It can be the right type of training for you, particularly if you are looking for:
• A stronger, healthier back
• A stronger core
• A more toned, mobile and flexible body
• Better posture, fitness and general wellbeing
• Rehabilitation from injury
• Balancing and strengthening the mind and the body
For thousands of years, humans have been running and swimming. Cycling is more of a recent invention, but the past 100 years or so have seen it become one of the world’s most common forms of transport and exercise.
Somewhere along the way, a competitive genius decided that combining all three unique activities into one race, called the triathlon, would be a good idea.
Each activity uses a completely different range of movements, muscles, and skill-sets. On one hand, it is the perfect sport for those who like doing multiple things. But on the other, the duration of each stage during racing and the long hours of training beforehand, mean that there is a significant risk of postural imbalance, muscle strain and injury over time.
This brings me onto my other suggested discipline for triathletes: Pilates.
Before you ask, I am not suggesting the addition of a ‘5-mile Reformer carry’ onto the end of the race! But instead, as a very effective form of prehabilitation (body maintenance and injury avoidance). Pilates should be a fundamental element of an athlete’s preparation.
Triathlons start with a swim. For some people, this is by far the hardest section of the race. Whilst swimming, it is all too easy to hold large amounts of tension in the shoulders, often causing a lot of discomfort through the top of the shoulders, at the point where the shoulder blade joins with the back.
Pilates sessions often include:
• A thorough stretch into the upper part of the Trapezius muscle
• Solid shoulder retraction exercises
• Stability work through the mid-part of the back
All of which reduce tension in the Trapezius and encourage the shoulders’ stabilising muscles to work through the back of the armpit and into the chest. As a result, reducing pain and the likelihood of injury through swimming.
In addition, by encouraging a posture that keeps the abs tight, ribs drawn in and the pelvis slightly tucked, Pilates helps increase overall stability and reduce tension in the lower back.
The bike is next. It is the longest leg and most isolative motion of the race. Maintaining the same hunched posture for long periods of time, with the legs working against as much resistance as the competitor can bear, is both painful and potentially harmful. The forward riding position places the lumbar spine into an almost flat and unsupported alignment, whilst the forces and pressures from the pedalling action are working at right angles to it. Unsurprisingly, lower back pain is a common consequential problem for many cyclists.
Pilates can assist cyclists through its:
• Focus on a strong and stable core, which strengthens the muscles that support the lumbar spine, and helps athletes reduce the amount of excessive movement at the pelvis, reducing shear tension through the lower spine
• Ability to strengthen and improve the bio-mechanical efficiency of the Gluteus Maximus (bum cheeks), which can also help the knee align properly, reducing the risk of Iliotibial band friction and knee pain.
• Encouragement of the correct shoulder alignment, which helps stop the scapulothoracic joints (where the shoulder blades join the ribs) from tightening up and causing discomfort around the base of the neck
And to finish, the run. The most easily trained for and most natural out of the three, but with the runner’s bodyweight hitting the ground over thousands of strides, it is also the section with the highest impact on joints and muscles alike. To make matters worse, the majority of triathlons are run on tarmac, a notoriously unforgiving surface that does nothing to cushion the impact on joints. It is compounded by the fatigue factor that comes from having already completed two gruelling disciplines, which inevitably impacts on the runner’s posture, stability, technique and form. All of which significantly increase physical stresses and resulting risks of injury.
By strengthening the core and encouraging correct muscle activation, Pilates significantly improves functional dynamic stability. By that, we mean the ability of the body to hold itself in better alignment for longer, even under fatigue. This stops the knees from rotating inwards, helping the leg muscles maintain their vital function as efficient ‘shock absorbers’ to protect the bones and joints from the repetitive impact of running.
Dynamic and Reformer Pilates Programme is an immersive and highly effective discipline in itself. However, one of its core areas of excellence, relevant to athletes and sedentary office workers alike, is its ability to develop strength and correct posture through the abdomen, bum, mid and upper part of the back. This counteracts the effects of slouching and sporadic exercise that are such a harmful feature in modern life.
For athletes in particular, the focus on proper muscle activation and alignment can help ensure the that the body is best prepared for the stresses and pressures of exercise. With right muscles holding the joints in the right place at the right time, the athlete can improve endurance and performance whilst, equally importantly, reducing the risk and incidence of injury.