Pilates classes and physiotherapy in Central, Hong Kong

Pilates for Runners

Pilates for Runners

Uphill Battle - How to win it!

There are many benefits to runners in using Pilates exercise, including:

  • Increasing balance in the muscles of the back and hips
  • Reduce the risk of injury
  • Assist with breath control
  • Increasing core strength and correcting postural imbalances

In this particular article,we will be focusing on the toughest part of running - uphill running! Uphill running can be physically and mentally exhausting and as a runner you have to be prepared for the challenge that an uphill trail presents. It is not only necessary to have a strict training schedule that encompasses varying distances, intensities, inclines and declines but it is also vital to incorporate exercise to obtain optimal balance between strength and flexibility of your muscles and develop strategies to ensure efficient movement.

Uphill running puts different strains on your body compared to flat race running; firstly your body is working against gravity which means your body has to put in extra effort. Your muscles work harder concentrically and eccentrically to propel you up that hill. ‘Concentric' contraction is when a muscle shortens to generate a movement (eg. when the calf muscle contracts to push off) and ‘eccentrically' is when the muscle lengthens under tension (Eg. when the heel lowers during foot strike). Often the terrain is uneven or maybe soft or hard which puts your joints and ligaments under increased strain as you quickly have to adapt. There is a natural tendency to lean forward into the hill which means that more hip and knee bend is required during the swing phase to get up the hill - over time this can lead to adaptive shortening and tightening of the hip flexor muscles which will limit the degree of hip extension you achieve when pushing off to propel up the hill, ultimately reducing stride length and power.

Foot strike in uphill running tends to occur at a mid/ forefoot strike position, which increases forces through your ankle and calf (gastrocnemius, soleus and Achilles tendon). Your calf muscles are under more strain due to the increased range of flexion in the ankle during the stance phase on the hill compared to a flat surface, which results in increased eccentric load in the calf muscles to achieve a controlled lengthening of the muscles in mid-stance. From this lengthened position, the calf muscles have to quickly concentrically contract to be ready to propel you up the hill at push off phase.

When running, maximum hip extension is achieved at push off when the hip, knee and ankle are full extended at the start of the swing phase. The hip then moves to its most flexed position at the end of swing phase. For this reason, the Hip extensor muscles need to be strong through a full range to achieve a powerful movement from when the hip is most flexed and in a lengthened position, to a when the hip is fully extended and in a shortened position due to the increased degree of hip flexion involved to climb up the hill. If these muscles are weak you will fail to get the stride length you are after.

When you consider that muscles have to generate more power from a lengthened range (an area they are often weak and under trained), contract at a greater velocity to maintain pace, increase the number of contraction to meet the increased number of strides per minute and cope with the challenges of uneven terrain, it is easy see how muscles can be prone to overuse and injury if not optimally prepared for running uphill!

Another common cause of strain when hill running is not external but originates from within - poor postural alignment. If you consider your lower extremity and the alignment starting at the foot, it can have a huge bearing on the biomechanics higher up the kinetic chain. For example fallen arches/increased pronation in your feet (diagram 1) can significantly affect the angle of rotation at your knee, which in turn affects the hip and pelvis - this leads to adaptive shortening of various muscles which ultimately leads to increased strain when running over prolonged distance. This will result in increased energy expenditure and strain on related structures making them more prone to injury. 


Diagram 2

The middle picture in diagram 2 is an example of optimal alignment of the hip, knee and ankle during running that will minimise the stress on you joints.

As a Physiotherapist I encounter a lot of runners with common types of injuries, including Achilles tendonitis, gastrocnemius injuries, ITB syndrome, and twisted ankles. These injuries this can be due to poor alignment, poor proprioception or inefficient movement resulting in overuse of a particular muscle or tendon. Exercise can better prepare your body for these tough challenges and minimise the risk of injury. Prevention is better than cure after all!

Pilates is an excellent adjunct to your training programme as it offers a whole host of exercises that can be used to address core stabilisation as well as alignment of your trunk, pelvis and lower extremities while you are moving (dynamic alignment). This results in less shear forces being exerted onto the joints and providing an efficient movement pattern. Participating in Pilates exercises regularly allow you to gaining control of your body and obtain better body sense when exercising in these differing positions and these benefits will ultimately carry over into a more upright posture when running.

The Pilates equipment uses springs which can be assistive as well as resistive which means it is not only suitable for elite athlete training but it can be used for rehab following an injury. The low impact nature of Pilates exercises affords you the best environment to learn the fundamental principles of movement and the correct recruitment of muscles to support your body.

Footwork on the reformer: 

This is an excellent exercise to specifically focus on foot alignment through full range of motion. The rhythm of the exercise can working on achieving fast concentric contraction of the calf and then a slow and control eccentric lengthening, replicated in the push off and foot strike phase of running.

Jumps on the reformer: This exercise works on proprioception, alignment and builds on core strength and improves concentric and eccentric control in the calf muscles. Strong calf muscles create greater propulsive forces which mean runners can go further each stride and increase speed significantly.

Scooter on the reformer: This exercise replicates the push off phase of running; it improves strength in the leg and hip muscles,balance and coordination, in addition to helping release tight hip flexors.

Pilates exercise that can be done at home:

Bridging: This exercise will strengthen your core muscles, hamstrings and gluteal muscles and facilitates release of tight hip flexors muscles. A single leg variation can also be done to increase the challenge.

Restoring the foot to a flexible, balanced and agile state will allow the bones and muscles of the leg to become better aligned and reduce compensation patterns that may lead to injury and/or imbalance.

These hands on movements will encourage your foot to move in the spirals it is biomechanically designed to do. We lose this spiral when we wear incorrect shoes and from postural habits established from when we were young. The lack of an appropriate foot spiral causes many issues such as bunions, hammer toes and hip-knee related problems. Continuing up towards the lumbar spine, reciprocal issues will start to emerge.

Towel wringing: Hold your foot with your heel in one hand and the base of the toes in the other. Turning your heel like a doorknob, twist your forefoot against the direction of your heel, much like wringing out a wet cloth. This is a great way of reminding the foot of its organic relationship to plantar flexion.

Arches in- arches out: Stand in your normal neutral stance Roll your Arches out and then in. Think of the bones in your mid foot...specifically the area from the inner heel to the ball of the foot under the first 3 toes.

  • Side lying leg series (strengthen glute medius & stabilize hips)
  • Leg circles (stabilize hips and move legs through rotation)
  • Swimming (thoracic extension, hip stability)
  • Side bend (strengthen abductors, adductors and obliques)

  With a well devised Pilates programme, you will be waving goodbye to your injuries and your competition!