It’s a Saturday morning ritual: leisurely breakfast with the fam, followed by a jog through the park to the Pilates studio. An hour later, my core strengthened and stretched, I emerge relaxed and in a 200% better mood than when I went in. I’ve been doing Pilates weekly since last Christmas, and I give it a lot of credit for reviving my running at a time when it seemed to be in crisis: I’d somehow managed to become a total weakling while running 40 miles per week. The details are for another post, but the tl;dr version is that last year, I spent a lot of time running and zero time doing any other exercise. No yoga, no strength training, no core work. Not good.
What does a 40-mile-per-week weakling look like? Mostly, I just looked pregnant. My core abdominal muscles were so weak that my lower stomach bulged. My lower back had to compensate for the weak abs, and was stiff and sore after my runs. It became impossible to relax into a comfortable running form; my shoulders were often up around my ears and I had to consciously force them down every few minutes. When I was tired, I’d catch myself poking out my stomach and slouching. I knew something wasn’t right, but lacked the mental energy to deal with it.
In hindsight, though I luckily didn’t get injured, my running form and general appearance looked very much like the lower-crossed syndrome Salty describes here. It’s an armchair diagnosis, but it fits. Lower-crossed syndrome is characterized by weak deep abdominal muscles and weak glutes. People with lower-crossed syndrome tend to stick out their stomachs and butts (which causes a severe curve in the lower back). Upon my realization, I took a break from running to concentrate on fixing these obvious weaknesses.
What is Pilates?
Pilates is a series of exercises that focus on breathing, core strength and stability, flexibility, and control. Small, precise movements are coordinated with in- and exhalations. Proper form is key, which is why Pilates studios limit their class size. You can do the exercises on a mat, by themselves, or with equipment such as a theraband or swiss ball. For more advanced work, you can use the reformer, a piece of equipment that looks a little like a torture device, but actually simply uses springs to give you more resistance while doing the Pilates exercises.
Spoiler alert: it’s not yoga
Pilates is often conflated with yoga, but despite some surface similarities, they’re not the same. It’s not clear whether Joseph Pilates, the German who invented his eponymous training method (which he actually called “contrology”) as a way to keep fit in a British internment camp during World War I, knew about yoga. In his writing, Pilates emphasized the importance of the mind-body connection, which sounds yoga-like. And two aspects of Pilates practice are reminiscent of yoga. First, in Pilates, as in yoga, the exercises coordinate with your breath, although the Pilates breathing method is unique. Second, the Pilates exercises flow into each other with no break in between, like the asanas in some forms of yoga.
The main difference between them lies in their origins. Yoga originated as a spiritual, meditative practice, and Pilates did not. So it’s logical that yoga teachers will emphasize this aspect; depending on the yoga teacher, he or she might discuss the spirituality of yoga during class, and there’s almost always a ten-minute relaxation at the end of a yoga hour. Neither of these are present in Pilates. Yoga asanas (a fancy word for the different positions) work a broader range of muscles than Pilates exercises, which target very specific muscles and require a higher level of precision and accuracy in order to do them correctly.
From Pilates cynic to Pilates fanatic
When I realized my core needed help, I first added yoga and strength training to my schedule. It was nice to have muscles, and I enjoyed the meditative aspect of yoga, but even with these new activities running still felt wrong. My posture was better with the strength training, but it still wasn’t right. I figured it would take more time to get better, but also felt there must be something else I could do. But what?
I’d been hearing about Pilates forever, usually in contexts that made me dismiss it as a serious fitness regime. “It makes your muscles long and lean, like a dancer!” is one oft-repeated refrain, at least in the US, that really turned me off with its emphasis on achieving a specific body type; if that were even possible, it would not be the reason why I exercise. Also, I’d seen Pilates groups at my gym and had the admittedly snarky and mistaken impression that they were doing a kind of underachievers’ yoga.
On the other hand, my parents had been doing Pilates for a few years, and loved it. When I visited them last Christmas, in the midst of my rebuilding-from-burnout phase, I signed up for some classes. I already knew I had to work hard on my core, so it could only help, right? Even if I secretly believed it was going to be easy and probably not too effective …
… which turned out to be totally wrong. My first mat class, even the simplest exercises were hard. I kept pushing out my abs instead of pulling them toward my spine. Correct Pilates breathing seemed like an impossible feat of physical coordination. The teacher kept putting her hand on my stomach and saying “pull your navel in!” And I kept saying “I am pulling my navel in,” but she couldn’t tell. Yikes! Yet, I left an hour later feeling simultaneously relaxed and invigorated – and my hamstrings, which had been painfully tight after a transatlantic flight, were loose and pain-free. I was hooked.
If you’ve never done Pilates, you may be skeptical, like I was, that it’s any better than your usual core routine of stretching and planks, or any different from yoga. The exercises are so specific, and the teacher’s adjustments so precise, that there is really no comparison between doing bodyweight strength training at home, and doing a Pilates class. I can “do a plank” or hold a shoulder bridge for hours in my living room, but if I’m doing it right, guided by the teacher’s adjustments, I can only hold it for a few seconds before the burning pain sets in.
Runner-specific Pilates goodness
It’s pretty clear that I’ve found Pilates to be beneficial to my running. The most obvious positive change that I can attribute directly to Pilates is the feeling that my core is doing its share of work to carry me while my arms and shoulders stay relaxed. Sometimes my running form gets sloppy when I’m tired, but with the help of muscle memory from Pilates, I can correct and stabilize myself easily. This is in stark contrast to last year, when it was a constant struggle to readjust my shoulders and upper body; I had tension in all the wrong places because my core was too weak to do its job properly.
But let’s back up for a minute and define our terms: what exactly do we mean by “core strength”? What is this core, anyway – or, as it’s often called in Pilates, the powerhouse? I asked Jon Zimmerman of Studio A Pilates in Berlin. Jon explained that there are several layers of muscle that stabilize the pelvis and lower spine, all of which are targeted in Pilates:
- There are four layers of abdominal muscles: Rectus Abdominis (the six-pack), Outer and Inner Obliques, and the Transversus
- Underneath the abdominals is the Psoas. This is the thing that everybody knows is too tight, right? It runs along the spine, beginning with the last few thoracic vertebrae, and terminates on the inner thigh. When operating properly, it aids in the stabilization of the lower spine and initiates forward motion of the femur, the long bone in your thigh.
- Opposite these muscles, on our backs we have an entire system of smaller muscles, some stabilizing and mobilizing the spine and others connecting the shoulder blades with the pelvis.
Hip extension ftw!
Explaining how these core muscles work, Jon said, “When these things are working well in cooperation, it allows for more range of motion in the hip joints which would allow for a more fluid stride for runners.” Mine has definitely improved this year, for which I have to thank Pilates and Lydiard hill exercises in equal measure. If more range of motion sounds a little scary – possibly you’ve suffered, like I have in the past, from overly mobile hips and resulting injuries – be assured that more range of motion does not mean more of the wrong kind of motion or less stability. You’re strengthening all the stabilizing muscles in the abdominal, back, and butt areas to keep those hips moving the way they should.
Counteract the butt
When I asked Jon why else runners might need Pilates, he said, “Most runners tend to have a tight, overworked gluteal region, which in turn can cause us to walk and run in a sway-backed position. Building strength in the lower portion of the abdominals and in the pelvic floor muscles can counteract this tendency.” This is true, and it happened to me! If I only had a picture of myself from last year, looking like a sad, sway-backed, slightly pregnant, functionally overreached shell of a former runner, we could do a before-Pilates and after-Pilates comparison to prove it!
The final improvement to my running that I attribute to Pilates is that my breathing has become deeper and more relaxed. Pilates breathing is very specific in the way you expand your rib cage to inhale, paying attention to the movement of individual ribs, and then draw the rib cage downward and your navel in to exhale. Jon confirms my impression that this has translated to better breathing while running: Pilates breathing, he says, creates “a deeper, fuller breath with less effort. For runners specifically, as the body tires and we reach deeper to push harder to go longer, we often grip or tighten these muscles, which is counterproductive to our goals.”
An exercise in mindfulness
One benefit of Pilates is intangible, but noticeable after every class: it’s an intense form of mindfulness. During the hour-long class you are totally focused on the task at hand, concentrating on coordinating your breath and muscle movements. There is no room for pointless brain-chatter, worrying, or whatever else happens when your mind wanders. I leave the class feeling mentally and emotionally refreshed like I do after a yoga session. In yoga, that’s the whole point; with Pilates, it’s a happy side effect.
Curb your enthusiasm, Caraway, and show us the science.
I didn’t find any scientific studies specific to Pilates and running, though there are many that focus on Pilates as a way of building core strength in various populations. My impression is that most of these studies are small and not controlled, meaning they do not always compare a Pilates group with a control group. Here is an article from 2011 that gives an interesting overview of the history of Pilates, complete with photos of the original Pilates equipment, and summarizes some of the research. There are several studies looking at the effects of Pilates breathing; here is a recent one confirming that Pilates has a positive effect on respiratory muscle function. And here is one of many that found improved abdominal-muscle strength from Pilates training.
And in the “See, it’s not just me” category, here is a case study about an injury-plagued female runner who was able to return to running following a Pilates-based training regimen.
There must be something about it that isn’t good. Come on.
Ok, it’s expensive. I know a lot of people balk at the cost: $15 (or €15) or more for an hour-long mat class. Where I go, there are 20-class cards that reduce the cost of each hour to €11.50. I’m lucky that this fits in my budget. If you’re on the fence, remember that the teacher has completed thousands of hours of teacher training, and attends continuing education classes to keep up their membership in their national Pilates association. The Pilates classes at a specialized studio are very small (mine never have more than six students) so you get a lot of personal attention and can be certain you’re doing it right.
Are you a Pilates fan too? Or not so much?