Running has long been a favorite fitness activity for millions of people. It’s an accessible cardiorespiratory exercise, a fun social event and a natural antidepressant. However, as more people catch the running bug, more also succumb to common 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 three 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.
This advanced bridging exercise strengthens ankles, calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals/piriformis, which helps ward off potential knee injuries and/or instability. Be cautious if your client has back, wrist, knee or elbow issues.
Begin in supine position. Walk feet in close to buttocks, knees to ceiling, heels aligned with knees and sit bones. Anchor arms and shoulders beside you into mat. Inhale: Peel vertebrae off mat one at a time until hips rise as high as possible. At top, softly engage glutes to help float hips upward. Bring hands beneath hips for support, and lift bridge even higher. If this is too challenging, remain in first bridge and slowly lower hips halfway on exhalation, inhaling back to top. Repeat 6–8 times; slowly imprint spine into mat.
If client can achieve deeper bridge, add single leg-lifts. Inhale: Lift left leg straight up to ceiling, keeping hips high and supported with hands. Exhale: Lower leg until thighs are in line, and then inhale slowly back up. Repeat 4–6 times and gently place left foot back on floor. Return to bridge position and switch sides. If necessary, rest between sides. Imprint slowly back down to mat after completing reps on both sides, and roll out wrists.
Maintain space between sit bones and tailbone and length in spine throughout this move. Face quadriceps toward ceiling and engage inner thighs to ensure that knees do not fall open. Afterwards, hug knees into chest and make gentle circles.
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 tops of the feet, 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 2 sets and then downward for 2 sets. Do this at a controlled pace, keeping legs long and strong, toes pointed. Perform 2–4 sets slowly and then 2–4 sets at a faster pace. Gently roll down onto spine, stretch arms overhead and reach long through toes, elongating abdominals for a deep stretch.