Image: Competitor taking on the trails of Kippure - Gaelforce 10k Kippure event
Including different forms of exercise is a really important part of your training. Pilates is a great addition and here's why!
What does running ask of us?
Running on any surface requires many strengths and skills – endurance, stamina, cardiorespiratory fitness, strength and mental staying-power. The body must also exhibit control, balance and flexibility to deal with the unexpected and with the constant challenges which the outdoors presents. These are probably the lesser tended-to skills and strengths, but they are essential nonetheless, especially when it comes to injury prevention and ensuring our longevity as a runner.
Control, balance and flexibility in mountain running
When it comes to mountain running, control, balance and flexibility become even more important and simply cannot be ignored when devising a training plan. The terrain is uneven, the body is constantly challenged in varied ways and the unexpected is all around us on the mountains, especially the mountains of Connemara.
One all-in fix for these areas comes with practicing Pilates. It is specific to training control of movement, balance and flexibility, as well as adding to all-over body strength. Other more general fitness and strengthening programmes may touch on these areas but no other discipline targets them so exactly.
Pilates is something that can be done in your own home and all you need is a mat and comfortable clothing. Of course, classes or one-to-one tuition are important at the beginning to learn the movements correctly.
What is Pilates and where does it come from?
Pilates has been around since the early part of the last century, based on an exercise regime devised by German man Josef Pilates while a WWI prisoner of war in a camp in Britain. He took his exercise programme with him to America after the war and mainly worked with dancers thereafter. It is worth reading more about Josef Pilates if you are interested as his story is quite remarkable.
Strength and flexibility
The muscles that Pilates targets are what are known collectively as the Core Muscles and these are the deep muscles which provide a strong base for all movement. They are the Pelvic Floor Muscles, Multifidus (deep low back muscles), the Diaphragm and Transversus Abdominus (deep belt muscle). They can be difficult to strengthen as we cannot normally feel them working and they are only targeted by very specific exercises. Not all Pilates exercises are aimed at strength training, others also target flexibility so that there is a combination of benefits.
Mind over body!
Pilates is sometimes called the ‘thinking person’s exercise’ as it does require concentration and thought, and it does have to be learned. It is not a mindless exercise programme and if it is done in this way the benefits will not be felt. This should not be off-putting though as the concentration required also makes it very relaxing – almost like a moving meditation - and a nice antidote to an otherwise busy training plan.
Runner on the Trails
Benefits of Pilates in trail and mountain running
We probably all stretch before or after a run or both, working on the big global muscles – hamstrings, quads, calf muscles - and that is a good thing. However, flexibility comes in many other forms, often ignored. Flexibility of the spine, of the shoulder girdle, the pelvic girdle and all of the major joints of course. Any restrictions in any of these areas and immediately control and balance are disrupted. Movements are not as seamlessly performed as they should be and falls and injuries are much more likely.
This is the finer control which allows movement to be smooth, focused, efficient, precise and of course injury-free. It is quality of movement over everything else that is being sought - forget the fast, high reps movements we associate with other exercise routines. Core strength provides this control, providing a strong base for the movements. If you do not have good core muscle strength you will find out soon enough when you try some simple pilates exercises. The movements should be performed slowly with no shaking, wobbling or compensation from the bigger muscle groups.
Strong core muscles and good all-over flexibility will greatly help improve your balance, which is of huge importance when moving at speed over uneven terrain and shifting gradients. By targeting both of these areas, Pilates will help you stay upright for more of your run and help prevent the spills and injuries which can occur when balance is lost on the hillside.
The Pilates set-up
If you are planning to undertake any exercises please do so in a class setting with advice from your instructor or medial practitioner.
Before beginning any Pilates exercise, we must check that what is known as the ‘Pilates set-up’ is in place. This is the correct alignment of the body which will be challenged by the exercises. This set-up can also be used when going about daily life and even when running to continuously work the core muscles.
1. Shoulder blades are relaxed and are sliding down the back away from the ears
2. The lower back is slightly arched in what is called a neutral position
3. The core muscles are ‘switched on’ by either drawing in the belly button (Transversus Abdominus) or drawing up the Pelvic Floor Muscles by just 30% of their maximum effort (they are the type of muscles which strengthen most effectively by working at 30% max). Luckily when you switch on one of the core muscles in this way, it has been proven that they all switch on.
Image of leg pull prone to help build core strenght
So get to it - incorporate pilates into your weekly routine and you will definately notice the difference!
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