How Pilates for Runners Works


Pilates offers runners a great workout for that all-important core region.
Pilates offers runners a great workout for that all-important core region.
Mike Harrington/Getty Images

For decades, runners have trained by running. The logic seems pretty clear -- the more you do something, the better you get at it. But it takes more than just strong legs and lungs to get the most out of a good run. Having a strong core -- back, chest and abdominal muscles -- is vital for breathing, flexibility, balance and endurance.

Enter Pilates. What started out as something of a fitness fad has become a popular way to develop muscle strength without bulk and strengthen that all-important core. There are Pilates studios all over the world; lots of gyms and fitness centers offer Pilates classes as well.

It turns out this fashionable exercise method holds plenty of potential benefits for runners. You don't even have to do Pilates every day to see results. According to experts and several runners we talked to, just adding one Pilates workout each week will make a difference.

How can a fitness program developed in the early 20th century improve endurance and injury recovery for today's running athletes? This article will explain the link between Pilates and running, complete with specific exercises that could help your training routine.

 

What Is Pilates, Anyway?

The Pilates workout is a series of controlled movements designed to strengthen muscles -- with an emphasis on the body's core. It was developed by Joseph Pilates, a German of Greek ancestry who came to the United States before World War II. The popularity of his methods spread gradually, finally hitting the mainstream in the 1990s.

Pilates believed that the key to good fitness was to use precise, controlled movements using the body's own weight as natural resistance (he later invented several machines for Pilates training). His exercises focus on breath control, concentration on the overall movements required and the proper alignment of the body. The meditation needed to do Pilates correctly represented his belief in the connection between physical and mental health.

There are a lot of similarities between Pilates and yoga. They share some movements, as well as the focus on breathing and control. However, their origins are very different.

Although both exercises can be performed on mats, Pilates isn't a form of yoga. You need no other special equipment. There are some more advanced Pilates routines that use a resistance spring or special table, but runners can try Pilates without buying any expensive gear.

Most Pilates exercises involve holding a body part in a particular position while you control your breathing. For example, you might lie on your side and raise your top leg several inches up. This exercises both the muscles that lift the leg, the muscles that stabilize the rest of the body and the muscles required for controlled breathing.

We talked to several runners to see how Pilates had helped them train and prevent injuries. Find out what they had to say in the next section.

Benefits of Pilates for Runners

Stretching is a very important part of the Pilates experience.
Stretching is a very important part of the Pilates experience.
J Kim/Getty Images

Joseph Pilates created his exercises as a way to increase overall fitness for anyone. However, because graceful, flowing movements are part of the full Pilates exercises, and because they build strength without building bulky muscles, they were quickly adopted by dancers and gymnasts. Runners didn't consider the benefits of Pilates until it was more widespread.

For example, runner Chaz Nasca says, "After the first few months running, I added Pilates to my workouts to increase my flexibility and strength. I find that it reduces my muscle soreness and my knees tend to feel better. I think the loosening of my muscles reduces the strain on my ligaments."

While all runners should stretch before they run, some runners' training programs don't focus enough on stretching. Strength and endurance training alone won't provide the progressive stretching that regular Pilates workouts will. Insufficiently stretched muscles can cause many problems for a runner, slowing them down at best, or leading to a serious injury at worst.

Just like stretching, Pilates helps runners focus on their breathing. This benefit is synergistic with the stretching because warming up the core helps the intercostal muscles that connect the ribs. This makes it easier to breathe smoothly using all available lung capacity.

The focus on breathing helps devotees in other sports as well. Runner Erica Turner Nasca says, "Pilates seems to help with both strengthening and stretching muscles, so I definitely notice a difference in any athletic endeavor I attempt, whether it's running or soccer. During a 'no-Pilates' week, my muscles seem to remain sore for a longer period of time following other sports."

A runner endures constant impact while running. The force of each step travels up from the legs to the lower back and rib cage. The core strength acquired through Pilates not only makes those areas better able to deal with the impact, it improves body alignment and balance, helping the runner distribute the force of running throughout the body more efficiently, instead of just dumping it all onto a few muscles. As a result, they won't feel nearly as sore after a hard run.

What are the best Pilates moves for runners? Find out on the next page.

Pilates Workouts for Runners

Practicing Pilates works well for runners in general, but some exercises stretch and develop some particularly important areas. Here are a few of them.

Swimming. Lie on the mat face down with your legs straight. Extend your arms out so your entire body forms one long line, while keeping your shoulder blades as "open" as possible. Pull your abdomen up. Then, reach out with your arms and legs (both will lift off the floor). The idea is to make your body as long as possible. Your head will also lift off the floor -- make sure you keep your face toward the floor and keep your neck as straight as possible. Alternate between reaching out opposite arms and legs and small, subtle stretching movements that will feel like you're taking an imaginary swim. Inhale for five "strokes," then exhale for five.

Standing Chest Expansion. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms hanging at your sides. Slowly lift your arms to the side until they're above your head, with your palms facing each other and biceps at your ears. Inhale slowly and deeply as you do this, concentrating on opening and filling your lungs as much as possible. Reverse the movement, exhaling as you move your hands back down to your sides.

Side Kick. This is a somewhat complicated maneuver, so find a good Pilates instructor or book to make sure you're using the correct form and movements. Essentially, while lying on your side, swing the top leg out in front of you, then behind you, repeating several times. Then swing the top leg up as far as you can, repeating several times before switching sides. This exercise is a prime example of how Pilates works out your entire body. It stretches the groin, hamstring and quad muscles, but most of the work is done by the abdominal and back muscles.

For more information on exercise and strength training, look at the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Begelman, Beth. "Pilates and Running." Pilates Digest, April 30, 2008. Accessed June 7, 2010. http://www.pilatesdigest.com/pilates-and-running/
  • Health and Running. "Pilates for Runners: Interview with Lynda Lippin." Accessed June 8, 2010. http://healthandrunning.com/running/pilates-for-runners
  • Pilates.com. "Pilates Origins." Accessed June 9, 2010. http://www.pilates.com/BBAPP/V/about/origins-of-pilates.html
  • Runner's World. "Pilates Moves for Runners: Breath Enhancers." Runner's World. January 2009.http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-238-263-266-12996-0,00.html?cm_mmc=Mag_URL-_-2009_January-_-pilates-_-Breath_Enhancers