Its that time of year and I am once again immersed in marathon training, logging miles upon miles in the run up to the Virgin money London marathon in April.
Marathon training, or any kind of running for that matter takes a huge toll on the body but (touch wood) as a Pilates instructor I can honestly say I have never been seriously injured. I may have jinxed myself with that last statement, but I am luckier than most and these days most of my Pilates classes are filled with friends and fellow runners from my running club who are battling constant injuries or struggling to improve their running and are seeking the mystical magic of pilates to aid them.
Running is a repetitive and very linear action, generally following one plane of motion and putting huge strain and impact on the same joints and muscles over and over again. Most runners do not stretch properly before or after a run and a high number of runners will admit to doing nothing else besides running. It is no wonder then that injuries are rife.
Cross training of any kind is very important to build strength in other muscles to minimise the impact of running on the body. There are arguments for lots of different types of training to aid runners but as a Pilates instructor I honestly believe the two disciplines go hand in hand.
Most people recognise pilates as a core workout, strengthening the abdominals, the transverse abdominals, gluteals, psoas and spinal extensors as well as many more superficial muscles. Core muscles are important in running to create a strong posture to keep us upright and drive us forward. Their functions include the following:
Psoas muscles across the lower abs and the tops of the thighs enable the legs to lift and flex the hip joint but these are often very tight and weak which shortens stride length and tilts the pelvis forward. Whilst running this leads to fatigue, knee strain and lower back ache.
Gluteals are the biggest muscles in the body but we rarely use them properly. For runners this could simply mean it's a struggle to get up that hill in training but it also has much more severe implications as weak gluteals leave the hamstrings open to severe strain.
Weak TVA (transverse abs) means the lumber spine (lower back) is unstable and often you will see runners leaning forwards with a rounded back in the late stages of a race. Not only does this overload the lower back but it forces the neck out of position and culminates in a drop in pace and inefficient use of energy.
Pilates enables the joints to move properly and enforces the connection between the mind and the body so we can be aware of moving properly. Slight deviations in posture result in misalignment of joints and muscles that create unnecessary strain and problem areas. Over time these problem areas can result in injuries that could put you out of running for weeks. Not great if you are in the middle of a training plan.
Perfect posture or ‘neutral posture’ as we like to refer to it in the Pilates world is defined as all the joint and muscles of the body being perfectly aligned. Each muscles will do its designated job and each joint will have the full range of mobility vs correct stability.
In a runner mobility vs stability is hugely important as a slight deviation from the norm can result in injury if the joint is not able to move properly or is not supported efficiently. For example the repetitive forward motion of the runner could be tested by a trip down a pot hole of dodging a fellow athlete. If joints are tight or unstable this could result in injury. Pilates will work on hip, knee and ankle alignment which allows the knee to track properly and ghe lower back to remain stable.
The classical Pilates series of 34 exercises is designed to create overall body strength and flexibility and over time contemporary Pilates has adapted and modified these moves to enable absolutely anybody to be able to do them.
Finally Pilates concentrates on deep abdominal breathing or lateral breathing. This practice allows the lungs to fully inflate, increasing the amount of oxygen we can inhale and transport around the body. Increased oxygen consumption means increased red blood cell creation and therefore increased muscle function! That can only be good for us runners!