3 Runner-Friendly Pilates Moves to Help Keep You Injury-Free
As runners, we all struggle with similar issues that range from tight and sore muscles, imbalances in movement, and injuries.
Regardless of if you run marathons, on the trails, or 5ks and 10ks, one sure thing is that runners always want to know how to stretch their tight hips.
Running is a fabulous sport that increases fitness on many levels, however the wear and tear of it can add up over the years and the miles so it is important to have a constant practice of cross training.
I have the unique position of being a Pilates instructor, studio owner, and Pilates teacher trainer as well as a runner.
But guess what?
No matter how well balanced and stretched my body is, adding up mileage still requires continual maintenance.
In general, runners have tightness in their chest, front of hips, and back. These tight areas are in opposition to the weaker areas of the upper back, tush/hamstrings, and abdominals, respectively.
Working with runners is something I do on a daily basis in my studio.
That is why in this article I will show you three exercises that you can do to help balance, stretch, and strengthen your hips. These are exercises that I incorporate into my routines several times per week and use with all of my running students.
But first, WHY is Pilates so good for runners?
Many runners have come to my studio saying that they have been stretching their hips every day for months but are not gaining any flexibility at all.
We have heard it many times before – that stretching the muscles we have used during our physical endeavors is important.
This is true, however, stretching alone will not give the muscle length indefinitely.
What does that mean?
When we stretch a muscle in order to lengthen it, it feels good because this reduces the immediate stiffness. But, it usually goes right back to it’s shortened state immediately after stretching.
Unless, however, you give that newly stretched muscle the ability to STAY in that elongated position.
This can be accomplished by strengthening the muscles that facilitate its length.
Thus, exercises that both stretch AND strengthen will teach your body how to keep the length and the strength.
Each movement in Pilates is designed to stretch a muscle group while simultaneously strengthening the opposing muscle group.
All of the Pilates exercises – more than 500 in total – work on the principle of a two way stretch from a strong center – which takes strength and control to master!
Pilates really was the first application of ‘functional fitness’.
Even though 90% of the Pilates exercises are done on Joe Pilates specialized equipment, the Matwork is the most accessible for people to practice on their own, and that is how Joe Pilates used it.
After teaching his clients their lessons at his studio using his many apparatus he would then ‘prescribe’ them homework from his matwork repertoire.
3 Essential Pilates Exercises for Runners
In this article I will focus on the lower half of the body and show you three Pilates matwork exercises that showcase the aspects of Pilates that can help make great improvements to your running.
One exercise is to strengthen and stretch your hips, one is to focus on the stability of your hips, and one is focused on the alignment of your legs during movement.
All of the exercises have a component of stretch and strength, balance and control, and with repetition will translate directly to your running endeavors.
These exercises can be added to your cross training routine as often as every day.
I would recommend a minimum of 3 times per week to see a change.
Even once you have mastered them, you can continue to do them and benefit from them as they are fundamental body movements.
THIGH STRETCH Repeat: 5 times
To stretch thighs and hips while strengthening the tush and hamstrings. This targets all major lower body muscles!
Kneeling in an upright position, arms stretched forward at shoulder height, look down toward your knees.
Keeping your body straight, like a steel rod (do not arch your back!), lengthen back from the knees to stretch the hips and thighs. Make sure your tush is squeezing and pressing forward even as you lean back. Return to upright with control.
Really use your tush to get more stretch from this movement. When you return to upright, try to come up so far forward that you feel as though you might fall. Doing this will engage your hamstrings and allow for a better position. Imagine a mother cat pulling her kitten by the back of the neck as you lengthen back.
ONE LEG CIRCLE Repeat: 5 times
Teaches stability of the hips and torso while moving the legs.
Lay flat on your back, legs out long.
Bend one knee into your chest tightly, to stretch it then straighten leg toward the ceiling and draw it toward you to stretch the hamstring. (Did you know that the hamstrings are the most possible muscles to be stretched in the entire body based on their attachment points and basic physics?)
Repeat on both sides and keep your tail pressing downwards to the mat to maximize the stretch.
Laying flat on your back, legs out long and glued together. Press arms firmly into the mat. Bring your right leg up toward the ceiling and turn it outwards slightly. Do not try to get the leg straight up to 90 degrees, rather 70 degrees up from the floor.
Begin by drawing a rectangle with your leg. Move the leg across your body toward your left side, down toward the floor, up toward the right shoulder, stop in front of the nose. Do not allow your hips or torso to move at all. Repeat 5 times in each direction.
Repeat with the left leg.
Make sure you are pressing your arms and the leg you are not circling into the mat firmly.
You should be pressing hard enough that if I was there I could not lift your limbs off the floor.
You are also drawing your abdominals into the floor through your spine to help keep your pelvis still.
If you begin to feel the front of the thigh that you are circling you are lifting your leg too high toward the ceiling.
Keep your range of motion small until you gain control over time.
Eventually you will be able to move the leg in a full range of motion without the hips or torso moving at all. Even if you THINK you are still – lift your head and look to be sure.
You might be surprised!
SINGLE LEG PULL Repeat: 5 -10 times with each leg
Strengthens the abdominals, works on coordination and alignment of the arms and legs.
Lay on your back and bring your right knee into your chest. Your right hand will go on your right ankle and your left hand on your right knee. Your left leg will stretch out in front of you, in line with your nose, at about 45 degrees from the floor.
Lift your head and look into your tummy. Keep your body heavy on the mat without allowing it to shift from side to side. Switch legs and hands! Your right leg will extend out to 45 degrees in line with your nose as your left leg pulls in tight to your chest with your hands – left hand on the left ankle, right hand on the left knee. Continue for 6-10 repetitions per side.
Focus on the coordination of this movement at first, being careful to place your hands in the correct places (outside hand always goes to the ankle – this ensures proper leg alignment).
If you feel your neck while holding your head up, this is okay, it will take time to strengthen these muscles as well.
It is your abdominals that will hold your head up, so make sure you are curled up to the tips of your shoulder blades so that you can look into your tummy.
Rest your head down if necessary.
Eventually you can flow through this with little thought – the movement will become more natural – that is a good thing and means your body is incorporating these movement patterns in a healthy helpful way!
How to add more Pilates to your training routine
If you wish to try more Pilates moves or add it into your cross training routine, I recommend seeking out a fully equipped Classical studio and a teacher who is comprehensively trained.
This means that they are trained in the Pilates Method as Joe Pilates taught it on all of the apparatus, rather than just on the Matwork.
Many teachers only ever learn the matwork, but as this is less than 10% of the method, I equate this to hiring a carpenter to build your house who only knows how to install windows.
Any Pilates teacher, or studio worth their salt will be happy to talk to you about their training, the type of equipment they have and should be able to easily help you with your goals.
Pilates private lessons and classes should move with flow, be challenging, and should feel like a workout! If it is easy then you are not doing it correctly, or your teacher isn’t explaining it quite right for you.
You should leave your session feeling taller, stronger, and with knowledge that what you have just done will help you be the best you can!
***Cara Hazelton is a Classical Pilates teacher and studio owner in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. She also is the owner and teacher trainer for Authentic Pilates Canada, the only fully classical Pilates teacher training program in Canada. She spends her spare time being active outdoors with her family, running, hiking, skiing, and camping. She loves good food, knitting, and is currently preparing for a Half Marathon in May 2017.