Want to skip to the video? Click right here, baby.
I first took Pilates in college—for credit, because I was at a bougie Northeastern school—and I loved it. It spoke to my dancer spirit, and I loved the specificity of the practice, connecting breath with movement and being precise and intentional about every action.
I came back to practicing about the same time that I started running, when I joined a gym that offered mat classes. But after some life upheaval I stopped going and just ran more. Ultimately this resulted in stress fractures in both shins and a strained hamstring. Lesson learned! Once my injuries healed I joined a new gym, in part, because it also offered Pilates mat classes. I loved the classes and the gym so much that I decided to get certified to teach about three years ago.
Pilates can do wonders for runners. Its focus is on the entire powerhouse, not just your abdominals, but all the supporting core musculature including your hips and lower back. It can shore up your body to ward off a ton of common running injuries.
I recognize Pilates can be cost-prohibitive and intimidating, but I promise it’s not all graceful women hanging upside-down on what looks like a torture apparatus, and a lot of the exercises are simple things you can do at home. Starting right now!
Here are five of my favorite Pilates exercises for runners.
Don’t be surprised if a few of these are familiar from physical therapy; Joseph Pilates actually developed the system to help rehab injured soldiers, and modern-day physical therapists have adopted a few things!
First, an explainer on engaging your core: you gotta tell those abs what to do. There are lots of phrases instructors use to cue this; one of the most popular is “knitting your ribs together.” If you’re like, “Yo Chic, I do not have a knitting needle and my ribs are not made of yarn,” let me explain:
Put your hands on your ribs—yes! you!—with your fingers pointed towards your belly button. Next, try to contract your ribs so that your fingertips move toward your belly button, while also retracting your belly button toward your spine. This is more subtle than sucking your stomach in (don’t do that). You should feel like you’re giving your ribs a hug, or like you’ve put on a corset.
1. Bird Dog
- Come down to your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Check for a neutral spine: a little scoop in your lower back is natural, but you are not trying to arch up or down. A few rounds of cat/cow can help you find that happy medium.
- Reach your right arm forward parallel to the floor, trying to stretch your fingers away from your shoulder like there’s something just out of reach.
- Stretch your left leg back, keeping your left hip parallel to the floor. Imagine there’s a headlight on your left hip and it’s shining at the floor. (This is a great time to check in a mirror!) Try to stretch your toes back, like someone is pulling on you from opposite directions.
- Engage your abdominals by trying to knit your ribs together on the front of your body.
- Lower your arm and leg back to the floor and switch sides, reaching in opposite directions with your left arm and right leg.
Throughout this exercise, breathe in deeply as you reach and exhale as you return to center, using your breath to move slowly and with control. Do 10 on each side.
2. Kneeling Side Kicks
This movement focuses on obliques and hips.
- Start on your knees and kickstand your right leg out in a direct line from your hip, toes pointing to the front.
- Tip to your left side so your hand touches the mat directly under your shoulder.
- Lift your right leg to hip height, then tap it to the floor and lift back up for 10 reps.
- On the last rep, lift it up then pulse a little higher for 10 counts. Tap it down, then lift back to hip height and draw 10 small circles with your foot in one direction, then reverse direction.
- Bring your right foot down to the floor, then come back to your knees and repeat on the left side.
You can modify this by doing the same movements laying down on your side (start by laying on your left side so that your right leg is on top).
A quintessential Pilates move, this one is aptly named for the number of breaths you’ll take during the exercise. Focus on the percussive breathing here — it’s five sharp, quick breaths in, then five strong, quick exhales. Each breath further engages your abdominals.
- Start by laying on your back, legs flat on the floor.
- Lift your legs. The easiest variation is to bring your legs to table-top, knees over hips and shins parallel to the floor, keeping your head on the mat. Make it more challenging by reaching your legs straight up to the ceiling or lowering them to maybe 60º. Only lower them as much as you can without your lower back popping off the mat. You can also lift your head, tucking your chin to your chest.
- Find that starting position and then reach your arms along your sides, floating them a couple of inches off the floor.
- Inhale for five breaths as you pump your arms, then exhale for five breaths.
Keep going for 10 sets of inhales and exhales for a total of (you guessed it) 100 breaths.
If you’ve ever been to physical therapy, you’ve done these. Even if you went in for a bum elbow, you leave with clamshells. The irony is that the PTs are always right; we always need more clamshells.
- Lay on your side, either resting your head on your bicep or in your hand. Draw your knees in towards your chest to about 45º.
- Keeping your feet glued together, lift your top knee up so that it points at the ceiling (or as high as it’ll go).
- Repeat for 10-15 reps, then flip over to the other side.
You can add additional sets and reps, and you could also add a resistance band around your thighs if you’re feeling particularly sadistic.
5. Pelvic Curl
In the end, this is going to look a lot like a bridge, but you can change the effect of the position by focusing on your pelvic floor and your hamstrings and not just powering through with your glutes.
- Start by laying on your back with your feet on the floor, hip-width apart, and heels in line with the bony part of your pelvis that you sit on. (Many people call these “sit bones,” but they are actually your ischial tuberosity). Hands rest palm-down on the floor along your sides.
- Exhale as you draw your belly button toward your spine then curl your pelvis so your tailbone tips off the mat.
- Let the rest of your spine follow, lifting the lower, middle and upper back sequentially.
- Inhale at the top, lifting your torso but drawing your ribs in so you’re a straight line from shoulders to knees, pressing your knees away from your hips. We do not want a rounded bridge here, just a nice long line.
- Exhale as you roll down one vertebra at a time, reversing direction so the upper back, middle back, and then lower back touch. You’ll feel your lower back pop up as your hips land.
- Flatten your lower back in to the mat as you curl your pelvis and begin the next rep.
Move slowly and with control, paying attention to the articulation of your spine, for 10 reps.
Want a video? I’m so glad, because I made one! Here you are:
Hopefully the video and photos help, but shoot me a message or leave a comment if you need help making sure you’re doing things right!
Do you have other favorite Pilates moves?