RUNNING AND PILATES By Chiara Cosenza
I never particularly enjoyed running; it is painful, it’s long and injuries are easy to pick if you are not careful. However, so many people do it! And, I actually did complete a half marathon a few years ago but it made me swear I would never run again. But here I am! Preparing for a 10k across central London. Yes, I dropped the mileage 🙂
It took me 2 hours to complete my half marathon 4 years ago and I simply didn’t enjoy it! My body was begging me to stop half way through and when I got to the last three miles I was actually thinking of giving up, the last three miles feel longer than the first 10 miles, I promise!!!
But 4 years ago I didn’t have pilates in my life, and my body was completely different; I did train to cover the distance but I did not focus enough on how to correct my own postural tendencies and how to protect myself from injuries, or even how to be more efficient in my energy expenditure with better running alignment.
It’s only running, relax, I hear you say. You’re right, but then why do so many people pick up injuries so easily when starting to run? It all comes down to anatomy and evolution! Read on!
Anatomy of running – The human body
Since the early days of the “modern human” (many million years ago), from the homo herectus and habilis, the hunter-gatherers were using running within their hunting technique. They would use a combination of walking, running, hiking to tire their prey and eventually catch them. Running has always been part of our movement portfolio, and it is physiologically different from walking, the tissue of the body reacts differently and play a very specific role in our running mechanic.
During our walking gate we use an inverted pendulum model, by which we shift our body weight on the extended leg. Our running mechanics, use more of a springlike quality of movement to project our mass forward in space. Thus, using tendon recoil and ligament support for our balance. Running allows faster movement and less energy expenditure compared to walking due to the connective tissue quality of storing energy and releasing it to create a propelling action.
This technique has of course changed our body – more elastic tendons and ligaments, and longer muscles with increased elasticity. Our arches have become higher and more ‘spring-like’, for the push off phase of running. We have a more mobile shoulder girdle for the momentum of the arms in our running (this decreases strains on the lower back), our pelvis is different, the sacrum sits wider to allow for more muscles to attach (for hip stability) and we have developed a nuchal ligament at the very back of our skull to allow stability for the head when running. Obviously, there are more physical adaptations, but for the purposes of this article we are only discussing these, in relation to pilates, mechanics and exercises.
Common mechanical mistakes while running
If you think that we started running recreationally many thousands of years ago, and that all the physical changes are still pretty new to us, it is normal to expect some mechanical common mistakes especially because we don't have to hunt anymore or use the persistence running hunting technique, but instead we spend an awful lot of time sitting, hunched forward and wearing very uncomfortable shoes.
The hip drop is one of the most common, when we run we expect a hip drop of about 5 to 10 degrees, this happens mechanically to allow for a long reach of the extended leg ahead and to try not to hold it back too much. However, often this drop can be way more significant causing all sorts of problems in the lower back and the hips. This is caused by tightness around the hip and outer leg area.
Pronation and supination at our feet (forefoot and subtalar joint) are a normal adaptation of our balance system using all those clever little ligaments and muscles in our foot ankle complex. However again, over pronating or over supinating (less common), can cause serious knee problems, back pain and potentially achilles tendon injury.
Pronation and supination are the result of muscular imbalances at the foot and ankle area, but can also be enhanced by bad leg alignment (causing hip drop and knee valgus). Common traits are tightness around the ankles and calf muscles, tight/weak post tibialis.
Knee valgus is more common in women than men. This is because women have wider hips and a larger Q angle (angle between the outer hip and the knee) and the knee tends to roll in slightly. However, this can also be caused by the pelvic drop and the overpronation and over-dominant quadricep muscles, which is common in lordotic people.
Posture while running
We think about our posture when standing but pilates will teach you that your posture accompanies you everywhere. In every exercise you do, your posture will dictate your tendencies – in running too! When running we do need about 5 to 10 degrees of trunk flexion, this is smaller than you may think, but it still makes a huge a difference to your running mechanics!
People tend to leave their trunk behind their hips and this causes the back to over-activate and the glutes not to support us enough, so the quads have to hold us forward instead.
Pilates and running
Pilates is great for helping you prevent injuries and aches caused by these common mechanical faults. The use of the apparatus with springs mimic exactly the energy storage and release of your body’s tendons. Teaching you how to properly use your full range of movement at each joint for better movement potential is one of the key principles of pilates, also known as ‘control’. A full, strong and safe range of movement is what’s going to stop your body from going into compensatory patterns, which are at the base of your mechanical fault. Also, joints are made for moving, and when we spend a lot of time sitting , we compress and immobilise a lot of the joint. In a pilates workout you are trying to mobilise, always with control, all of the joints in your body. Of course, depending on the personal alignment, posture and movement tendencies, some bodies will need to move certain joints more than other and try to strengthen some other joints that are more lax. By working out with this in mind you will get you blood flushing and pumping all over your body, creating an internal heat , which will change your tissue at a cellular level. This is how pilates can actually change your body and your posture. Also with increase blood flow, more oxygen gets transported into your muscles (mainly) and surrounding tissues (yes, also bones!) allowing for the healing process to target strained, or injured tissue, making pilates the best workout out for rehab as well as prehab too!
With pilates, the apparatus and the springs will also help you strengthen and lengthen your muscles accordingly in order to overcome your own postural tendencies and help you get stronger and therefore more balanced in your running posture. With stronger and longer muscles you will be able to recover from a dropped position (e.g. Overpronation, hip drop or even knee valgus) quicker and with no damaging effects to the affected joints.
The quality of your pilates workout is very important, make sure you seek professional advice by a fully trained classical teacher that can take you through all the pieces of equipment and matwork for your body’s benefit.