The Plus of Pilates
Many runners don’t want to waste their precious training time – the time they’ve prized away from work and family schedules – to do anything other than run. Phoebe Doyle speaks to one runner who found Pilates changed every area of her life and particularly her running.
Julia Moss is now in her 40s and her passion for running began over 25 years ago. In her late 20s she would run in excess of 100 miles a week, and that was on top of a fairly notoriously gruelling high impact aerobics class which she taught at the time. As the years pushed on though, an all too familiar tale unfolded, Julia tells us; “Once I reached my 30’s, I began to develop niggling problems in my right hip and by the time I was 35, even walking brought on pain. Despite seeing many physiotherapists, osteopaths, and other specialists, the problem simply would not go away.”
Such was the persistence with Julia’s injury that the experts she sought help from became sceptical of her running future; “A number of specialists told me “you are getting too old to run now, you should just stop”. But Julia adored running; stopping just wasn’t an option.
At this time Pilates was not as popular as it is today but Julia had heard that it might help her with her injury, and in the ultimate goal of getting her back out there, improving on her performance. Julia was advised that finding the right teacher was key; “fortunately I found a good Pilates teacher who initially taught me some basics. From the outset it made sense intuitively and I started to incorporate Pilates into my daily routine. Within a year I was running injury free once more. It was a year after that I qualified as a Pilates teacher myself.”
Pilates teacher and fitness expert Jane Wrafter (www.jcwfitness.co.uk) says it’s now a common journey; from onset of a sports injury to the Pilates class, “I have worked with many people who have started Pilates after suffering injury from their sport – I see runners frequently. A common culprit is also football where men in their late 30's or 40's play a 5 a side game like they used to in their 20's and have a shock when they literally can't get out of bed the next day!”
Running and Pilates – match in heaven?
Whilst running is the indisputable King of cardiovascular fitness, Julia’s step to devote some of her training time to the altogether more calming, low-impact pursuit of Pilates may be one for more runners to consider. Julia explains why she sees this as the ultimate fitness marriage; “Running is great for increasing CV fitness, we all know that. But I believe, as do many experts these days, that it needs to be combined with other forms of exercise to ensure a balanced fitness regime with the ultimate goal of keeping you running for longer.”
“The thing with running”, remarks Jane, “is that it strengthens certain parts of the leg more than others. So runners tend to be strong in the front of the thigh (Quadriceps), the calf (gastrocnemius) and the muscles which pull the leg up in the air (the hip flexors and hip extensor muscles). Runners tend to be weaker in the backs of the legs (hamstrings), the inner thighs (adductors) and the muscles in the bottom (the gluteus muscles). This creates an imbalance which can increase the likelihood of injury, and Pilates helps to strengthen the weaker areas thus creating balance in the function of the whole leg.”
Finding the time
So what about the issue of time? Runners tend to be driven by nature; driven to run, driven to improve on times, and when there’s a lack of time to train – many tend to stick to their sport in isolation. Julia is convinced that we do so at our peril; “to not find the time to pursue another activity, such a Pilates, could be a costly short-sighted mistake. The high impact nature of running means that unless you are perfectly aligned (and few of us are) it will lead to overworking some muscles, underworking others, ultimately resulting in what all runners are desperate to avoid - injury.” And as for how much Pilates to incorporate, Jane’s advice is clear; “runners should aim to practice Pilates for a minimum of 30 minutes two or three times per week, but should also aim to incorporate the principles learned in to their running technique.”
At the core
Registered Osteopath, Richard Emmerson ( www.pure-dynamic-osteopathy.co.uk),warns; “In today’s computer world, a large percentage of the population live sedate lives, working over 8 hours a day sitting at a desk. This inactivity deactivates the core muscles which are so essential for running.”
Core strength enables you to run tall rather than slumping into the ground with every step. “However, core strength is about much more than just having strong stomach muscles – Pilates teaches you how to build a strong core from your feet up”, explains Julia.
Jane says clients often come to her after experiencing lower back pain caused by running, she says; “This is most definitely all down to a weak core - i.e. the abdominals and back. The repetitive strain of the impact of the running is just too much for their back to cope with, and the muscles ache the next day.
“Runners often "hunch up" and "hunch forward" through the neck and shoulders, meaning that the shoulders hunch up towards the ears which can create tension in the neck (which can often progress to quite severe neck pain), and also in the shoulders. This creates a postural imbalance and can lead to injury and discomfort throughout the body. Pilates can correct postural imbalances by strengthening the muscles which play a key part in good posture - especially the muscles which draw the shoulders away from the ears (the latissimus dorsi) and those which draw the shoulders back (the rear deltoids).
Finding the balance
Whilst injury is the runner’s enemy so many of us fall foul to it all too often, and the reason may largely lay with balance; “because so few of us are completely balanced we tend to overuse, compensate and put pressure on one side or another”, Jane explains. As running is a high impact sport, over a period of time these imbalances result in an injury. Julia agrees, saying that in her case, she has a tendency to over work one side of her body and to not rotate enough through the trunk, “what I found is that whilst stretching muscles helps, it’s not enough”. Jane explains this is even more important if runners plan on heading off-road; “Improved balance is vital especially for runners who use uneven terrain and are hence more likely to trip over. Having good balance skills can genuinely mean the difference between a trip and a full blown fall.”
As well as aiding the development of a superior sense of balance, Pilates directly helps to address any flexibility issues; “it increases strength and helps to ensure all your muscles are as flexible as they should be”, says Julia who feels without this practise she would have continued to exacerbate the problem by over-stretching and overworking the same muscle group, and most certainly wouldn’t be still running today.
Increase body awareness
A further benefit of Pilates is that it can help the runner learn to connect more directly with their body, as Julia explains; “So many people are actually alarmingly unaware of how their body’s move and this is particularly apparent when you see someone running badly. If you look at a top athlete, you will notice that they have great body awareness, they are not shuffling along with heads down and their bodies sinking into the ground. Instead they seem to glide along effortlessly. Pilates is essentially about learning efficient movement techniques so that you can then continue to do whatever sport you enjoy.” Jane agrees saying that what’s learnt in the class can be transferred to your everyday movements and your running style.
As time goes on…
As a runner gets older all of this only becomes increasingly relevant, Richard Emmerson explains; “With ageing, the body’s ability to recover from injury is impaired. If the body undergoes repetitive trauma from running it can cause structural damage to the musculo-skeletal system leading to injuries such as stress fractures, osteoarthritis and tendonitis. Furthermore if a runner has inadequate rest the threshold for pain becomes lower.”
It’s well documented that technique and style can suffer as we age and this can lead to an increase in injury risk; “The cumulative effect of poor running technique increases the stress on the joints of the body”, says Richard, adding, “Pilates can help control the pelvis and lower back when running and absorb some of the stresses which otherwise would impact upon the joints, thereby reducing the incidence of injury. With adequate rest and good technique the human body has remarkable ability to adapt to the challenges of running well into later life.”
Jane Wrafter summarises some Pilate’s pluses….
1. Runners need good core strength in order to reduce strain on the lower back (lumbar spine area). The core i.e. the tummy should be engaged throughout the run, Pilates really helps runners a) learn how to do this and b) to strengthen this area thus making it more effective when it is engaged.
2. Runners need to develop an awareness of posture – which Pilates teaches - which should be applied directly to their running in order to ensure that the back and shoulders are in good alignment, thus placing less strain on these areas and other areas of the body e.g. knees and ankles.
3. Pilates helps to improve balance and co-ordination, vital in performance and for reducing fall risk.
4. Pilates helps to improve flexibility of muscles, and also mobility of the joints and spine. Running can cause tightness in the legs and back, all of which are alleviated through Pilates.