What do Tiger Woods, Ugo Monye, Bradley Wiggins, Jess Ennis-Hill and Andy Murray have in common? They have all incorporated Pilates into their training regimes in order to improve sports performance, fitness, assist in injury prevention and aid injury recovery.
It has long been realised amongst elite sports coaches that the science behind Pilates really does make sense. An exercise regime that prevents injury by increasing strength of stabilising muscles will mean less strain on the joints. Core stability is fundamental to the Pilates method and a stronger core means a more stable spine. Muscles that are flexible are less likely to be pulled and spinal alignment can be maintained which means that the body can work more efficiently. Improved balance facilitates a greater power output from inhospitable positions like those seen in multiple sprint and contact sports like rugby, and the chance of injury is reduced.
Where muscular imbalances can be caused by sedentary lifestyles or by activities like sitting at a desk all day, sportsmen and women can create imbalances by repeatedly performing a move, for example throwing a javelin or swinging a golf club. A tackle on the rugby pitch might cause a player to suffer an acute injury but muscular imbalances can lead to chronic injuries which for many are harder to understand. Pilates works to re-dress muscular imbalances caused by poor body mechanics which lead to these chronic injuries and for the athlete 'weaker' sides or opposing muscle groups can be equally strengthened and lengthened.
The challenge for most runners looking to extend their stride length is that they’re generally very stiff in the front of their hip, especially if they spend all day sitting at work. Improved hip flexor flexibility can help to increase stride length and that means an increase in speed! Remember it's the rear leg that should be stretched when running.
Hip flexors are developed during Pilates classes. Strong well aligned hips are more stable and generate an increased power output. Poor hip position at best results in inefficient running, and at worst can be the source of injuries. When one hip drops lower than the other the knee and hip are usually subject to more stress. Apart from the greater injury risk, as the hip is not holding the body in the correct place there is usually increased side-to-side movement during the running cycle, which uses more energy.
Strong hip flexors need to be balanced with strong gluteals. Tight hamstrings can result in the gluteals not 'firing' which means they get weaker and the hip flexors are then under strain. Injuries such as groin strains are more likely to creep in. In Pilates gluteals are worked through single leg balance work and isolation exercises. Flexibility of the hamstrings through dynamic moves like the roll-down and the forward reach should see the hamstrings loosen off.
For many who have battered their knees through years of ballistic sports such as football and tennis or hi impact sports like distance running, knee joint degeneration and cartilage damage is a real problem and can even be a complete show stopper. Cycling can be a good alternative sport as it is, on the whole, much kinder to the knees and unlike swimming, requires less technical ability - we all learnt how to ride a bike right! Assuming set-up positions are correct and cleats and pedals carefully chosen, many people go on to enjoy this sport without knee issues.
Injuries which occur amongst cyclist are more 'chronic' and to do with muscular imbalances which occur through spending hours in a forward position powering hard through the legs and hip flexors. Tight hip flexors left un-checked can become shortened which creates instability through the pelvis by causing an anterior tilt. This in turn increases strain in the lower back muscles and brings the hamstrings into a stretched but tight position which means both areas are more susceptible to injury.
The gluteals are generally not able to fire sufficiently when the lower back and hamstrings are so over-facilitated (tight) and the body's correct muscle patterns no longer work. How many times have you heard someone say that they 'put their back out' by just tying their shoe laces? It wasn't the tying of the shoes that was the cause of the problem but the whole string of events stemming from poor posture and muscular imbalance.
Pilates is excellent for releasing the hip flexors, which will help bring the hips in to a more neutral position, and reduce strain through the back and hamstrings. Hip flexors are also worked hard in many of the supine (lying facing up) and seated positions which is great for sports requiring hip flexor strength such as cycling and running. Opening up the chest and strengthening the upper back is also beneficial to help prevent strain building up in the upper torso and helps prevent shoulder injuries caused by tight chest muscles.
Swimming training has a low incidence of serious injuries due to the lack of force or strain on the muscles. Avoiding injury in a technical discipline like swimming comes down largely to technique but can occur with overuse or muscular imbalance. Good technique and body alignment in the water is essential in swimming to avoid injury, particularly in the shoulders and knees and so Pilates can be useful for the swimmer.
Pilates as a training tool out of the water helps improve spinal alignment and core strength which are so crucial to balance, power and speed. Addressing muscular imbalances can give the swimmer better body position when moving through the water and therefore a more powerful stroke.
According to 12 times Olympic champion Dara Torres “I spend two hours in the pool, five days a week, and I alternate weights one day with running and Pilates" I also do resistive stretching three days a week. In swimming, speed comes directly from the core so Pilates helps immensely.”