A strong core is critical to running success. The trouble is that many runners skip core work altogether.
And when they do give it a thought, they tend to prioritize moves like crunches that primarily target superficial core muscles (like the rectus abdominis and obliques) and leave out the deep core muscles that do the bulk of the work — both in running and in everyday life.
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Enter Pilates, a form of mind-body movement that can help runners build a rock-solid core from the inside out. Unlike traditional ab workouts, Pilates recruits your entire core.
Why Runners Need a Strong Core
"Good core stability is not just about how strong your abs look," says physical therapist Tara Gibson, DPT, certified Pilates instructor and director of Pilates at Elite Health Services in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Rather, good core stability is about how efficiently you're able to breathe through your diaphragm while controlling your pelvis, which is central to your ability to run faster and longer.
To demonstrate the importance of having strong deep core muscles, researchers from Ohio State University created simulations of running at increasing levels of deep core muscle weakness. They found that weakness in the deep spinal erectors (a grouping of muscles and tendons along the spine that twist and straighten the torso) led to up to a 45 percent increase in muscle force compensation, according to their small study, publish in January 2018 in the Journal of Biomechanics.
This suggests that deep core muscles may contribute most to running motion and stability. Plus, if your deep core muscles (especially the spinal erectors) are weak, your low back will pick up the slack, which can cause lower-back pain over time.
"If you have a lot of movement in the joints of the low back, that can cause adjustments in the posture and increase likelihood of injury and low-back pain," Gibson says.
The 7 Best Pilates Moves for Runners
The beauty of Pilates is that, because it's low-impact, you can do it every day if you want. That said, there are a lot of nuances to every Pilates exercise (like pulling your navel down toward your spine versus just bracing). If you're new to Pilates, Gibson recommends taking a few classes with a certified Pilates instructor before trying it on your own.
Once you're ready, perform the following routine created by Gibson and Matt Silvaggio of Elite Health Services in Westport, Connecticut, one to two times per week as active recovery.
1. Single-Leg Stretch
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Lift one leg at a time into a tabletop position (feet off the floor, knees bent to 90 degrees and shins parallel to the floor).
- On an exhale, pull your navel toward your spine and curl up your head and shoulders only. Tuck your chin and lengthen the back of your neck.
- Extend your right leg out at a 45-degree angle while keeping the left leg fixed. Grip your left ankle with your left hand and reach your right hand to your left knee. Gently pulse that knee toward you once.
- Inhale and switch legs, bringing the right knee in toward your chest and switching your grip. Pulse once and then continue alternating legs until you've completed 20 slow reps per leg.
- Lie on your stomach with your elbows bent and hands flat on the floor beside your shoulders.
- Tuck your chin, place your forehead on the ground and elongate the back of your neck.
- Inhale as you press through your hands to lift your head and upper body off the ground, opening your chest. Keep your shoulders down and your elbows in.
- Hold your breath briefly as you slowly move your head to look to the left and then to the right.
- On an exhale, bend at the elbows to elongate your upper body back down and return your forehead to the ground.
- Repeat the motion on an inhale, doing 5 to 10 reps before ending in the traditional yoga Child's pose.
- Sit up tall with your legs extended into a V in front of you.
- Extend your arms straight out to the sides like a T with your palms facing down.
- Take a deep inhale as you rotate your torso to the right. Reach your left hand forward while your right arm reaches behind you, rounding through your spine.
- Exhale as you stretch forward on the diagonal and pulse your front arm twice above the ground. Exhale with each pulse.
- Inhale and return to starting position. Repeat on the opposite side. Do 5 reps per side.
4. Single-Leg Kick
- Lie on your stomach and support your upper body on your forearms with your elbows directly under your shoulders.
- Extend your legs behind you, keeping your inner thighs pressed together. Keep your gaze down or slightly forward with the back of your neck long and in line with your spine. Pull your abdominals up and into your back.
- Inhale to prepare, and then exhale as you bend your right leg toward your butt. Pulse your leg twice, making sure to engage the hamstrings and exhale on each pulse.
- Inhale and switch legs. Do 10 reps per side. End by sitting back onto your heels in Child's pose.
Don’t kick hard or you may feel pain in the knees or lower back.
5. Shoulder Bridge With Kicks
- Lie on your back with knees bent and feet hip-distance apart on the floor. Tighten your core to stabilize.
- On an inhale, push into the floor with your feet, squeeze your glutes and lift your hips off the floor until your knees, hips and shoulders are aligned.
- Lift your right foot off the floor and extend your leg at a 45-degree angle.
- Kick your leg up as far as you can with control. Exhale and lower your leg and set your foot on the floor.
- Lower your hips back down to the floor with control. Do 2 sets of 10 reps. End by pulling your knees into your chest for a few breaths.
6. Leg Circle
- Lie on your back with your legs extended and your arms at your sides. You may bend your knees to place your feet flat on the floor if this feels better on your lower back.
- Pull your navel down into your spine and draw one knee in toward your chest before extending it toward the ceiling without lifting your hip.
- On an inhale, bring the extended leg across your body so it reaches toward the opposite shoulder.
- As you exhale, move the leg down, out and back up to starting position, completing a circle. Imagine you're drawing a circle on the ceiling with your leg without moving your pelvis or lower back.
- Complete five circles in each direction, and then switch legs.
7. Standing Foot Exercise
- Stand tall. If you're just starting out, you may want to face a wall or hold onto the back of a chair for balance. Engage your abdominals and come onto the balls of your feet.
- Bend your knees a few inches. Pause before you straighten the legs, keeping your heels lifted.
- Lower your heels back down to the floor with straight legs.
- Perform 10 reps before reversing the movement for another 10 reps: Bend your knees, lift your heels, straighten your legs, bend your legs, lower your heels and straighten your legs.
How Pilates Can Boost Running Performance
While standard core exercises like leg raises and planks teach you to tighten and brace your core, Pilates teaches you a concept known as hollowing, where you initiate and continually position every movement by pulling the navel back down toward your spine. This action recruits the deep core muscles more effectively than simply bracing, Gibson says.
Pilates also helps strengthen and stabilize your core by emphasizing rhythmic breathing throughout every exercise. "When you continually, repetitively contract a muscle, it gets stronger," Gibson says. And because the respiratory muscles are connected to the ribs, spine and pelvis, strengthening those muscles helps to stabilize that area as well.
And research backs that up. By building a bulletproof core, Pilates can help you make greater running progress, according to a small March 2018 study in PLOS One. Researchers had a group of distance runners add Pilates to their training regimen twice a week. After 12 weeks, these runners not only shaved nearly 2:30 off their 5K times, but they used less energy than the control group, who only cut a little more than a minute off their 5K times.
According to researchers, runners in the Pilates group were able to achieve greater improvements than the control group because they had developed better control and stabilization in the core (namely, the lower back and pelvis).
By strengthening all the muscles that support the spine and pelvis, the Pilates group reduced the need to recruit other accessory muscles to help with the running movement. The result: less wasted energy, lower oxygen consumption and a more efficient running form.
Ready to Give Pilates a Try?
Here's everything you need to know about Pilates for beginners.