Pilates – Perfect Winter Training for Athletes

Winter training - women runners

The temperature has dropped, the days are much shorter and the weather is more unsettled, which means runners, cyclists and golfers may feel less inclined to train and practise outside than they did during the summer months.  There is an alternative and highly effective method of training for athletes who want to swap the cold and wet for a warm studio environment. Pilates is a proven way for sports people to improve their flexibility and core strength, ensure better movement patterns, decrease the chance of aggravating old injuries and developing new ones, and achieve optimal performance levels.

Fellow Pilates instructor and owner at Precision Fitness in Northumberland, Adrian Bell identified five key benefits runners, cyclists and golfers can achieve by including Pilates in their training programme…

Benefits for cyclists

1. Reduce spine stiffness and improve aerodynamic position on the bike
2. Improve functional core strength in the riding position
3. Improve shoulder girdle stability and reduce pain
4. Develop upper and lower body disassociation to reduce energy loss
5. Encourage hip, knee and ankle alignment

Winter training - cycling

Benefits for golfers

1. Reduce lower back pain
2. Improve upper body rotation to increase range of motion and increase club head speed
3. Encourage disassociation of upper body and pelvis
4. Develop shoulder mobility and shoulder girdle stability
5. Improve the ability to load the hips and reduce stress on the knees

Benefits for runners

1. Improve mobility in the hips and ankles
2. Develop flexibility in hamstrings, hip flexors and calves
3. Strengthen the core and improve pelvic stability
4. Help decompress the spine
5. Improve stability in the knees and reduce pain

To close, here’s a track for cyclists who like to train outside in the snow – Ride Blind from my new favourite performer, Circuit des Yeux…


Diet and Exercise Performance

Scott Jurek, ultra marathon runner

Anyone interested in the link between food and exercise performance might like to listen to Radio 4’s Food Programme.  They’ve just completed a two-part series, Eating To Run (links to both parts below), looking at the importance of diet to running performance.

In Part 1 of Eating to Run, we hear from Kevin Currell, Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport, to find out about the dietary advice given to Britain’s elite athletes. Compare this to the support Brendan Foster was given on performance nutrition in the 1970s – worlds apart!

Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans, shares his insights into running, racing and eating in Iten, the town where many of the world’s most successful distance runners live and train. Kenyan runners eat a lot of ugali, a carbohydrate-rich porridge made of maize flour and water.

Elsewhere however, others argue that a low-carb, high-fat diet will help runners achieve peak performance. Author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall, profiles diets based on this principle, that fuelled long runs by resistance fighters during the Second World War and early Iron Man events in the 1980’s. It’s a controversial approach and many believe it’s just the latest food fad to be picked up by people in the running world.  But does it work.  The presenter puts it to the test.

Female runner

In Part 2 of Eating to Run, ultra-marathon champion and vegan, Scott Jurek explains how to eat and run 100 miles. The benefits of fermented food and Paleo diets are also considered in depth.

Below is an interesting video of Scott Jurek talking about the importance of plant protein, breathing, posture and relaxation to good running performance.

“Think of running as controlled falling.” – I love that!

Pilates for Runners

Sprinter vs Marathon Runner

Running is one of the most popular ways of keeping in shape. It increases cardiovascular fitness and can be done anywhere, so it is a very accessible form of exercise. As running grows in popularity, so do the number of “fun runs” and competitive races of varying distances to challenge the runner.

As a high intensity form of exercise, running places a great deal of strain on the body, particularly for half or full marathon runners. Add to this poor technique, poor posture, misalignments or asymmetries in the body, and certain muscles often become overused. This results in muscle fatigue and commonly leads to painful strains and tears. Common injuries experienced by runners are those to the knee, hip, lower back, calf and ankle.

Pilates can help with both rehabilitating existing injuries and preventing future ones.
Pilates’ holistic approach to movement focuses on breathing, alignment, core stability, coordination, good body awareness and concentration. Let’s consider each of these in more detail…

Good breathing is essential for runners because it increases lung capacity, resulting in better muscle endurance while running. The heart is a muscle too of course, so cardiovascular fitness is improved by breathing effectively.

Muybridge locomotion man-running-1887-photo-researchers

Proper alignment has the benefit of promoting good posture, which in turn facilitates effective breathing. With good alignment, the muscles work in a much more balanced way, allowing optimal and efficient movement patterns, which help improve performance and prevent injuries.

Pilates exercises generally focus on strengthening the muscles eccentrically, i.e. the muscles contract whilst at the same time lengthening. This improves elasticity in the surrounding connective tissue. For runners this is essential as the leg muscles need to be both strong and flexible to allow for the dynamic movement in the leg swing, landing and push off phase. A good sense of balance too is essential. Good balance plus body awareness starts with the feet, our platform for standing, walking and running. Strong awareness of the feet, particularly if a runner has a tendency to pronate, i.e. roll in or out at the ankle, is essential to avoid instability in this joint and potential injuries. Pilates is a great way of reintroducing a runner to their feet, how they are placed and the way the weight is distributed on them.

Artistic foot diagram

Pilates can also help achieve better pelvic alignment and improved core stability. Effective engagement of the deep abdominals enables the body to run in a much more balanced way. Exercises such as the Pilates sit-up and the clam are excellent for strengthening those muscles responsible for stabilising the pelvis and supporting the lower back.

Runners often have dominant quadriceps and tight hip flexors. If not addressed, over time this can result in the pelvis tilting forward, which in turn produces weak abdominals, tight lumbar extensors, and weak and tight hamstrings. The spine curl or “wheel” is a highly effective Pilates exercise to address this issue because it focuses on activating the deep abdominal muscles and sequentially articulating the pelvis and spine into and off the mat. The hamstrings are also activated to assist with hip extension. The hamstrings and abdominals work together helping to rotate the top of the pelvis backward, therefore countering the effects of an anterior tilting pelvis.

The head is often pecked forward in runners, causing the upper trapezius muscles to be “held” tight. Pilates exercises in a semi-supine position with the head supported on a special ball, help release tension in the neck and upper back muscles. It also teaches the runner where their head is in relation to the spine.

When these areas of tension are released, it is easier to activate the serratus anterior, a muscle which not only helps to stabilize the shoulder blades, but also moves the ribcage during breathing. This in turn has the effect of activating the deep abdominals. Arm exercises can then be introduced such as “Hug a Tree”, single and double arm pullovers, circles and arm openings, to help give increased power/momentum to the running action. Tension-free alignment in the upper body allows the legs to develop full power. If the shoulder and neck are relaxed (but not slumped), the thrust of the legs is directed through the most efficient pathway. A lower centre of gravity is another benefit, which improves balance.

Bodyworld runner

Pilates, like running, can generally be done anywhere. Not only is it a great form of body conditioning, waking up muscles essential for effective running, it also promotes well-being and relaxation. As such then, it is a great complement to running. Running is fast and often has a set time goal. Pilates is slower with the pace of movement dictated by the breathing. This allows for both precision and fluidity, two skills that demand concentration and mindfulness while moving. Once mastered, these skills can help the runner run with greater ease and pace.  Many professional athletes have come to see the great benefits Pilates can bring to their performance on the track and have incorporated it into their training programme.

This news article was developed from a piece by Julia Dalby, which appeared on the Pilates Foundation website.