I first took Pilates in college — for credit, because I was at a bougie northeastern school — and I loved it. It spoke to my dancer spirit and I loved the specificity of the practice, connecting breath with movement and being precise and intentional about every action.
I came back to Pilates when I started running and had joined a gym that offered mat classes as part of the membership. After some life upheaval, I stopped going and just ran more which resulted in stress fractures in both shins and a strained hamstring. Lesson learned. Once my hamstring finally healed and I was ready to get back to marathon training, I joined a new gym in part because it also offered Pilates mat classes. I loved it, and the gym, so much that I decided to get certified to teach about three years ago.
This is to say I believe very passionately that Pilates can do wonders for runners. It’s focus on the entire powerhouse — not just your abdominals but all the supporting core musculature like your hips and low back — can shore up a ton of common running injuries.
But I also recognize Pilates can be cost-prohibitive and intimidating. (I promise it’s not all graceful women hanging upside-down on what looks like a 50 Shades of Grey setup.) Here’s five of my favorite Pilates exercises for runners! Don’t be surprised if a few of these are familiar from physical therapy — Joseph Pilates actually developed the system to help rehab injured soldiers, and modern-day physical therapists have adopted a few things!
First, some form tips:
- Stand with your feet parallel and hips-width apart (that’s about two fists-width between your feet).
- Engage your spine in a neutral position. Try tilting your pelvis forward and back a few times — like you’re tucking your butt and then trying to stick it out. Your neutral spine is between those two extremes.
- Imagine your head is being pulled up towards the ceiling when you’re standing, and that your shoulder blades are pulling away from your ears and down your spine.
- In Pilates we breathe through the nose, expanding the ribcage, and out the mouth.
Here’s my 5 favorite Pilates moves for runners — and you can find a video at the end of this piece. Like what you see? Click Book a Class at the top of this page and join me (use code WELCOME for your first class free)!
Come down to your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Check for that neutral spine — you should have a little scoop in your low back that belongs there but you’re not trying to arch up or down. A few rounds of cat/cow can help you find the happy medium. Reach your right arm forward, parallel to the floor, trying to stretch your fingers away from your shoulder like there’s something just out of reach. Now stretch your left leg back, keeping your hip parallel to the floor. Imagine there’s a headlight on your left hip and it’s shining at the floor. (This is a great time to check in a mirror!) Try to stretch your toes back, like someone is pulling on you from opposite directions. And then engage your abdominals by trying to knit your ribs together on the front of your body. Lower down and switch sides, reaching your left arm and right leg. Breathe in deeply as you reach and exhale as you return to center, moving slowly and controlled with your breath. Do 10 on each side.
Kneeling side kicks
Obliques and hips. Start on your knees and kickstand your right leg out in a direct line from your hip, toes pointing to the front. Now, tip to your left side so your hand touches the mat directly under your shoulder. Lift your right leg to hip height, then tap it to the floor and lift back up for 10 reps. On the last rep, lift it up then pulse a little higher for 10. Tap it down, then lift back to hip height and draw 10 small circles with your foot in one direction, then reverse directions. Bring your right foot down to the floor, then come back to your knees and repeat on the left.
You can modify this by doing the same movements laying down on your side (start by laying on your left so your right leg is on top).
A quintessential Pilates move, so named because for the number of breaths you’ll take. Focus on the percussive breathing here — it’s five sharp, quick breaths in then five strong, quick exhales. Each breath further engages your abdominals. Start by laying on your back, legs flat. The easiest variation is to bring your legs to table-top, knees over hips and shins parallel to the floor, and keep your head on the mat. Make it more challenging by reaching your legs straight up to the ceiling or lowering them to maybe 60º — but only if you can do so without your low back popping off the mat. You can also lift your head, tucking your chin to your chest.
Find that starting position and then reach your arms long at your sides, floating them a couple of inches off the floor.
Inhale for five breaths as you pump your arms, exhale for five breaths. Keep going for 10 sets of inhales and exhales for a total of (you guessed it) 100 breaths.
If you’ve ever been to PT, you’ve done these. Even if you went in for a bum elbow, you leave with clamshells. The irony is that the PTs are always right, we always need more clamshells. Lay on your side, either resting your head on your bicep or in your hand. Draw your knees in towards your chest to about 45º. Keeping your feet glued together, lift your top knee up so that it points at the ceiling (or as high as it’ll go). Repeat for 10-15 reps then flip over to the other side. You can add additional sets and reps, and you could also add a resistance band around your thighs if you’re feeling particularly sadistic.
In the end, this is going to look a lot like a bridge. But, I want you to focus on your pelvic floor and your hamstrings, not just powering through with your glutes. Start by laying on your back with your feet on the floor, hips-width apart and heels in line with the bony part of your pelvis that you sit on (aka your “sit bones” but actually your ischial tuberosity). Hands rest palm-down on the floor along your sides.
Exhale as you draw your belly button toward your spine then curl your pelvis so your tailbone tips off the mat. Let the rest of your spine follow, lifting the lower, middle and upper back sequentially. Inhale at the top, lifting your torso but drawing your ribs in so you’re a straight line from shoulders to knees, pressing your knees away from your hips. We do not want a rounded bridge here — just a nice long line. Exhale as you roll down one vertabra at a time, reversing direction so the upper back, middle back and then low back touch. You’ll feel your low back pop up as your hips land, then flatten your low back in to the mat as you curl your pelvis and begin the next. Move slowly and with control, paying attention to the articulation of your spine, for 10 reps.
Click here for a quick video tutorial!
Hopefully the video and photos help, but shoot me a message or leave a comment if you need help making sure you’re doing things right! Any other favorite Pilates moves?