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Pilates: The Core-Building Choice of the Bowerman Babes

Why learning the specific exercises of this core-building program may be the best thing for improving your running stride and preventing injury.

When Colleen Quigley started Pilates, she had no idea that it would be about asking the quad muscles to “take a backseat” and make the glute muscles work instead. She says after six months into regularly making Pilates a part of her running and lifting routine, “I’ve gotten totally hooked.”

And Quigley isn’t alone. Many of the Bowerman Babes (including Shalane) have incorporated Pilates into their training routine, and are among a growing number of people reaping the benefits of this powerhouse-building exercise routine.

What is Pilates?

Started in the 1920s by Joseph Pilates, Pilates is a sequence of 34 specific exercises that Joseph developed to target the powerhouse of the body. More commonly referred to as “the core,” the powerhouse includes the four sets of abdominals – rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques – the glutes, pelvic floor muscles, the diaphragmatic muscles and the inner thighs.

Targeting these muscles has several benefits:

  • Strengthens muscles, such as the glutes, which need to be activated during running, but which may not be working effectively. Compensatory muscles, like hamstrings, working in lieu can lead to injury and compromised running performance.
  • Addresses anatomical imbalances in the body which can affect running gait or reduce performance.
  • Clarifies your personal areas of weakness so you can be time efficient with your workouts, targeting these areas specifically.

You may already be performing Pilates exercises—such as bridges and crunches—as part of your current running strength program. The benefit of learning the full Pilates exercise routine over other core strengthening programs is that these exercises are designed to work trains of muscles linked by fascial lines. The 34 Pilates movements allow you to strengthen the muscles and stretch this fascia simultaneously.

pilates exercise
photo: Shutterstock

How Does Pilates Help Runners?

A 2017 study showed that, after 6 weeks of doing Pilates, participants displayed a “significant improvement in their functional movement ability.” In other words, they were better able to perform fundamental movement patterns such as lunges, deep squats, lateral movement, trunk stability and rotation. The flexibility and strength necessary to perform these movements is key to having an effective stride and prevent injury. Pilates not only improves overall movement ability, but helps counter the imbalances resulting from regular sitting and poor posture.

But it’s more than just the strengthening and enhanced movement aspect of Pilates that makes it an ideal addition to a runner’s arsenal. Pilates’ principles of concentration, centering and breathing are applicable to running as well.

Pilates classes center around finding the mindset which facilitates productive breathing and concentration while doing the exercises. In a running setting, these same methods of centering and concentration can be used to reduce the distraction of pain; to ignore tired legs and to concentrate on helping the body reach its full potential physically.

Why Choose Pilates?

More than a set of individual exercises, Pilates is “the best bang for your buck,” says Pace of Me owner Jessica Hofheimer, who helps others run, move and live better as a running coach and Pilates instructor. When you practice Pilates, she says, you strengthen your powerhouse, prevent injury and are also essentially engaging in a tailored PT session.

Pilates exercises were originally developed as a rehab routine for war-injured patients, and today, Pilates is a regular part of physical therapy rehabilitation programs. “I tell a lot of runners I coach to think of it as injury prevention in that way,” says Hofheimer. “It shows you where your imbalances are, and empowers you to work on them.”

A class that is specifically targeted for runners will work the deep core muscles and focus on teaching runners how to use the muscles that take the loading and impact of running most effectively. Quigley says that in her Pilates sessions, which are one on one or with one or two other students, she gets lots of attention from the teacher, making sure she maintains proper alignment and recruits the targeted muscles.

The good news: it doesn’t have to be another class you try to fit in every week forever, or a large time investment that takes away from your weekly mileage. Hofheimer suggests you learn the basics of your body’s specific needs by “investing in 1–2 private lessons.” From there, you can take the exercises you learn that are best for you and incorporate them into your current weekly strength or core training sessions—add 10 minutes on the end, or replace some other less specific movements.

You may, however, want to commit to a block of classes. Who knows, you may get really lucky and find yourself as one of those other two people in a class with a Bowerman Babe. Here’s to channeling your inner Colleen or Shalane to get you through those ab-burning moments!