscles responsible for stabilising the pelvis and supporting the lower back.
Runners often have dominant quadriceps and tight hip flexors. If not addressed, over time this can result in the pelvis tilting forward, which in turn produces weak abdominals, tight lumbar extensors, and weak and tight hamstrings. The spine curl or “wheel” is a highly effective Pilates exercise to address this issue because it focuses on activating the deep abdominal muscles and sequentially articulating the pelvis and spine into and off the mat. The hamstrings are also activated to assist with hip extension. The hamstrings and abdominals work together helping to rotate the top of the pelvis backward, therefore countering the effects of an anterior tilting pelvis.
The head is often pecked forward in runners, causing the upper trapezius muscles to be “held” tight. Pilates exercises in a semi-supine position with the head supported on a special ball, help release tension in the neck and upper back muscles. It also teaches the runner where their head is in relation to the spine.
When these areas of tension are released, it is easier to activate the serratus anterior, a muscle which not only helps to stabilize the shoulder blades, but also moves the ribcage during breathing. This in turn has the effect of activating the deep abdominals. Arm exercises can then be introduced such as “Hug a Tree”, single and double arm pullovers, circles and arm openings, to help give increased power/momentum to the running action. Tension-free alignment in the upper body allows the legs to develop full power. If the shoulder and neck are relaxed (but not slumped), the thrust of the legs is directed through the most efficient pathway. A lower centre of gravity is another benefit, which improves balance.
Pilates, like running, can generally be done anywhere. Not only is it a great form of body conditioning, waking up muscles essential for effective running, it also promotes well-being and relaxation. As such then, it is a great complement to running. Running is fast and often has a set time goal. Pilates is slower with the pace of movement dictated by the breathing. This allows for both precision and fluidity, two skills that demand concentration and mindfulness while moving. Once mastered, these skills can help the runner run with greater ease and pace. Many professional athletes have come to see the great benefits Pilates can bring to their performance on the track and have incorporated it into their training programme.
This news article was developed from a piece by Julia Dalby, which appeared on the Pilates Foundation website.