How Pilates for Triathletes Works

With the fundamental principles of core strength and stability, almost any Pilates exercise can be beneficial to triathletes.
With the fundamental principles of core strength and stability, almost any Pilates exercise can be beneficial to triathletes.
Hemera/Thinkstock

In preparing for triathlons, people often go to great lengths to give themselves a competitive edge. They buy the most aerodynamic equipment, train for months and hire experts to analyze their performance. Considering how challenging triathlons are, these are all great strategies.

But many triathletes tend to overlook some very important aspects of training, such as core body strength and flexibility. This is unfortunate considering that deficiencies in these areas are sure to make competing in a triathlon extremely difficult. The good news is that great strides in these areas can be achieved through Pilates, a method of exercise that focuses on building a powerful core and balancing the body.

Triathletes tend to be extremely fit people. They're also usually well-rounded athletes since they need to excel at swimming, cycling and running. For some triathletes, the downside of this extreme fitness can be loss of flexibility and range of motion. It can also result in the disproportionate development of certain areas of the body at the expense of others. This is where Pilates comes in.

In addition to its focus on abdominal fitness, Pilates exercises are designed to lengthen and stabilize major muscle groups and correct imbalances in the body, a common problem for triathletes [source: Pilates.com]. What's more, compared to a lot of triathlon training techniques, Pilates can be relatively inexpensive and easy to perform. In most cases, all you need is a mat and a few minutes of time.

In the next section, we explore some specific ways in which Pilates can benefit triathletes.

Benefits of Pilates for Triathletes

For triathletes, traditional crunches may not be as effective as Pilates to increase power and flexibility.
For triathletes, traditional crunches may not be as effective as Pilates to increase power and flexibility.
Hemera/Thinkstock

The basic goal of Pilates is to increase strength and flexibility without adding bulk to the body. The wonderful thing about doing Pilates on a regular basis is that it provides a deep-muscle workout for the core abdominals and stabilizes the pelvic floor and shoulder girdle, which is critically important for balancing the large muscle groups in the arms and legs.

One of the best things about Pilates for triathletes is that it helps maintain optimal posture and keep the body operating at peak performance over a long period of time. Pilates can also prevent injuries and improve athletic performance through better energy conservation. Let's tackle energy conservation first.

Having a strong core is essential for proper form and alignment. It can alleviate some of the strain of endurance exercise on the body. Any weakness in the core means that the limbs must work harder when swimming, cycling and running. During a triathlon, this can mean the difference between finishing the race and collapsing in utter exhaustion.

Pilates can dramatically improve flexibility, which helps with endurance since a tense muscle will get tired faster than one that is engaged but elongated [source: Benefits of Pilates for Runners]. Pilates also focuses on rhythmic breathing, which is another key component for success with any endurance exercise.

In addition to helping triathletes perform at their peak, practicing Pilates reduces the likelihood of injury during a race. By strengthening the core as well as the pelvic and shoulder girdle, you effectively alleviate strain in the major muscle groups associated with those areas [source: Kopitzke]. You'll also achieve greater stability and alignment in the body. By doing so, the body is better protected during the difficult and demanding activities of a triathlon.

Pilates Workouts for Triathletes

With the fundamental principles of core strength and stability, almost any Pilates exercise can be beneficial to triathletes. But there are certain variations that target specific areas of the body that are critically important for triathletes. Note that many of these have names that sound like something you do in a swimming pool or perhaps an avian mating ritual, but don't worry -- all are designed to be done on solid ground. Here are some examples:

  • The swan -- The swan is a classic Pilates exercise that strengthens the muscles of the arms, buttocks and back, while stretching the muscles of the abdomen and hips. This is a great exercise for each of the triathlon activities since the buttocks are used to propel you through every leg of the race [source: Pilates Digest].
  • Swimming -- Swimming is a Pilates exercise that strengthens the muscles of the buttocks and back and is an excellent way to train for the swim portion of a triathlon. The movements are essentially simulated swimming, so it's important to coordinate your breathing with each stroke.
  • Arm reaches and pulls -- These are called scapular stabilization exercises, and they're ideal for improving stability in the shoulder girdle. Arm reaches and pulls encourage increased muscle control and tension release in the upper back and shoulder, which makes them great exercises for all triathlon events, especially swimming.
  • Scissors -- The scissors exercise is another great Pilates workout that benefits all aspects of triathlon, especially running and cycling [source: Taylor].
  • Plank -- Plank is another classic Pilates exercise that strengthens the core and upper body and is particularly helpful in training for the cycling portion of a triathlon.
  • Side kicks -- Sick kicks are an excellent exercise to improve your running posture and stamina.

You may find that certain Pilates exercises are best suited to your individual training goals. If so, stick with what works. Just keep in mind that whether you're a novice triathlete or a seasoned professional, practicing Pilates can give you the competitive edge you need to make the most of your triathlon experience.

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Sources

  • Begelman, Beth, "Pilates and Running," Pilates Digest. April 30, 2008 (Sept. 16, 2010)http://www.pilatesdigest.com/pilates-and-running/
  • Kopitzke, Robert, "Rehab: Pilates for Triathletes," Pilates COREterly. Spring 2006 (Sept. 17, 2010)http://www.pilates.com/resources/newsletter/nlsp06-Pilates-Triathletes.pdf
  • Mirlenbrink, Karen, "Ready to Try Pilates? Part 1," Pilates Digest. Dec. 16, 2010 (Sept. 17, 2010)http://www.pilatesdigest.com/ready-to-tri-pilates/
  • Mirlenbrink, Karen, "Ready to Try Pilates? Part 2," Pilates Digest. Jan 10, 2010 (Sept. 17, 2010)http://www.pilatesdigest.com/ready-to-tri-pilates-part-2/
  • "Pilates for Triathletes," NoboPilates.com (Sept. 17, 2010)http://www.nobopilates.com/news/pilates_triathletes~print.shtml
  • Taylor, Anais. Washington D.C.-based triathlete and personal trainer. Personal communication. (Sept. 16, 2010)
  • Valentin, "Niche Pilates: Men's Cycling," Pilates COREterly. Fall 2006 (Sept. 16, 2010)http://www.pilates.com/resources/newsletter/nlfa06-Niche-Pilates.pdf