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Pilates for Runners: The Basics

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By Pat Guyton

Sooner or later someone is going to run into your studio, looking for information that will improve speed, endurance and efficient breathing. They may or may not understand how Pilates can complement running. Whether the student is a competitive athlete or an individual who runs for health and fitness, distance and speed become much easier and less stressful on the body if a runner is free from pain and injury. A requirement for any sport or exercise program involves the development of a comprehensive exercise program that works all of the muscles in every range of motion. As a teacher, you are instrumental not only in introducing the exercise technique, but in the development of the individual program. If the runner can gain some immediate results, they will have the optimum motivation to continue Pilates work.

It is a good idea to understand the psychology of runners when they come to Pilates. Most of them simply tied on shoes and started to run, but did not consider learning how. Over time, their commitment to the sport sparked a desire for information on how to become a better runner. They might seek information from friends, try a new shoe, read a book, get a massage, or see a doctor. These things can be helpful but probably do not address the fundamental concept of change, especially via body mechanics. Many runners think that more running is the key to improvement. But in the words of Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If runners want to make changes, they must first notice and understand what they are doing in their running. Then they can define a plan to improve performance. Later, they can determine if the changes they made had a positive impact on their running.

Here are a few talking points that you can discuss with your running student:

  •  Pilates provides an assessment tool for overall flexibility, strength and balance. This assessment  provides insight to maximize improvement.
  •   Pilates emphasizes awareness of good posture and the importance of a strong core.
  •   Pilates creates uniform muscle development.
  •   Pilates introduces all of the functional mechanics of the spine and extremities.
  •   Pilates emphasizes good form for maximum results.
  •   Pilates serves as efficient cross training by working all muscle groups.
  •   Pilates teaches breath control and activation of the muscles of respiration.

For runners, attending to postural cues can prevent pain and injury or simply make their form more efficient. Some of the most common ways to achieve this are: to develop a strong core, run with the pelvis in a level plane (no anterior or posterior tilt), avoid dropping a hip on one side, keep the shoulders over the hips, open the chest muscles for maximum breathing, avoid lifting the shoulders, work on good alignment in the knee, ankle and foot. The tools for making these corrections are already in your Pilates toolbox.

Many physicians and physical therapists refer runners to Pilates for back pain, hip, knee, ankle and foot pain. While some runners will need medical treatment, all runners will benefit from a healthy balanced exercise program.

People cannot accomplish these complex changes in body mechanics by thinking about muscles or mechanical concepts. They will need movement experience with the attention on feeling a different way of moving. This feeling is the motivation for taking the experience into the sport. The Pilates teacher is the educator and presents the exercises with clear explanation and cueing.

Five Mat Exercises for Runners
Mat work is a good place to begin the Pilates education. It can be practiced at home and become part of the warm up for the run. While all of the Mat exercises are valuable should be done in the order of the list, you may find that choosing a few that will hook the interest of the runner will be the best plan to get them motivated.

These are five pieces of mat work that I like to present to the runner. I choose these because they challenge the core and emphasize the position of the pelvis and hips. These are selected to challenge the runner and to teach them how to stretch and strengthen in balance. Always use caution if any exercise causes pain. Make sure to establish proper alignment with runner clients, especially if you are trying to correct imbalances. If the runner has an injury, it is wise to ask for a release by the physician or physical therapist before introducing a Pilates Mat program.

  • The Roll-Up:  Runners have problems with lower backaches and pain. When they are told to run with a level pelvis, they may have developed muscle patterns that pull the pelvis into an anterior or posterior tilt. Getting into the correct pelvic position and rolling upward incrementally will lengthen lower back muscles, articulate vertebrae, and strengthen the core muscles.

  • The One Leg Circle:  The runner usually needs to stretch the hamstrings and lengthen hip abductors. The circle includes control of the lateral hip rotators. This can help stretch a tight piriformis muscle.

  • The Saw:  This exercise lengthens the lower back muscles, creates balance of the two pelvic halves, lengthens the hamstrings, and introduces rotation with anterior trunk flexion.

  • The One Leg Kick:  All of the “swan” exercises open up the chest and extend the thoracic spine. Runners often have thoracic kyphosis. The open chest also increases breathing capacity. The leg kick is a quadriceps stretch.

  • The Teaser:  Runners are people who love a challenge. The form may not look perfect in the beginning attempts, but the serious student will appreciate the work. A good teaser in a “C” curve works the psoas and the abdominal muscles. The trunk flexion is good cross training for a pelvis that may spend many miles in an anterior tilt.

It will be important to understand that Pilates will be most effective if you can start with goal setting. A few exercises that can be done independently and make a positive difference is a job well done. Don’t be surprised if the student who came for just a few lessons becomes a regular client.

Pat Guyton, owner of Pat Guyton Pilates, Inc. in Boulder, Colorado, is the director of Pilates Conservatory®, a comprehensive Pilates teacher training program. She served on the Pilates Method Alliance board of Directors for seven years and has taught Pilates for the past 25 years. Pat is also a Franklin Method® Educator Level I and the author of Stretch Out Strap® Shoulder Girdle and Arm Work.

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Reader Comments (2)

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March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClayton Stitzel

The most important part is the arch of the foot for the runner, most people have too much pronation, which will cause problems to the, ankle, knee, hip, back and so forth. Functional exam which looks at once body how it functions in different planes is an important adjunct to once therapy.

June 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte Chiropractor

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