What was the defining moment that saw me make the transition from a club runner to an international athlete? It might surprise you to learn that it was when I began pilates.
Apart from actually joining a running club, deciding to try pilates was the best thing I have ever done! A coach at Charnwood Athletics Club first suggested it and after attending my first class I was intrigued and returned. A few sessions later and I was hooked. It was a pivotal moment and the catalyst that transformed me from an average club runner with potential, to gaining my first British vest.
Apart from Achilles tendonitis, that I accept is my own cross to bear (and I work on my weak ankles religiously), I have had no major injuries during my career and I owe a lot of that to pilates for keeping me relatively injury free (touch wood).
Every runner has weak body areas, no one is the perfect running machine and even elite athletes have flaws that have to be worked on. At the very least you should be working on your core regularly, your body will thank you for it. The great thing about core work is, the more you do the greater the rewards, which will all result in you functioning much better and economically as an athlete.
For me personally, it’s not just pilates that is now ingrained into my routine and life. I swear by the holy trinity…pilates, yoga and body balance. They are my religion and have breathed new life into my running with a new awakening and body awareness that I am grateful to have discovered.
Not only has it improved my running but it has reduced my anxiety levels and the pressures with the sport. I am much calmer which can only benefit my running and life in general as well as my wellbeing. Stepping into a yoga class is all about breathing and encouraging the air to travel into the deeper lobes of the lungs.
It’s very important, particularly in today’s high paced modern world of technology, to step back, take a breath and just focus on this very simple act of breathing. We take for granted because it is an automatic response.
Believe it or not, even when I am running I can forget to think about breathing, but by focusing on the process of drawing in more air with every breath it really makes a big difference. The more oxygen you can get to the muscles the faster and more efficiently you will run. Makes sense!
Finding your new balance
I have found that yoga, pilates and body balance (which is basically a combination of the two) are all great for improving running related concerns such as flexibility and stride length. But it’s not just the physical benefits, I also gain a lot of mental strength from practices.
After a fitness yoga or body balance session I feel completely reinvigorated and ready to take on the world (or a speed session at least!) My mind has cleared and all the tension in my muscles has completely disappeared. My legs actually feel so light and lose.This can only have positive effects, as relaxation is after all the key to fast running!
I find my arm carriage has improved, I am running more upright, and able to take in more oxygen at a greater capacity with less effort. My shoulders are also relaxed rather than tensed, which is great practice during a tempo run as I naturally use a lot of energy through my upper body. My hip flexors are less tight, meaning I can lift my knees higher and they are more aligned. This also helps limit rotation in the hips so if my body is facing forward and aligned then the result should be faster running! I could go on and on about the benefits of fitness yoga and sing its praises forever, but I think you get the benefits now. So how do you get started?
A few of my favourite basic poses
Tree pose – Stand on one leg with palms to prayer and ankle flexed towards the knee.
This is great for promoting leg and ankle strength. It gets the finer ankle muscles working and helps stability in cross country where ankles are particularly vulnerable on the undulating terrain.
Scorpion – Great for hamstrings which are a notoriously weak area in runners. It also gets the glutes working which is the powerhouse of the body along with the psoas major muscle.
The leg is raised off the floor and ankle flexed towards the ceiling. It is crucial to strengthen the glutes because when it comes to sprinting (although a pain in the butt literally). Strong glutes will help prevent overcompensation in other areas and help prevent injuries.
Downward facing dog – My favourite pose. Easy to do and a great release stretch for calf muscles and lower back.
It is also a good pose for stretching the psoas major muscle which is the thick band that fits around the torso. This is a major core muscle for runners as it connects to the glutes and many other muscles. So it’s very important that it is working correctly in order to keep everything in alinement while running.
Cobra – Also a nice pose to release tension out of the lower back. You lie on your front, toes pointed, glutes tightened and lift the torso from the elbows. Twisting from the psoas it strengthens the back muscles as well, so a good all round body stretch.
Happy baby – A nice pose to end a session. You lie on the back and tuck the knees into the chest and grab hold of your feet with ankles flexed. It is a relatively painless one which is why it’s called happy baby I think!
Pushing through the pain
These are only a select few of the many rather amusingly named yoga poses, but there is an endless amount of moves that are all beneficial, so more advanced than other. My advice would be to find a good instructor who is enthusiastic and inspiring and I have been lucky to have found both in Tracy Smith at my local ‘Hermitage Leisure centre’. She’s extremely knowledgeable and a keen runner herself, so knows which muscles to target that relate specifically to running.
Because running can be a very solitary sport, I find it’s good to join in with a class rather than doing the poses at home on my own. The Hermitage Leisure centre is that place for me and it’s a breath of fresh air to be with the locals, I enjoy the banter and seeing them look after their health is very inspiring too. The group setting also helps breaks up the monotony and helps push me beyond my pain threshold – an area definitely to be developed if you want to be a good long distance runner!
I am a big believer that running is all about finding the right balance between miles, recovery and conditioning. If you can do this then your halfway there. Balance is key to everything in life and there are no secrets, I can’t stress that enough. The old saying ‘prevention is better than cure’ is also true, so invest as much time you can in strength and conditioning. I know the last thing you probably feel like doing after a run is stretching but your muscles with thank you for it in the long term!
So get yourself to a local pilates, yoga or body balance class, or all three if you can. I have to say I am a fully converted believer in the yoga Gods! Finding your balance can be tricky, but once found there will be turning back for you too…Amen to that!