Power your run with Pilates

For my first American Halloween my friends and I entered into either the half marathon or 5km fun run in Healdesburg. Preparing for this event and sharing my tips with friends has motivated me to share a blog exploring what Pilates exercises I love to use to improve dynamic movement control and flexibility for running.

There is research that states stretching before exercise doesn't reduce the risk of injury. Which is mostly true. Unfortunately this has been oversimplified into 'no stretching'. This is not true.

Many patients I see with running injuries have huge deficits in range of movement between sides or just don't have the ankle range of movement or hamstring length to run with a great stride. We should be encouraging our runners to learn how to measure, monitor, and mobilise their bodies to improve their control through range and available range.

Here are my three tips and some exercises to show how easy it is to do Pilates at home or in a gym to improve your range of movement and dynamic control of movement for running. 

Get your hips moving

The first five images show a series of hip exercises using the foam roller. Begin on your back with feet in the air and a foam roller under your sacrum/very lower back. You'll know it's in the right spot when you balance easily as seen in image 1. There are scissors, bicycle kicks, splits and hamstring stretch. Aside from the splits, which is for the groin, each exercise aims to mobilise one hip into flexion and the other into extension. Something we need for running and a well balanced stride. 

The last exercise is a beautiful groin stretch. Begin in tall kneeling with knees slightly apart and feet together. Then lift one leg up to the side and make sure the knee and foot are in one line. Tuck your pelvis underneath slightly and then lunge over the top leg. Make sure the bottom leg has the foot turned in. You might feel it in the ankle or the groin but its a wonderful stretch for opening the hips before or after a run. 

Open up your thoracic spine

The thoracic spine is a powerhouse - keeping it mobile is essential for your shoulders, lower back and hips to function well. Downward facing dog mobilises into shoulder flexion, thoracic extension while opening the posterior chain all the way into hamstrings and calves. Rabbit pose encourages a strong thoracic and cervical spine flexion stretch but make sure you'll holding onto your ankles well with your hands to reduce the load through your neck. 

The pretzel stretch - one of my favourites. It combines a lower back rotation with a quads stretch and upper thoracic rotation. Then we have a hamstring stretch with trunk lateral flexion using the theraband - the two pictures show how to move in and out of the stretch. 

And the final exercise I love for opening the thoracic spine is thread the needle, as it helps to reduce tightness in the back of the shoulder that might be limiting your upper back mobility. 

So we extend it, flex it, rotate it, laterally flex it and the rotate it again. A lovely well rounded set of exercises to address the movements of the thoracic spine, while linking them to the shoulders, hips, lower back and legs. 

Practice your dynamic movement control

It is definitely not all about mobility and in fact you can be beautifully mobile and have poor control of your back, hips and knees through range. 

Practice your single leg squat with a theraband pull which helps to connect the latissimus dorsi and gluteus maximus in the posterior chain and helps to promote a better drive through the hip and heel. 

Side balancing on the ball is hard enough, but have you tried practicing your hip and knee flexion during the balance? It is tough to bring the top leg straight up into flexion without dropping the knee or ankle. But if you keep the knee and ankle in line - you'll find a great gluteal contraction in the back of your top hip. 

Don't forget about your global abdominal muscles! People often say they need a strong 'core' for running - but traditionally this refers to the deeper stabilising muscles. We need to promote exercises that train upper abdominal and oblique strength. This is where I use sit ups and side crunches on the ball. Side balancing (seen next to the sit crunch) is another great exercise for balance, rotational control and oblique strength. 

Single leg squats should be complimented with single leg dead lifts. Varying the exercise to involve arm weights or varying the position of the shoulders to challenge the thoracic spine and scapula control are modifications I like to make. 

Swiss ball planks, prone crunches and pikes are great balance exercises for building shoulder strength, abdominal strength and control of lower back range of movement. Remember that returning to a strong plank is one of the main goals of the exercise so move slowly and purposely throughout the posture. Each exercise trains hip flexion which is needed to drive your legs forward in the swing phase of running. 

These are the exercises that I feel help to promote better dynamic hip control and strength through the shoulders, spine and hips for running. It's totally different to a traditional gym-setting strengthening program but hopefully shows you how Pilates can be modified for the sporting environment and still achieve many goals in one program. 

Enjoy, Sian