When I first started running long distances (my first marathon was in 2009) I didn’t practice Pilates and didn’t do much training apart from running and spinning. As a result, I suffered from terrible ITB (Iliotibial band) syndrome and it meant that I couldn’t run for the two months before running the marathon – my training was spinning only for those two months!
As soon as I started to practice Pilates regularly, I noticed no knee pain, no foot pain and no hip pain! So now I always advise runners to compliment their training with Pilates exercises.
What is Pilates?
Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates, a professional boxer, skier and diver, in the early 1900s. Influenced by his work in the military, along with martial arts and yoga, he created a unique exercise system, based on targeting the deep postural muscles. Pilates works by building strength from the inside out, rebalancing the body and bringing it into the correct postural alignment. There is a particular focus on the muscles of the core.
Why is Pilates so good for runners?
Runner’s knee, ITB syndrome, plantar faciatis, shin splints…all common running injuries. The root cause these injuries is often poor core stability, which leads to imbalances and misalignments of the body. A common example of this is ITB syndrome, caused by misalignment of the knee, leading to excess strain on the ITB (Iliotibial band) which crosses the outer side of the knee. If you look into the cause of this misalignment, much of the blame can be placed on weak hip abductor muscles (particularly the gluteal muscles). By strengthening the glutes (particularly the glut medius) with exercises like the clam (show below), it will help to reduce this pressure on the ITB.
Pilates exercises can also help to strengthen the smaller muscles in the ankles and feet, reducing injuries like achilles tendonitis and plantar faciatis.
Pilates isn’t just about strong abs – many Pilates exercises help to strengthen key lower body muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, adductors and abductors. Strengthening these muscles not only helps to reduce injury, but also increases power for speed and hill runs. The bridge prep (shown below) is one of these great exercises for ensuring powerful legs.
It’s strange that something so essential as breathing is often overlooked when it comes to training. Pilates exercises like the breast stroke prep (shown below) are fantastic for strengthening the muscles of the diaphragm, opening and stretching the muscles surrounding the chest, improving lung capacity.
Although it’s usually yoga that’s touted as the winner when it comes to flexibility, Pilates too helps to lengthen muscles and increase movement in many tight areas of the body. Most of the stretches in Pilates are dynamic stretches (i.e. not held in one position) – which have been shown to beat static stretches hands down when it comes to improving flexibility.
Three best Pilates exercises for runners
Lie on your back with feet hip width apart and arms by the sides. Take an inhale to prepare, and on your exhale imprint the spine and start to slowly peel hips off floor into bridge position. Hold as you inhale and on your exhale slowly roll down vertebrae by vertebrae until eventually releasing the hips down to the floor. Be sure to keep the knees parallel, rather than opening wide. Repeat 8-10 times.
Lie on your side with the spine straight, knees bent and feet in line with your hips. Lift up on the underside of the waist and draw the bellybutton in towards the spine. Keeping the feet together, open the top knee just as far as you can keeping the hips facing forwards. Repeat 10-12 times on each side.
Breast stroke prep
Lie on front with feet hip width apart, hands shoulder width and slightly in front of shoulders and elbows on the floor close to the side of the ribs.
Inhale to prepare and draw abdominals in. Exhale to ‘push an imaginary marble along floor with nose’ extending the upper back. Inhale to hold, exhale to slowly soften back to start position.
Repeat 6-8 times.