Becoming A Better Runner: The Benefits of Pilates for Runners

By physiotherapist and clinical Pilates instructor, Karly Sutherland

Lets face it, runners love running and a large percentage of runners primarily just run! When faced with the choice of doing core/stability exercises or going for a run for your workout, the run is so much more appealing. Through my work, I see evidence of this practice changing, thankfully, as people are becoming more aware of their bodies and the importance of injury prevention, however, we still have a ways to go.

Many runners think that in order to run better, they need to run more. In my opinion, runners need to run smarter, not harder.  Like any athlete, in order to improve, runners have to train properly. If you look at high end athletes, part of their training involves spending time doing exercises outside of their sport to improve strength, endurance and address overall muscle imbalances. This type of training allows those athletes to perform better and reduce the risk of injury.

Here is a simple, yet common example of improper training.  Let’s say you are a runner who lacks stability at the hip and when you run, your hip drops leading to your knee drifting inwards. The longer you run, the more fatigued the muscles get and the more pronounced this problem gets. Our bodies are good at dealing with these types of problems for a short time, but at some point the tissues you are over stressing with these poor bio-mechanics are going to say enough is enough and injury is likely to result.

Running places large forces on the body. In order to manage these, our bodies have to have appropriate neuromuscular control, which is the ability of our brain to effectively recruit and use the appropriate muscles to avoid instability.  There are many great forms of core exercises and programs designed to help you improve this neuromuscular control, which focus on flexibility, core strength, and body awareness. Ultimately, finding the exercise you enjoy and that will also allow you to see results is key. As a runner myself, that exercise for me is pilates.  The following are the reasons I practice pilates, and why I teach it to my patients and recommend it for other runners to try:

1. Body awareness – Pilates is largely about mindfulness and body awareness. One of the 5 basic principles of pilates is proper breathing. Breathing helps you become more in tune with your body, it promotes relaxation, improves oxygenation, which can help with brain function and muscle function, and it allows you to more effectively engage your core musculature. Breathing can also be used as a great tool to help manage or decrease pain. Incorporated properly while running, breathing can greatly help to improve your overall efficiency and performance.

By improving your breathing and becoming more aware of your body, you start to learn what it feels like when you are moving correctly and breathing correctly, what it feels like to engage specific muscles such as the glutes and the core. This in turn, allows you to become more aware of when things are not happening correctly and hopefully what you can do to correct it.

2. Variety - Running is largely performed along one plane – that being straight forward. Trail running certainly offers a bit more variety, with increased side-to-side and up and down movements, however, you are still mostly moving forward. Any movement performed over and over again can lead to muscle imbalances as the same muscles are being worked repeatedly. In time, this can result in overuse injuries. Pilates offers variety from running and helps work many of the core and hip stabilizing muscles in different planes of movement.  This results in overall improvements of function and efficiency. It also has the added benefit of being very low impact, giving the joints in your body a much needed break.  Further, by exposing yourself to different environments and situations, you refine your muscle memory and improve your overall skill.

3. Flexibility – Stretching has forever been a part of the running world. Races are often started with a large pre-run stretch and runners are constantly saying “I need to stretch more”.  The reason behind this, is often times that specific muscles in a runner are weak and/or working too hard to try to stabilize or compensate for deficiencies and imbalances elsewhere. By improving overall core and hip stability and efficiency, it will allow these muscles to have a break, no longer having to work as hard and can often help decrease those feelings of tightness and the constant need to stretch. Gain mobility by improving stability!

4. Strengthening Your Feet – This is possibly my favourite reason! I love feet – they allow us to do what we love – RUN! Even if you don’t run, they are what get us around every day and in my opinion, the majority of people neglect their feet and take them for granted. When our feet are not working well, the rest of our body can’t possibly function well! Our feet are highly sensitive structures. They are the first point of contact with the ground and as they move across the ground, they send information to the brain about what is happening and what needs to happen next, greatly influencing muscle activation, aka what muscles need to turn on where to keep us moving.

When we run, we stuff our feet into shoes – often poor fitting ones – with all sorts of different cushioning and features.  These features help protect our feet and allow us to run longer distances safely.  However, while running shoes are great (assuming that they are the appropriate one for your technique and terrain), they can also take away the ability of our feet to take in information and respond to the ground.  This is where pilates comes in.  Pilates incorporates a lot of foot work in the exercises performed that can help runners/athletes learn to feel again with their feet, improve the function of the intrinsic muscles  and help the body and mind learn to activate different muscles further up the “chain” while running.

Karly teaches Clinical Pilates at our location on 8th and Ash in Vancouver.