Why Pilates is so good for runners

You’ll often hear people say that Pilates is good for runners, but if you’re anything like me, you won’t fully believe it until you understand why. Pilates is all about learning to use your body in its most efficient way. Everything you are taught in class is for this reason and with everyday function in mind. It therefore goes hand in hand that it will help make your running more efficient. We will look at the six principles of Pilates and how they will help you.

Breathing

‘The Breathing Book’ by Donna Farhi is an amazing guide to improving the quality of your breath and therefore life

‘Breathing is the first act of life, and the last’ [1].  Pilates teaches you to use your breath consciously opposed to our day-to-day breathing that we usually do without any thought. We breathe in combination with the movement, using the breath to increase efficiency. This becomes important in running where we want the breath to match the stride pattern. Doing this brings a consistency to your breath and has the additional benefit of putting your attention there, instead of say, how much your legs are aching! In Pilates we are taught to exhale all the stale air out, which gives more room for inhalation and a higher volume of fresh air (and therefore oxygen) into the lungs. This in time increases lung capacity which will improve running performance.

Centring

This is ‘the act of drawing your own mental and physical focus during each exercise to the core, or centre’ [1]. This isn’t just your ‘six-pack’ muscle. The core is called your ‘powerhouse’ in Pilates. It incorporates the muscles from the bottom of your ribs to below your hips, including your four abdominal muscles (internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis and abdominis recti), diaphragm, pelvis floor, multifidus, quadratus lumborum, spinalis, psoas, as well as the muscles in your bum. A lot of muscles is what I’m trying to say.

Your core when running serves to ‘stabilise the spine and make movement of the extremities as economical as possible, allowing the transfer of power with minimal dissipation of energy’ [2]. Using the centre in Pilates also strengthens the diaphragm which is one of the primary breathing muscles. Added strength in this area will mean more air in the lungs with less effort, helping you run further and further when combined with the additional lung capacity.

Clams are great for the smaller muscles in the bum!

Pilates works the stabilising muscles such as the gluteus medius (you may have heard of it as the glute med) which are so important when running. These muscles will stop you from wobbling when you are on one leg. Many injuries are caused by the knee falling out of alignment and out to one side in this wobble, so strengthening the stabilising muscles helps to not only increase efficiency but reduce injury. Exercises such as clams (shown right) target these areas which are hard to focus on in regular gym exercises.

It is not just pelvic stability that is important. Pilates also works scapular or shoulder stability. If your shoulder girdle isn’t stable when running it is going to have a knock on effect to your lower body. Image trying to run whilst flailing your arms out wildly side to side; your lower body won’t be able to balance. This is obviously an extreme example but shows the relationship between upper and lower body stabilisation.

Concentration

Concentration is just that. Joseph Pilates states ‘Concentrate on the correct movements EACH TIME YOU EXERCISE, lest you do them improperly and thus lose all the vital benefits of their value’ [1]. This concentration on every movement takes time to master as the mind likes to wander off when it is not controlled. Pilates helps bring this focus which is a transferable skill to all areas of life, including running. Focussing on your running form helps to not only become more efficient, but also keep the mind from wandering to things we don’t want to think about…again, the pain springs to mind (can you tell I might push myself hard when running).

Control

A slight lean forward in both running styles

This is again using the mind, but using it to make sure the body is in complete control. This relates to posture and alignment. Using this skill can help running efficiency. Efficient running uses gravity to assist by having a slight lean forward in a straight line opposed to leaning with the spine [3]. Whether you believe in mid-foot striking (right) or forefoot striking (left)- a whole different debate- you still lean forward as shown to the left.

Many people find difficulty keeping their pelvis level in everyday life, let alone running with this lean. Pilates helps to develop a body awareness and control to enable you to know when your pelvis is in ‘neutral’ or level. It also focuses on strengthening all the postural muscles of the ‘powerhouse’ to enable us to do this without thought or strain.

Flow

The goal in Pilates exercises is for them to be performed with ‘fluidity, elegance, and grace’ [1]. Watch professional runners and they nearly all share this quality in their movement. Learning this in Pilates helps to transfer flow to all movement, including running. When something is performed in this way it is again, more efficient. In order to achieve flowing movements, the joints need to be mobile and free from excess muscle tension. Pilates not only strengthens muscles but also lengthens them to help with mobility. If you aren’t mobile in the hips it is going to be difficult to maintain a level pelvis whilst extending your leg behind you or bringing your knee in front of you. Muscle tightness also increases the risk of injury, so limber up with some Pilates!

Precision

This is about the placement, alignment, and trajectory of each moving part of the body’ [1]. Again this will improve running efficiency. In running we are looking for precision where we are planting our foot, where the knees are moving in line with the hips and ankles, where our arms are in opposition to our legs and so on. Learning precise movements in Pilates is yet another transferable skill which will help you no end when running.

As you can see, Pilates has numerous important benefits for those that run. Have a go at the class at the top of the page to find out for yourself, and let me know how you get on.

Follow

[1] PILATES, JOSEPH, RETURN TO LIFE THROUGH CONTROLOGY, J.J. AUGUSTIN, 1945
[2] http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/why-you-need-great-abs Last accessed 24/03/17
[3] http://www.chirunning.com/what-is-chirunning/beginning-runners/ Last accessed 24/03/17

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