Pilates for runners

Whether you’re are serious marathon runner or just a casual runner on a treadmill you would obviously be looking at improving your speed or efficiency and the best way to do this is if you can manage to run without pain or injury.

Pilates complements running beautifully in that it focuses on strengthening the core muscles of your body namely the muscles around your back, hips and pelvis and the deepest layer of your abdominals called the transversus abdominus or simply (the TA)

Stabilizing the core results in smoother and more efficient movements in the rest of the body  such as your arms and legs.

Most runners  (especially the casual runners) don’t think about how they are running..I mean you put on your shoes and go right? Whats there to think about? Well lots actually…

When you run you are using you hip flexors to lift and pull the top of the front leg forward and the quadriceps to extend the knee joint and muscles around the ankle to flex your foot as you prepare to land on it. You also use the hip extensors (muscles around the back of your legs and your gluteals) to pull the leg back after you land. It is important to ensure that all the while you are maintaining a good posture and neutral alignment of your body; not going into a posterior tilt or an anterior tilt of the pelvis. Its important to keep the shoulders over the hips, open out the chest, keep the legs (femurs) facing forward and not turning in and having the knee, ankle and foot aligned.

When you run incorrectly supporting muscles begin to take over functions that they were not intended to perform resulting in aches and pains, stiffness and eventually injury.

So how does Pilates help?

  • Pilates helps create a supple, strong and agile body
  • Pilates focuses on creating dynamic stability i.e. stability while your body is in any kind of movement (running)
  • Pilates breathing is great for better blood circulation, oxygenation of muscles
  • Pilates evens out imbalances created by incorrect form while running which results in over or under utilization of certain muscles
  • It works on multiple muscle groups
  • Creates better body awareness and posture
  • Pilates creates long lean muscles and not bulk – lengthening of muscles that are typically tight in runners (calves, hamstrings, hip flexors)

A good Pilates instructor should be able to retrain your mind (over time) to not just think differently about how you move but actually get you to experience it and therefore use it in your next run!

What is the difference between Yoga and Pilates?

Many people ask if Yoga and Pilates are similar so I’m going to go through the similarities and differences in this post.

Yoga is more mind-body-spirit
I am not going to do a Yoga Vs. Pilates write-up because honestly that really irritates me when I see fitness professionals dissing forms of exercise that they don’t believe in. If millions of people are following any form of exercise over many years clearly there must be some benefit right??

So here goes; both Yoga and Pilates focus on breathing and a mind-body connection. Pilates exercises were originally derived from different forms of physical arts such a gymnastics , martial arts and yoga. (which is why some of the exercises in Pilates look similar to Yoga poses).

Both offer benefits such as better posture, better sleep, increased flexibility, better balance, stress release.

Yoga is much older, originating in India and was developed thousands of years ago. Pilates was developed around the early 20th century by a German named Joseph Pilates.

Yoga emphasizes a mind-body and spirit connection whereas Pilates focuses on just the mind and body aspect. To put it another way I would say that yoga is all about how you feel and Pilates more about how you look. Not to say that you don’t feel good after a Pilates class 🙂 it is just not meant or expected to be a be spiritual experience.

Diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing
While both forms focus on breathing in and out at specific points in the exercise, the way you breath in Yoga and Pilates differs. Yoga focuses on breathing into the stomach (diaphragmatic breathing) and Pilates into the side and back of your rib cage (posterio-lateral breathing). Also in Pilates you breathe in through the nose normally but breathe out through pursed lip (like blowing out a candle).

Yoga involves getting into and then holding the asana (static postures) before transitioning into the next pose. Pilates is a series of fluid movements all done using the core muscles in the trunk of the body to stabilize the body through any movement. It aims at creating “dynamic stability”.

Yoga is all about channeling energy through the body through different poses or asanas in order to keep the body supple and flexible. All Pilates exercises are focused on building core strength, long lean muscles and stabilizing the body and bringing it into a neutral alignment .

Pilates on larger equipment -Reformer
Larger Pilates equipment-Reformer
Yoga is done using our own body weight as resistance and done on the floor. Pilates has exercises that can be done on the floor but also a wide variety that is done on large equipment like the reformer, Cadillac, chair, ladder barrel etc.

Yoga is more than just an exercise; it is a holistic approach to fitness, hygiene, lifestyle and nutrition. Pilates is more about physical conditioning and developing core strength, and is increasingly being used in rehabilitation and physical therapy.

Neutral alignment posture compared with poor posture
Pilates focuses on the body’s neutral alignment
I’m sure there are more differences between the two. However increasingly the line between the two is also blurring where people want to combine the benefits of the two forms resulting in ‘Yogalates’. Individually too both Yoga and Pilates are evolving. From classical yoga to Ashtanga Yoga, Hatha Yoga and more recently Bikram Yoga etc. From classical Pilates to more contemporary approaches such as STOTT , Fletcher and Winsor Pilates.

Finally the way I see it, some form of exercise is better than none! If you are confused sign up for one and then the other do it for a few months and then see if you like both or just one and pursue it.

Disclaimer : I am not claiming to be an expert on either, these are just my observations through my limited experiences!

How does Pilates help with back pain

Many people who have back pain and practice Pilates benefit greatly from it. So what makes Pilates so effective in alleviating back pain?

Pilates exercises target basic structural imbalances in the body that are generally the reason for back pain. Lack of core engagement, pelvic instability, muscular imbalances, poor posture, and lack of body awareness all effect the back; this is exactly what Pilates helps improve.

Core muscles and how they help support the spine

Deep Core muscles of the trunk
The muscles that support the trunk (abdominals, back, hips and pelvis) are called core muscles. Lack of core muscle strength can be equated with a tree that has a hollow trunk and is trying to support heavy branches! Together the core muscles provide support and stability for the spine. As part of developing core strength Pilates teaches how and when to activate and release muscles.

Pilates focuses on deep muscles like the Pelvic floor muscles (think kegels), transversus abdominus (a built in corset!), deep muscles in the shoulder, and psoas (used when you bend at the hip); while these are not muscles of the back they are important because the prevent undue pressure on the spinal column especially in movement.

Improving posture is essential to a pain free back (other than the fact that you will look taller and slimmer!). Posture is how your body parts are aligned with each other. The ideal points to check for alignment are ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and ears. While standing in one place and keeping good alignment is not not too difficult, the challenge is to maintain good posture as you move around through the day at work or at home. This is what Pilates exercises teach you…maintaining alignment and stability as you move or ‘dynamic stability’ (I just love that phrase!!) .

A man in front of his PC with his cervical spine hyperextended

A man in front of his PC with his cervical spine hyperextended

A simple example is when people do ab crunches I have often heard of complaints that the neck hurts more than the abs! This is because typically the position of the cervical spine (the back of the neck) is not correct and as you lift the shoulders to curl up its the neck that’s doing all the work rather than the abs. Pilates will teach you how to align your neck in this movement so that the abs are targeted instead of the neck.

Pilates increases flexibility. A healthy spine should be able to bend forward, backwards, bend from side to side and twist. The deep supporting muscles once strengthened protect and work along with the spine to allow us not only to increase the range of motion but appreciate the subtle movements that the spine is capable of.

Pilates increases body awareness. What I find the most exciting is that from the first session onwards people walk out with better body awareness. Pilates teaches us to look at our body differently and pay more attention to how we carry ourselves through life. Something as simple as pulling the ears away from the shoulder can diffuse tremendous tension that builds up around the neck and shoulder causing aches pains in the back of the neck and head.

Finally to quote Joseph Pilates “The art of *contrology proves that the only real guide to your true age lies not in years or how you THINK you feel but as you ACTUALLY are as infallibly indicated by the degree of natural and normal flexibility enjoyed by your spine throughout life.”

*Pilates was originally called Contrology.

The man was truly ahead of his time…

What is Pilates and how does it help?

Pilates pronounced (pi-lah-teez) is an exercise system that is focused on building strength without bulk, improving flexibility and agility, and helping to prevent injury. It was developed in the 1920s by Joseph H. Pilates, who was a physical trainer and founder of The New York Pilates Studio®. It involves a series of controlled movements that engage both your body and mind.

Pilates utilizes specifically designed exercise apparatus and is supervised by highly trained teachers. It was initially created for rehabilitation, but was later adopted by dancers and athletes and is now utilized by millions. A beginner class generally consists of very gentle exercises done on a mat in either a sitting or lying down position. The primary focus is on awareness of the spine, proper breathing, core strength and flexibility.

The outcome of Pilates training is a balanced body which is strong and supple, flat stomach, balanced legs, and a strong back.

Pilatesmatwork shot

“STOTT PILATES® photography © Merrithew Corporation”


What is Core strength?
Core strength is the ability of the muscles around the trunk of your body; the deep abdominal muscles (no not the famed six/eight pack!) we’re talking deeper (transversus abdominis), the pelvic floor muscles, the muscles around the hips and the muscles around the back that work together to support and stabilize the spine in any movement or when we lift any load.

Why a strong back?
OK..so the flat stomach requires no explanation, “what am I going to do with balanced legs and a strong back?” you ask
“You are as old as your spine is flexible” said Joseph Pilates, so true!
The most common complaint among the urban population is that the back is stiff. Its stiff from sitting in front of a computer all day, or carrying a baby around all day for new mothers or just plain couching out in front of the T.V.

In Pilates the focus is on mobilizing the spine and strengthening the supporting back muscles so as to be able to move it forwards, backwards and to the sides without any undue strain.

Pilates gets people to become more aware of their body posture and movement habits that over the years have created stress and teaches them ways to maintain a neutral body alignment.

Weight Loss and Pilates
I always get asked this question at least by one person in a crowd! “so this is all just swell but…can i lose weight just doing this stuff?”

In the long run Pilates will beautifully complement your weight loss activities.
When one aims to lose a significant amount of weight one of the first things to do would be to enroll in any aerobic or cardio activity. As you begin to shed those pound Pilates can help to create lean muscle mass that increases your calorie burning potential. As you already know it improves your posture making you look and feel thinner. it also sculpts and tones the body for than leaner fitter look.

Great I’m going out and buying me one of those home Pilates DVDs!
Hey its a free country go right ahead! Its certainly has some positives- you save money and you can do it on your own time. However the down side are worth considering- at best you could execute the exercises incorrectly and feel none of the great benefits promised, at worst, you could injure yourself.
Pilates is a precise form of exercise and in order to experience its benefits it is important to have a qualified and experienced instructor to watch over you.

It may take a while for you to experience the full benefits of Pilates. Just as it has taken most of us years to pile on the weight or create postural imbalances that contribute to a stiff back, learning to use deeper core muscles that support the body efficiently takes time and commitment.