We know that strength training can make us less injury prone when running but what if you don’t like lifting weights or you’re looking for something lower impact? Runner Alice Barraclough argues the case for reformer pilates being part and parcel of every runner’s routine.
Most runners know that alongside pounding pavements, strength training is key to running well. By targeting the muscles you use for running, strength and conditioning workouts can reduce the risk of injury and help you run faster too.
But when faced with a training schedule that already includes running umpteen days a week, it can be hard to find the time to lift weights and cross-train as well. Trust me, I know.
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I trained for the Virgin Money London Marathon for what seems like forever (it was originally due to take place last April – 18 months ago – but then Covid happened), so in order to prepare my body as best as possible, I’ve spent the six weeks leading up to the race complementing my running with weekly reformer pilates sessions at Heartcore, in Fulham.
Reformer pilates is hard. The exercises – which take place on long benches with weighted springs and multiple straps that don’t look too dissimilar to a grim medieval torture device – are designed to work your muscles to the point of failure. It’s not particularly graceful, especially when your legs are flailing in the air, but it burns in a satisfying kind of way – and most importantly, complements long-distance running through developing enhanced flexibility, strength, coordination and balance.
It’s the kind of activity that doesn’t leave you on your knees and out of breath (although it can be rather sweaty). But you feel it two days later, when your muscles ache because you have worked so hard.
The benefits of pilates for runners
Runners often don’t access their full range of motion. As a consequence, some muscles (eg the quads) become very strong from overuse and other muscles (such as hamstrings and glutes) become very weak or start to rely on other muscles to overcompensate. The result? Injury.
Think of supplementing run mileage with pilates as injury prevention: it can help correct imbalances and build long, strong muscles.
It can help train your brain
“Pilates is excellent for runners mentally as well as physically,” says Samantha Charles, personal trainer and pilates instructor at Heartcore. “It develops mind-body connection which is key for training one’s self mentally; running isn’t just about the physical aspect. You need to get inside your head when it gets tough, which doesn’t happen without appreciation and understanding that you work in sync.”
She explains that when your head says ‘no’, your body takes note; when you mentally decide to push through, you’ll be amazed at what your body is capable of. “You just have to know you most definitely can and how to see that.”
Pilates strengthens your core and improves posture
“Your core is your ‘trunk’, strengthening your posture can have a huge impact on how you carry yourself, making your stride more efficient when running,” explains Charles. “Your core is what it says on the tin, and is at the core of your movement.”
Runners can have slight imbalances from repetitive movement, so core stability is essential for a good running technique as your body is designed to work together not as individual limbs.
“A strong core will help your lower back, pelvis and hips to work together, without using unnecessary energy, so you’ll feel more stable and efficient,” she explains.
It makes you focus on your breathing
Pilates promotes efficient breathing techniques. Charles explains that being aware of your breath can help you catch yourself when you start to lose your pace and rhythm. “Sometimes you just need to catch your breath – not just in running but in life in general.”
Pilates helps open your hips
We runners often have incredibly tight hips, which Charles says can lead to short stride length, lower back pain and poor posture. You want to work on mobilising and isolating the hip flexors, which pilates is great for.
The reformer machine is excellent for getting in a good stretch, helping you recover from runs and making your muscles more supple.
It’s low impact and can help prevent injury
Perhaps the best thing about pilates is that it’s low impact, easy on the joints, and can be used as the conditioning element to your training. “It strengthens as well as lengthens your muscles; mobilising and opening as well as working on areas to strengthen,” says Charles.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got strong quads or hamstrings; your stabilising muscles may still be weak. The point of the Reformer is to help isolate, strengthen and correct any hip, knee or ankle imbalances. Oh, and it can help to keep track of the knee, which can move about quite a bit when you’re squatting or running; training it to stay in line can be hugely beneficial.
Feeling inspired to strengthen and lengthen… but can’t be bothered to schlep to Fulham? Join one of our new and exclusive Barrecore x SWTC workouts that are guaranteed to leave you stronger and more supple.