Monthly Archives: March 2012

Why do Athletes need Pilates?

When I first started Pilates I was an avid rock climber dedicated to a rigorous training schedule with the goal of climbing harder and longer routes to no end. Needless to say, I had great endurance and strength. And one more thing – I thought I was really flexible. I could stem between footholds five feet apart, high step up to my elbows and do crazy cross-through moves. Yet my muscles had no strength or flexibility support my spine in something as natural as a backbend. My spine was as stiff as a board. According to Joseph Pilates, “If your spine is inflexible at 30 you are old, if it is flexible at 60 than you are young.” What I perceived as great flexibility and range of motion were actually hyper-extended (locked out) and stressed knees, elbows, and shoulders. But it wasn’t until I injured my shoulder that I took a closer look at my overall fitness. I discovered muscles imbalances from years of climbing that had created vulnerability and lead to my injury.

How your body looks and performs are incomplete measurements for evaluating the muscle balance of your body. Sculpted biceps, triceps, pecs, and a six-pack have many athletes believing that they are as fit as a fiddle. But what about less showy muscles like the rotator cuff or transverses abdominus? Your rotator cuff consists of four shy muscles that form a mighty team holding your arm in your shoulder socket. Climbers, golfers, paddlers, and swimmers all benefit from a strong rotator cuff. The transverse abdominus doesn’t get the hype that the “six-pack” rectus abdominus gets – yet it supports your spine, keeps your back injury free, and enables you to be infinitely more powerful.

Sports by definition require repetitive movement that creates muscle imbalances. Have you ever tried to guess what sport someone does based on his predominant muscle mass? Cyclists are easy to spot – quads of steel. So are climbers – forearms the size of bricks and lats like boat oars. As athletes, we tend to overdevelop some muscles and underdevelop others. The outcome: lack of flexibility, poor biomechanics, and joint instability that leads to common injuries such as tendonitis, bursitis, and dislocations. For athletes, keeping muscles balanced is vital to avoiding injury. Pilates can help you maintain and/or regain the integrity of your body.

Pilates is unique in that it seeks to balance your whole body. Rather than isolating muscles of your body and working repetitions like mad to get them strong – Pilates demands that your entire body work during each repetition. Pilates demands mindfulness and a commitment to mastery, verses mindlessly motoring through a workout. As you switch from one movement to the next, you’ll build flexibility, strength, and stamina. Pilates strengthens and stretches all parts of your body, front to back, left to right, and top to bottom. Depending on your sport, you’ll have different strengths and weakness and benefit from different exercises. Regardless, the goal of all Pilates exercises is to create uniform muscle balance. By grouping mat exercises together that compliment each other in a cross-training routine, as suggested in my book Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete (Fulcrum 2008), Pilates can transform your fitness. With consistent practice, patience and commitment to the Method, you will create a body that is uniformly strong, flexible and resilient.

Hiking & Pilates Cross-training

Snow soaked ground, warm sunshine, and a high mountain breeze weaving the Ponderosa and Douglas Fir, carry me along a trail that glistens like a river. I am moving, breathing, and alive.

Going by foot allows us to slow down, to be present, to connect with our world and ourselves. Whether your thoughts are quiet or active, one thing is constant… the quality of your stride creates a ripple throughout your entire body. Most people take about 2,000 steps for every mile they hike. The average hiker steps about 8,000 times per hour. The quality of your gait influences the wear and tear on your joints.

A good gait minimizes energy expenditure, reduces impact on your back and knees, and ensures a more comfortable outing. An optimal stride makes contact through the heel, rolls onto the ball of the foot, and presses off to propel you forward. In addition, standing up tall improves joint range of motion, takes pressure off your back, and improves your breathing. A strong core helps you to stay light and lifted over your feet. Boosting core strength also improves your balance and agility so the next time you cross a river, hop a boulder field, or traverse a snowy slope, you’ll have more confidence. Pilates can help you improve your gait by improving your posture, muscle balance, and core strength.

Here are three Pilates exercises that are sure to help you reduce your risk of injury as you hike terrain that slopes and changes with every step. You’ll spend more days light on your feet, and in your heart. For best results, practice these exercises 3-5 times per week.

One Leg Circles (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 136)

Purpose: Balances the muscles of the legs and hips, improves core strength and alignment.
Begin by lying on your back. Extend one leg along the floor and flex your foot as if pressing it against a wall. Press the back of your leg into the floor. Extend the other leg up toward the sky and point your toes. Engage your core by pulling your navel to your spine. INHALE, sweep your raised leg horizontally across the midline of your body, down an EXHALE up to the starting point. Keep your circle size within the borders of your mat. Although the exercise is called leg circles, imagine you are drawing ovals on the sky. 5 clockwise, 5 counterclockwise on each leg.

Shoulder Bridge with Kicks (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 152).
Purpose: Strengthens and stretches legs and back, and improves posture.
Lie on your back. Press your arms gently into the mat by your sides so that your chest is open and the front of your ribs recede into the mat. Bend your knees and bring your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forward. Peel up your spine one vertebra at a time off the mat, beginning with your tailbone until you are resting on your shoulders with an open chest and an engaged core. Straighten and extend one leg and point your toes so your knees are touching. INHALE, kicking up to the sky. Avoid arching your back or letting your hips tilt or lower and lift. EXHALE, flex your foot, and extend the leg down, keeping it straight. Pretend your leg is a paintbrush and you are painting a straight line of your favorite color on the sky. After 5 -10 kicks, repeat with the opposite leg.

Leg Stretch with Band (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 214).

Purpose: This is a great after hike stretch for the Iliotibial-band, legs, and hips.
Begin lying on your back with your legs out straight. Bring one leg toward your chest and place a stretch band beneath the sole of your foot. Gently lengthen the leg upward, pressing through the heel. Keep your shoulders down and the back of your neck lengthened. From this position, gently pull your leg across the midline of your body until you feel a stretch along the outside of your leg and into the back of your hip. Hold the stretch band with the opposite hand. Switch legs.

Pilates for Hiking

Snow soaked ground, warm sunshine, and a high mountain breeze weaving the Ponderosa and Douglas Fir, carry me along a trail that glistens like a river. I am moving, breathing, and alive.

Going by foot allows us to slow down, to be present, to connect with our world and ourselves. Whether your thoughts are quiet or active, one thing is constant… the quality of your stride creates a ripple throughout your entire body. Most people take about 2,000 steps for every mile they hike. The average hiker steps about 8,000 times per hour. The quality of your gait influences the wear and tear on your joints.

A good gait minimizes energy expenditure, reduces impact on your back and knees, and ensures a more comfortable outing. An optimal stride makes contact through the heel, rolls onto the ball of the foot, and presses off to propel you forward. In addition, standing up tall improves joint range of motion, takes pressure off your back, and improves your breathing. A strong core helps you to stay light and lifted over your feet. Boosting core strength also improves your balance and agility so the next time you cross a river, hop a boulder field, or traverse a snowy slope, you’ll have more confidence. Pilates can help you improve your gait by improving your posture, muscle balance, and core strength.

Here are three Pilates exercises that are sure to help you reduce your risk of injury as you hike terrain that slopes and changes with every step. You’ll spend more days light on your feet, and in your heart. For best results, practice these exercises 3-5 times per week.

1. One Leg Circles (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 136)
Purpose: Balances the muscles of the legs and hips, improves core strength and alignment.
Begin by lying on your back. Extend one leg along the floor and flex your foot as if pressing it against a wall. Press the back of your leg into the floor. Extend the other leg up toward the sky and point your toes. Engage your core by pulling your navel to your spine. INHALE, sweep your raised leg horizontally across the midline of your body, down an EXHALE up to the starting point. Keep your circle size within the borders of your mat. Although the exercise is called leg circles, imagine you are drawing ovals on the sky. 5 clockwise, 5 counterclockwise on each leg.

2. Shoulder Bridge with Kicks (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 152).
Purpose: Strengthens and stretches legs and back, and improves posture.
Lie on your back. Press your arms gently into the mat by your sides so that your chest is open and the front of your ribs recede into the mat. Bend your knees and bring your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forward. Peel up your spine one vertebra at a time off the mat, beginning with your tailbone until you are resting on your shoulders with an open chest and an engaged core. Straighten and extend one leg and point your toes so your knees are touching. INHALE, kicking up to the sky. Avoid arching your back or letting your hips tilt or lower and lift. EXHALE, flex your foot, and extend the leg down, keeping it straight. Pretend your leg is a paintbrush and you are painting a straight line of your favorite color on the sky. After 5 -10 kicks, repeat with the opposite leg.

3. Leg Stretch with Band (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 214).
Purpose: This is a great after hike stretch for the Iliotibial-band, legs, and hips.
Begin lying on your back with your legs out straight. Bring one leg toward your chest and place a stretch band beneath the sole of your foot. Gently lengthen the leg upward, pressing through the heel. Keep your shoulders down and the back of your neck lengthened. From this position, gently pull your leg across the midline of your body until you feel a stretch along the outside of your leg and into the back of your hip. Hold the stretch band with the opposite hand. Switch legs.