Pilates for Runners

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What kind of runner are you? Have you changed your style of running? Maybe you’re a fan of barefoot, minimalist or pose running styles. You may be one of those runners who endlessly debates forefoot versus midfoot versus heel striking. You may also not have a clue what I’m talking about and just go out and run for the joy/benefit of it. For those who want look further into running styles, Harvard university have an interesting read at http://barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/index.html.

Whatever your style, you are likely to want to achieve efficiency – to run faster, for longer, prevent injury or all of these. Seb Coe is reckoned to be an excellent example of an efficient runner; this slow motion clip really shows how little little movement is wasted, allowing him to put all his energy into going forward. Look at how far behind he pushes with his striding leg.

Regardless of your motivation to run or the style you adopt, Pilates can help improve efficiency and reduce your risk of injury. This post will examine each area of the body in relation to the demands placed on it through running and look at how Pilates can help achieve a balanced body that is ready to run. We will start with the feet and work our way up, but as you will see, we could just as easily start with the head and work down. After all, it is the head that decides to go on the run and the body which is then asked to carry it around, the feet don’t decide to go for a run themselves!

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The runner’s foot has to be mobile but strong. A mobile foot allows it to adapt to different landing surfaces whilst stabilising the rest of the leg enough to keep you upright. The mobility of the foot also allows the initial impact of the foot striking the ground to redistribute the forces around the joints between the 26 bones of the foot. Mobility alone is insufficient, a too mobile foot can cause as many problems as a stiff foot. Therefore, the muscles which provide the active support for the foot must have sufficient power to protect the joints. In addition, good sensation and proprioception (joint position sense) give appropriate feedback to the muscles to control the power they provide. Every Pilates class will have you in standing, usually at the start of the class, in socks or bare feet. Various exercises are given which challenge balance, coordination, power and mobility in the foot. This helps to waken up the feet and get good sensory input, whilst building strength and control.

The muscles in the leg help to absorb the impact of each step further, ideally through balanced muscles which work together to take the body weight and then push back, propelling the body forward. The fascia (connective tissue that surrounds all muscles and other tissues in the body with a fine but strong web) further supports this by creating a connection throughout the whole leg. Typically, runners will have tightness in their hamstring and calves, down into the Achilles tendon. Through a pilates class you will work the leg muscles through the standing and kneeling exercises, encouraging all the muscles to work in the correct sequences by focusing on the precision of the movement. You will also gradually and dynamically stretch through all the muscles of the leg.

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The pelvis connects the legs into the rest of the body and moves in a complex combination of movements,  acting as the driver of the legs. The low back then acts to help the pelvis move, but also to stabilise the upper body while the pelvis and legs are moving. Therefore the low back needs appropriate mobility for the vertebrae to move with the pelvis, but also the dynamic stability provided by the core muscles to keep the upper torso and head steady. The muscles surrounding the pelvis allow the correct movements to take place while preventing the pelvis from moving excessively; the gluteal (bottom) muscles act as the powerhouse of running, pushing powerfully backwards to propel the body forwards. In the book ‘Born to Run’, Christopher McDougall puts forward a case to demonstrate that our bottoms prove, from an evolutionary perspective, that we were designed to run! Here is Paula Radcliffe demonstrating that powerful push back, and she must have been doing something right!

The muscles surrounding the pelvis are worked in Pilates exercises like clams and other side lying exercises, so next time you ‘feel the burn’ remind yourself how much good you’re doing yourself!

CLAM

The upper back and rib cage are balanced on the low back by the responsive core adapting to the demands placed on it by the motion of running. The upper torso helps with the propulsion of running by rotating in the opposite direction to the pelvis. However, this propulsion by the upper body would not be effective without the connection through the core. I make no apology for mentioning the core again, it’s so important in all activities! Pilates works the core to support the low back whilst isolating leg movements in exercises lying on your back, like scissors.

SCISSORS

The ribcage expands and contracts rapidly to allow the body to take in enough oxygen for the demands of running. A flexible upper back and rib cage are required for this. An exercise like thread the needle can help to provide good upper body mobility:

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Even the head and neck have a role to play. The more efficient our running is, the steadier we keep the head. Small righting reactions take place all the time while running in the neck muscles. If you’re running for 26 miles and the neck muscles have a weakness, then running can even cause a neck injury. Pilates helps prepare the neck for the run by working on alignment through the class and encouraging the deep neck stabilising muscles to switch on with any exercise where the head is lifted.

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If you watch a marathon on the television, you can see some differences between the elite athletes at the front of the race and those of us who make up the back of the race. Even from a wide camera angle, the heads of those at the front are level with a smooth motion, while the heads of those at the back are bobbing up and down. This is a visual representation of the efficiency of the elite athletes, all their energy goes into forward motion while the rest of us are spending our energy in bobbing up and down, side to side with the remainder into going forward. Hopefully your Pilates practice will help take your running to the next level in efficiency.

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If you are running for the first time or changing style, build up gradually, and please listen to your body. You can change your habits overnight, however,  the remodelling of muscle and fascial systems to adapt to the new demands can take 12-18 months. The problems we tend to see in the physio clinic are due to muscles not coping with the demands placed on them with a sudden change in style or sudden increase in volume of training without appropriate support the musculoskeletal system from specific training.

Remember, to become an efficient runner is a marathon, not a sprint!

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