Pilates is fast becoming an integral part of improving performance and function, both in the elite world and within general populations. The AFL, Netball Australia, Tennis Australia and many other higher level sporting organisations not only use Pilates and Pilates principles for rehabbing injury and dysfunction, but also as an ongoing tool for improving movement patterns such as posture, breathing, strength, control and general mobility.
Let’s start with the background info: What is pilates?
If your anything like me, knowing the background the Pilates method will help with your curiosity and attraction of this form of exercise!
A history lesson for today: Following on from WW2, Joseph Pilates created a new realm of exercise designed to aid war soldiers in the rehab of injuries. He found that in order for the proper rehab to occur, the neural connection from the brain to the muscle needed to be optimal, thereby enhancing the body’s ability to undertake correct motor sequencing.
To achieve this, Pilates developed a series of movements around 5 key principles;
- Relaxation : Undertaking exercise in a relaxed state helps to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate and lower chances potential injury whilst undertaking exercise
- Concentration: Increased focus on movement helps to perform the movement correctly and aids in proprioception for movement sequencing.
- Alignment: Correct alignment is required when the body is in motion to promote efficient motor patterning. Poor motor control in runners can lead to potential injury and compensatory patterns to occur such as patellofemoral pain syndrome, plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome or shin splints etc.
- Breathing: Breathing correctly can be the difference between straining to complete a run around the lake and completing it easily. Correct breath to movement patterning helps to reduce unnecessary tension within the body and takes pressure off key supporting structures such as the pelvic floor and diaphragm.
- Centring: Becoming aware of the coordination between the core areas enables us to establish efficient movement patterns.
So how can it help runners?
There are a number of reasons why runners should undertake pilates, and in particular a program designed specifically for runners! The main goal for a runners specific program is to improve running performance, injury prevention, successful rehabilitation if injured and promote the long term participation (so you will still be able to run at 100!).
But let’s look at a few specific benefits from undertaking of Pilates. These are my top 5 reasons why pilates can help runners, well, run better!!!
- It helps in switching on muscles and is corrective exercise! Pilates is much different from conventional strength training. The idea that “repetition is the key for improvement” is paramount within a pilates setting…you will rarely find 3 sets of 10 reps here, more like 1-2 sets of 60!! In order to increase neural connection between the brain and the muscle, pilates consists of increased repetitions at a lighter intensity in order to promote neural activation to problematic areas whilst not promoting recruitment of currently dominant compensation patterns (Eg: you may be using your hip flexors for hip extension during the toe off phase of running!!). By isolating the correct muscles in the correct sequence over and over again, we strengthen our neural hardwiring of how to undertake that movement correctly. The stronger these correct neural connections are, the more efficient your muscles will work to undertake a movement (Eg; the more connection we have from our brain to our glutes, the more efficient the will be in firing when extending the hip for pushing off the ground!)
- Improving upper body postural awareness and control. The lessons you learn in Pilates are not only isolated towards your running, but also flow into other facets of you general life. Your posture and ability to hold yourself strong can dictate your efficiency in other daily movements and bodily functions (such as breathing efficiency, spinal mobility, pelvic stability, sitting at work, the development of tension and trigger points, digestion and sporting performance). The modern day lifestyle is not always kind on our bodies and we are becoming more and more sedentary at work, traveling further to and from work and increasing our stress levels which can show within our frames and bodily systems. Taking a stressed body with a tense neck, rounded shoulders, protruding head, poor pelvic control combined with the old knee injury from 15 years ago and asking it to run efficiently……may not end as well as what we think!! Pilates for runners can aid in improving your posture control while working on the head, neck and shoulder organisation for more efficient running technique and daily life.
- Increasing trunk stability. In order to achieve greater upper body postural control, we also need to unsure the foundation of our bodies, our core, is strong enough to hold our upper body with stability, while also ensuring that force transfer happens smoothly to our lower body and vice versa. For the purpose of this blog, the core consists of the pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, diaphragm and multifidus muscles (spinal linkers). Coordination and effective movement of our limbs is more easily achieved with a strong and stable foundation and can have major benefit to running technique, performance, injury prevention and general life tasks!!
- Does not focus on one element of movement, but looks at many (combining mobility with strength and proprioception) As runners, we know what it feels like to wake up with burning quads, calves, glutes and hamstrings. The stiffness and soreness that comes with working and strengthening muscles is uncomfortable…… but sometimes nastily satisfying! Pilates focuses on strengthening muscles through repetitive and corrective exercise while also promoting optimal mobility, which may vary according to your body type and physical needs. Combined with this, a strong sense of joint position (proprioception) such as within the ankles, knees and hips is important for any sporting activity and highly important for any locomotive activity. These qualities not only aid with technique and efficiency, but also with injury prevention and rehabilitation after injury and lessening the likelihood of an injury from occurring.
- Program is individual and specificThe beauty of a runners specific program is that it can be tailored towards your individual needs. For injury prevention, it is very important to focus on activating and strengthening key stabilising muscles such as the gluteals, hamstrings and general core, while also factoring components such as alignment, posture and control. For rehabilitation, factors such as conditioning weak areas, mobilising and regaining proprioception become paramount. It is very important that the client makes their goals clear to the Exercise Physiologist before the session so that adequate exercises can be prescribed.
Remember runners, you are only as strong as your weakest link. No matter how strong your quads and hamstrings are, if you do not have the activation in your glutes, the ability to breath correctly, the control of you posture, the mobility in your ankles or the correct lower limb alignment, all that power may not be used as efficiently as you might expect. Pilates may mean the difference between shaving time off your 5km PB and developing a labral tear in your hip.
Well, that’s my take on the role of Pilates and the impact it can have on improving running performance. I only hope that more runners see benefit in undertaking Pilates and can enjoy the benefits, on and off the track, as I have over the years.