Pilates for Runners

by Christy Stevenson on Dec 13, 2012

Running has long been a favorite fitness activity for millions of people. However, as more people catch the running bug, more also succumb to overuse injuries. Running tends to be high impact, it’s repetitive, and it occurs mostly in the sagittal plane. No wonder, then, that many runners fall prey to injury or imbalance.

Pilates-based moves can be invaluable when incorporated into runners’ fitness regimens. The six principles of Pilates—concentration, centering, control, breathing, precision and flow—all apply to running. Most important, if a runner can learn how to engage his powerhouse and allow motion to originate from it, he will run faster, more efficiently, with control and with less risk of injury.

Common running injuries stem from tight, weak hips; an overworked but weak gluteal complex; weak, improperly trained abdominals; and weak leg stabilizers. The following Pilates-based exercises address these issues.

Standing Side Leg-Lifts With Leg Circles

This standing variation of the Pilates side kick helps strengthen the entire leg complex—especially the stabilizers—while increasing hip mobility and challenging the core. It also gets runners out of the sagittal plane.

Begin in standing Pilates stance, hamstrings engaged, inner thighs squeezed together, knees soft but strong, and abdominals “zipped up.” Exhale: Bring shoulders up, back and down. Inhale: Keep arms parallel to sides. Inhale: Lift left leg straight out to side, leading with outer thigh. Knee faces forward without hyperextending. Exhale: Tap toe to floor, keeping leg long. Repeat 6–8 times; hold leg up and balance. Circle extended leg 8 times clockwise and 8 times counterclockwise, making small, smooth circles. Exhale: Release to center Pilates stance. Repeat on opposite leg. Keep abdominal muscles engaged throughout. Lift tall through spine and stay strong in standing leg without locking knee.

Modified Pilates Hip Circles With Zigzags

Strong abdominals are critical to good form, especially when running downhill. This exercise challenges the abdominals while targeting the abductors, adductors and hip flexors. It also stretches the top of the foot, which helps alleviate shin splints.

Begin supine, propped on elbows. Rise out of shoulders, and lift and open chest, keeping neck long and lifted through crown. Inhale: Extend both legs at 45-degree angle (or higher to modify). If this position is too difficult, do the hundred instead. Begin with classic hip circles, legs glued together in Pilates stance, circling 3 times clockwise and 3 times counterclockwise. Rest if necessary, and then add zigzags.

While still propped on elbows, with abdominals scooped and spine lengthened, exhale and gently cross extended right leg over left leg. Inhale: Move legs apart about 1–2 feet and switch, traveling legs upward for two sets, and then downward for 2 sets. Do this at controlled pace, keeping legs long and strong, toes pointed. Perform 2–4 sets slowly, and then 2–4 sets at faster pace. Gently roll down onto spine, stretch arms overhead and reach long through toes, elongating abdominals for a deep stretch.

For another great exercise for runners, please see “3 Pilates-Inspired Moves for Runners” in the online IDEA Library or in the November 2012 issue of IDEA Pilates Today.

IDEA Fit Tips, Volume 11, Issue 1

© 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Christy Stevenson

Christy Stevenson IDEA Author/Presenter

Christy Stevenson, FiTOUR ProTrainer and author of Get on the Ball—A Swiss Ball Workout (www.swissballworkout.com), has been teaching group fitness classes for over a decade, and has certified with ...


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  • User

    I think a safer Pilates exercise is the Leg circles lying on the back both clock wise and counter clock wise. Keeping the pelvis still and only moving from the hip joint. Core is zipped up, arms on the sides reaching for the ankles. Shoulder blades on the floor and buttoned down. This movement will strengthen and stretch lateral muscles in the leg allowing the ball and socked to move freely
    Commented Jan 09, 2013
  • Christy Stevenson

    And I think we can all agree, any strength-training and cross-training, especially out of the sagittal plane, we can get our runners to do will benefit them in their musclular endurance goals!
    Commented Jan 04, 2013
  • Christy Stevenson

    Jonathan, I understand your views. The intent of this very brief article was to provide a few Pilates-based strengthening exercises to benefit runners. First and foremost is clearly to perform a postural assessment, and I'm glad you recognize that. Unfortunately, this article didn't give me the word count to delve into all the obvious baseline assessments that most benefit runners individually. As a runner and Pilates instructor/personal trainer, I've worked with many runners who have overworked quads but underworked hamstrings, so I think teaching them to be aware of those muscle imbalances is a good thing. Pilates stance in itself requires the mindful engagement of the hamstrings, and it's an important cue, as most of us habitually contract quads when standing and ignore the hamstrings. Runners may have tight hamstrings, but tight does not equal strong. In fact, I find that all too often their hamstrings are weaker than I would expect. I feel that the Iliopsoas is an important part of the core, and while runners may overwork it, that does not mean that they have properly strengthened the area (stabilizers as well as mobilizers). Runners I've worked with (including myself)actually experience fewer hip issues if they perform exercises such as this to properly strengthen the Iliopsoas. We cannot assume that "tight" mean "strong" or "properly worked". Thanks for your response-- I appreciate your point-of-view!
    Commented Jan 04, 2013
  • User

    I do believe that strengthening the upper hamstrings is very imortant...People tend to use only a section of their hamstrings. We were however just commenting on the second exercize...Hip circles are NOT easy and i do not suggest anyone just trying them without proper knowledge.
    Commented Jan 04, 2013
  • Lisa Weigand

    Jonathan, I wish there was a "like" button for your comments!
    Commented Jan 04, 2013
  • Jonathan Urla

    How unfortunate. This article does not really present how Pilates would address a runner's needs, nor the proper technique. Without going too much into it, the most important way a Pilates teacher can help a runner is by assessing their posture and seeing where the tight spots are that runners invariably have, and help teach them proper stretches and counter exercises to balance out their body. Telling runners to stand and "engage their hamstrings" is a bad habit to teach an athlete who uses that muscle all the time and probably is overly tight there. The second exercise is for advanced students only and relies heavily on the Iliopsoas muscle more than the deeper core muscles. Again, this muscle is usually overworked in a runner already.
    Commented Jan 04, 2013

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