A common issue amongst endurance athletes is pain resulting from postural weakness. This weak link in our body’s kinetic chain inhibits performance, leads to imbalances and potential injury.
Does this sound familiar…
While cycling, have you experienced lower back pain as a result of rounding at the lower back, due to fatigue from duration, intensity or increased resistance? This rounding contrasts with the proper strong pillar-like posture which provides leverage, stability and access to glute power.
Runners, do you hyper-extend your lower back in an attempt to find speed, either as a result of over-striding or incorrectly trying to find what we feel is a faster forward position. Or feel this same loss of stacked postural integrity while descending? This loss of posture may result from weakness and an inability to maintain a neutral spine and level pelvis. This sway back results in an anterior pelvic tilt and contributes to high hamstring strains at the insertion point on the ischial tuberosity (sit bones) – ouch. (Of course there may be other contributing factors, for example tight hip flexors, dominant quads and weak glutes and hamstrings.)
How about those of us who, while running fall victim to hinging at the hips, especially when ascending. This results in low back pain and inefficient technique with the mass of the body - hips and glutes falling behind the feet forcing us to fight gravity. Conversely, an efficient stable posture is characterized by a neutral spine, maintained by drawing up on the pelvic floor and in with the transverse abdominus, securing a level pelvis. While the upper abs draw down insuring the ribs stay in a line with the spine. When we lock in to this posture we stabilize and efficiently utilize the mass of the body, falling slightly in front of the feet pressing on to a bent, dorsiflexed ankle creating leverage and a forward shin angle.
And finally a show of hands from swimmers who experience lower back issues? A stable pillar, among other reasons, equates to performance by creating a streamline position with minimal drag. When swimmers lack that postural strength, for example in that pelvic floor they experience anterior pelvic tilt, hyper-extending the lower back, creating pain and producing drag.
Consistent practice and practical application of Pilates can help resolve these scenarios. As with past articles – we communicate in absolutes and make them relative to our individuality, the same goes with our Pilates discussion, much depends on specific postural habits... everybody is different.
As endurance athletes the core – glutes, hips, abdominals, back and shoulders – constitutes our foundation. We want this foundation to resemble a pillar versus a wet noodle. The core is the center of the body’s kinetic chain – a strong core efficiently and safely generates movement and power to the extremities while stabilizing.
Paula Smith of Full Circle Movement Pilates studio in Truckee commented, “Pilates is ideal for injury prevention because the exercises focus on the deep stabilizing muscles of the body. The small deep muscles are necessary for healthy spine and joints. Pilates is also helpful to balance muscle strength. Often bodies rely on few muscle groups to make movement happen. Pilates is technique for overall muscle strength and length.”
I was thinking about the importance and application of a strong stable core the other day while running intervals on the trail – maintaining a neutral spine and level pelvis demands strength, especially with increased intensity. While the undulating, inconsistent terrain demands stability. Pilates effectively reaches, trains and strengthens those deep stabilizing core muscles – key word being deep.
A consistent pilates practice can help us build deep abdominal strength as well as increased body awareness. Pilates moves us beyond the sit-up and crunch and incorporates exercises that emphasize proper alignment. In our endurance activities – as mentioned, we strive for a pillar posture, and do not want to crunch and bend as we move, but rather maintain stability while moving our arms and legs. A Pilates program starts with exercises like the plank and bridge and then progresses to more dynamic ones that challenge deep stabilization while introducing movement.
The demanding, precise Pilates exercises utilize for example a variety of bridges, which ingrain that braced abdominal and stable level pelvis, while teaching us to deeply fire our muscles and effectively engage our extremities. This variety of exercises also trains us to deeply engage the core while strengthening the glute medius to establish correct muscle-firing patterns. Other Pilates maneuvers effectively ward off patellofemoral and IT issues by training a stable pelvis, engaging the glutes while extending the hip flexors.
Personally I have benefited from Pilates by the emphasis on the deep muscular work to achieve greater hip and femur independence – think Barbie or Ken doll. This helps facilitate a more efficient biomechanically sound hip, knee, ankle relationship. Smith comments, “The first step in achieving independent movement of the femur is pelvic stability with a strong pelvic floor/transverse abdominus. Then focus on balancing leg strength by stretch/release rolling the piriformis and strengthening deep external rotators. We continue working toward muscular balance by stretch/release rolling the rectus femoris and quad as well as strengthening deep hip flexors, the psoas and upper hamstrings.”
The hard-to-reach, running relevant piriformis muscle, found deep in the glute is responsible for external rotation of the hip joint. When the piriformis tightens it can lead to sciatic issues which in turn inhibit the lower extremities motor and sensory abilities. Pilates exercises loosen the piriformis facilitating that hip-femur freedom, resulting in improved joint range of motion as well as improved muscular flexibility and circulation.
The deep Pilates abdominal stabilization exercises train postural musculature endurance and better mirror endurance specific demands than the traditional crunch-centric core programs. It fine tunes and heightens our body awareness, training us to lengthen from our tailbone to the crown of our head, maintaining the stacked, stable pillar posture. Ultimately Pilates balances the muscular load between the back of our bodies, glutes and hamstings and front, quads and hip flexors, strengthening the glutes and simmering hyper-active hip flexors improving muscular balance and effectively warding off injury.