Pilates for winter sports

Whether you’re planning on slithering down the slopes this winter or skating around the winter wonderland whilst visualising your well-deserved mulled wine afterwards, there are lots of way Pilates can help you prepare for getting out there and trying winter sports.

Whatever you end up strapping onto your feet, chances are you’ll be sliding in some way and challenging your balance in ways that you rarely do at other times of the year. Your balance, or lack of it, will very quickly become apparent. Good balance is key to preventing falls and therefore preventing injuries.

The feet are the foundation of the body and act as great shock absorbers. A good skier will use their skis as though they are extensions of the feet and use the muscles around the feet and ankles to stabilise. Where the ankle power is insufficient or the joints are stiff, a skier will tend to rest their shins on the front of their boots, effectively losing this connection with the skis.

Luckily Pilates can help by working through a series of exercises which challenge your balance and improve mobility and stability around the foot and ankle, especially during the warm-up section of a class.

The chains of muscle which start in the ankle, connect via a web of connective tissue all the way up the legs and into the gluteal (bottom) muscles and the abdominals, are where the real power comes from. This core of muscles works closely with mobilising spine and hips, absorbing shocks and preparing for and reacting to changes underfoot. Power and stamina are required in the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thighs, the gluteals and abdominal muscles to prepare for a day out on the slopes/rink/tracks. A Pilates class will always have a focus in on these muscles.

PilatesPlus2013IMG_9642Hip twist for working spinal rotational mobility and stability

Many winter sports demand greater spinal mobility, which is well controlled much more than walking or running do. As your hips rotate on a turn, your torso counters that movement, rotating in the opposite direction. In skiing, the counter-rotation of the torso helps with edge control and provides momentum through a turn. If the spine cannot achieve this counter-rotational movement, it can lead to excessive rotation in another part of the body such as the hips, potentially leading to injuries here. Turns can be more sluggish and again increase the risk of injury. Pilates gently takes the spine to the end range of rotation several times during a class. With repeated practice, this can improve both the range of rotation and the muscles’ support of the movement.

All winter sports require a base fitness level and a week’s cross country skiing, for example, can be a real challenge, especially if a normal week for you involves at least 40 hours of sitting on your gluteals. You will get a little cardiovascular work within your Pilates warm up, but what Pilates really teaches you is how to breathe effectively. This means that when your breathing rate does increase, you are making full use of your lung capacity. It’s also a good idea to add some cardiovascular work to your programme to prepare for the winter season. That way, you’ll get in from a day’s activity and feel ready for a well-deserved stretch of the legs and hot dinner whilst planning the next day, rather than feel exhausted and dreading the next day!

What’s also key in winter sports is confidence. A confident skiier or snowboarder will approach the runs in a completely different way to those who are lacking confidence because they don’t have the balance or strength. A good skier will align their thigh bones with the gradient of the hill and maintain a good upright posture. If a skier lacks confidence, they assume a ‘sitting in the back seat’ posture. This position shortens the front of the body and reduces lung capacity, and overall decreases a skier’s response to changes in the slope. The position also stresses the spine, hips and knees so is definitely best avoided. Once you’ve built that base of balance and controlled mobility in your Pilates class, you can arrive at the slope confident to maintain an optimal posture to get the most out of your trip.

If you are planning a winter sports holiday this year, why not let your instructor know? They will be happy to build in some specific exercises to help you prepare. And the rest of the class will benefit from them too!

Trying a new sport for the first time? You are welcome to book a one to one session in our New Town clinic to help your work on specific issues and improve your balance, strength and mobility to prepare yourself to get the most out of your trip.


Pilates for Runners


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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!

Pilates for Low Back Pain

Low back pain is a condition which affects almost all of us from time to time. It can range in severity from irritating to debilitating, and many untypeable ****ing’s in between! As physios, the phrases we often hear are ‘it just started out of the blue’, ‘I didn’t do anything’ or ‘it was lifting that chest of drawer/sweeping leaves/shovelling snow that did it’. Possibly the shovelling snow was the final straw in years of lack of movement, poor movement patterns and an imbalance in the repetitive loading of tissues.

The causes of back pain can be complicated and confusing, with everyone around you weighing in with their opinion. ‘ooh, that sounds exactly like when I slipped my disc and was flat on my back for three months’. Gosh that sounds terrifying, is that really what’s happening to me? Probably not.


The actual structures involved in causing back pain could be any one or any combination of muscles, joints, ligaments, connective tissue, nerves, discs. I am deliberately putting discs last, because there is a lot of mystery and confusion surrounding the intervertebral discs. The theory is that when pressure is put on one side of the disc for a prolonged period, there is a possibility that some of the jelly-like substance in the middle of the disc can protrude out the other side. The disc itself is very firmly attached to the vertebrae above and below it, and is not going to ‘slip out’. The other reason discs are last on the list is that disc protrusions account for approximately 5% of all back pains, and of those, only a tiny proportion will require surgery, most can be resolved over time by adapting the way you move and with targeted exercises..


The reasons for back pain occuring are as many and varied as the people experiencing the pain. It could arise from an imbalance in muscle function, deconditioning through our increasingly sedentary lifestyles,  the trauma of a fall from height or a number of conditions such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Even people who have a these conditions can make drastic improvements to how they function and their pain levels by improving muscle function around the affected joints and improving joint alignment.

The worry when someone thinks they have hurt their back by doing an activity such as sweeping leaves or shovelling snow is they is they associate movement and exercise as the cause of the pain; therefore not moving and reducing exercises is seen as the solution. Unfortunately this can lead into a downward spiral of deconditioned muscles, poor posture and stiffening up resulting in more pain. This cycle can be broken by introducing gentle Pilates exercises gradually and building up stability, control and flexibility. So, first of all move, then improve functional movement and increase to higher performance Pilates.


Movement itself is known to reduce painful stimuli to the nerves and your physio or Pilates instructor can help you find the best ways to move and advise you on balancing movement and structured rest.

Pilates is great for back pain because it can be tailored to your level of ability and you can progress at your own rate. A balanced Pilates class will find and challenge areas you need to work on: The flexibility of joints and muscles, balance, body awareness and control. You will work on your posture and alignment of joints, improving your sense of how to hold yourself well when not moving. Your core stability,  the deep muscles in your torso which should work at a low level all the time, will improve to help you maintain an aligned posture. Recent research has shown that Pilates can improve bone health, therefore reducing your osteoporosis risk. For our older clients, your risk of falling is reduced through improved balance, but if you are unlucky enough to fall, you will have reduced your fracture risk by doing Pilates.


Our clients have long known the benefits of Pilates for their back pain. I wanted to share some feedback we received from clients recently:

I managed to do the Chicago marathon, which was a complete medical miracle as I literally couldn’t walk with the pain two weeks previously. The consultant can’t believe it either so I had another MRI Scan on Monday – with the results coming next week……

I have to say I was unsure about Pilates before as I always wanted to go to classes that got the ‘sweat on ‘! There are massive benefits for all ages groups – whether you are sporty or not.

“Having suffered lower back pain of varying degrees for many years my frustration with it increased in line with my interested in cycling.  I decided to seek a long term solution which came in the form of Pilates.  This increased my core strength providing more stability in my back and worked wonders on and off the bike including eliminating my pain.”

The best time to start Pilates is now. Whether you have never had low back pain or had it frequently, the sooner you get started, the sooner you can reduce the number of episodes of back pain and if you do get pain, you can reduce the duration and intensity of it. You may even manage to prevent it all together.


Take what you learn in your Pilates class and apply it in how you move every day. This will make a huge difference in how quickly you progress your practice and you will notice far more benefits than practicing for your one or two hours of Pilates a week.

Pilates for Triathletes

Triathlon training is time consuming as it is, so why spend time doing Pilates?

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Triathlon is considered one of the most challenging endurance sports. Triathletes require mental and physical stamina, postural control and kinaesthetic integrity.  It is not only about the mileage…

Pilates works on your powerhouse, the CORE of the body by enhancing strength, flexibility and control, key aspects for aspiring triathletes. Specifically Pilates works on your transverse abdominus, rectus abdominus, erector spinae, obliques and gluteals.

Pilates allows you to simultaneously improve your core without gaining undesirable bulk and weight yet tones pure muscle.  Increasing core strength results in better posture, increased power efficiency and output and potentially reduces your risk of injury.  Pilates isolates and integrates muscles groups which assist functional movement patterns improving alignment of the pelvis giving you a stable base of support.  Consequently postural awareness and balance control reduce the risk of low back pain and other potential injuries.

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Swimming: Similar to swimming, Pilates is performed at a deliberate pace and utilises specific breathing patterns therefore translates well into the pool environment.  Neck flexibility and spinal positioning are also key to a good swimming technique, in addition streamlining is paramount to speed and reduced drag.  Specific Pilates exercises can improve streamlining leading to an effortless and efficient stroke pattern.

Cycling: Often leads to dominant leg development and less core and upper body muscular development.  Core strength is key to reducing the levels of fatigue and getting through those long rides.  Pilates improves muscular imbalances, alignment, core and upper limb strength enhancing pedal stroke and power output.

The kyphotic (hunched) posture that is required for cycling is less than desirable, prolonged periods in this position can potentially lead to injury if preventative corrective measures are not utilised.  The posture allows for excessive forward flexion of the lumbar spine, forward rotation of the hips and pelvis and often there is a shortening of the neck muscles too due to looking forward during riding.  This posture is one of the leading causes of low back pain in cyclists.  Shortened hamstrings and neural issues along with Itb/gluteal/piriformis injuries are often seen in both cyclists and runners. However, there is evidence to suggest that Pilates can improve and prevent low back and other common injuries by improving core, restoring postural alignment and muscle imbalances.

Running: It’s all about economy and efficiency – it should be smooth and effortless.  The repetitive movement of specific muscle groups during running can result in muscular imbalances.  Pilates can improve muscle flexibility which can not only prevent injury but lead to improved stride length potentially giving you the ability to run faster and longer!  Pilates also works on your breathing which is integral to a good running technique.

Tri Specific Exercises



Focus: hips, thighs, buttocks (side-lying feet either on the ground or slightly lifted). Open hips to 45 degrees, slowly return together.

Repeat: 3×10 each side

(to increase difficulty add a resistance band around the knees)

Swim with Resistance Band

 swimmingFocus: spinal position and alignment/balance, buttocks, hamstrings, upper limbs. Start in four point kneeling slowly take opposite arm/leg away from body in a straight line (watch spinal position do not allow your back to arch).

Repeat 3×8 each side (to increase difficulty add a resistance band)


Leg Pull in Prone

leg pull

Focus: spinal aligment, transverse abdominus, upper limb strength, scapula control. Assume a plank position slowly lengthen one leg back and lift a few inches off the floor without losing spinal alignment (do not allow you back to arch).

Repeat: 2×10 (alternating sides)

One Leg Stretch

 one leg stretchFocus: spinal position (including deep neck flexors), transverse abdominus, pelvic floor, thighs, hips. Spine should not be too arched or too flat on the floor, legs start up at a 90degree angle, extend single leg away from the body making sure the back does not arch

Repeat: 2×10 (alternating sides)

Triathlon photos © http://www.darrochphotography.com

Pilates photos © http://www.pilatesplusphysio.co.uk