Why Runners Should Not Do Pilates

By Jae Gruenke | Natural Running Form

Aug 04

Do you believe that, as a runner, you should have a tight core? That the sine qua non of good running form is tightening your core?

I’d like to propose a different concept: The essence of good running form is directing force in the simplest possible line from foot through head. Since we have two legs and neither one is in the middle, but we have only one head and it is in the middle (more or less), the torso of the human body needs to make a very complex and beautiful movement to make it possible for force to flow from foot to head. Tightening your core to prevent this movement makes it impossible to get the right relationship between foot and head and thus you can’t use your legs right. You get tight hip flexors and quads, you overstride, you can’t use your strongest muscles – your glutes – properly, your shoulders rise, and running begins to feel unpleasant.

The cure for the wrong kind of core movement isn’t to stop all movement, it’s to learn the right kind of movement. Namely, the rhythmic counterrotation of pelvis and upper body that drives your legs and puts your weight in the right place for the legs to do something powerful and yet also easy and fluid.

Here’s one of my favorite YouTube clips to demonstrate. Watch the white stripe down Haile Gebrselassie’s singlet and shorts when it goes into slow mo. (The first 50 seconds of the video are the relevant part; the remainder is something else entirely and not what I’m talking about here, nor does what I’m saying have anything to do with Pose Technique.)

Whether or not you choose to do Pilates, the movements you see in this video and more — after all, this is just a side view! — are the ones you need to cultivate.  Find a great Pilates teacher who understands this (I know a few!) or find a different kind of cross-training.

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About the Author

Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.

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(11) comments

Erin August 5, 2013

Wow. Jae, I stumbled upon you through the Fascia Freedom Fighters blog on Friday and was intrigued by your program, but I just read this blog and I find you terribly misinformed and I regret to say I am in limbo about trusting your program. It seems that you think Pilates is about tightening your core. I wonder if you have only read about Pilates or if you have actually studied Pilates. Pilates is about your spine. Pilates is about using your intrinsic core muscles like your diaphragm and psoas, not about hyper-stabilizing your core and holding your center tight. 🙁 I am sorry you are so misinformed about Pilates.

Reply
    Jae August 5, 2013

    Erin, you sound like a wonderful Pilates teacher. I have studied Pilates and have encountered a large number of Pilates teachers in a wide range of styles over the course of my careers as a dancer, a personal trainer, and a Feldenkrais Practitioner. I have also worked with many runners who have done Pilates and, regardless of who their teacher is, they have the same problems. I’ve painted these problems with a broad brush here because in my experience this is how runners come in talking about and thinking about their cores, and recommendations regarding “tightening” and its cousin “stabilizing” the core are fairly standard. If they seem crude to you, you must know you’re teaching at a more sophisticated level than the norm.

    Runners need to create a spiral of movement from foot through core to head. This requires every movement of the legs to cause the pelvis to move and the spine to articulate in a supple, differentiated fashion. Pilates exercises, however they are cued, tend to challenge the core by requiring that it be held still when the legs are moved (clamshells are a classic example, and furthermore, regardless of whether you are in the lumbar flexion or neutral pelvis school you are talking about holding the pelvis and lower spine still). This builds the wrong movement habits for running. If you work with runners, I encourage you to think about how to help them improve their ability to counterrotate the thorax and the pelvis, to move the pelvis in the transverse and frontal planes, and to integrate movement of the legs with movement of the core.

    Reply
Erin August 5, 2013

Wow. Jae, I stumbled upon you through the Fascia Freedom Fighters blog on Friday and was intrigued by your program, but I just read this blog and I find you terribly misinformed and I regret to say I am in limbo about trusting your program. It seems that you think Pilates is about tightening your core. I wonder if you have only read about Pilates or if you have actually studied Pilates. Pilates is about your spine. Pilates is about using your intrinsic core muscles like your diaphragm and psoas, not about hyper-stabilizing your core and holding your center tight. 🙁 I am sorry you are so misinformed about Pilates.

Reply
Bill Saunders August 5, 2013

Jae, your reply to Erin’s concerns regarding Pilates was great. Very well thought out and articulated.

Reply
    Jae August 5, 2013

    Thanks Bill!

    Reply
Cathy August 7, 2013

Erin is right, and represents any trained instructor. Pilates is about developing stability and mobility to facilitate movement. But it sounds to me like that the issue is something else. If you have people coming into your workshops who have difficulty separating movement in their hips from their spine and shoulders, especially in oppositional movement, that sounds normal. People who haven’t been trained to develop the awareness and muscle engagement to be able to move hips separately from lumbar spine (for example), generally can’t do it when asked, and it takes time (sometimes a long time) to develop the ability. Some people I’ve seen almost move as a unit from shoulders to hips. It’s not a skill most people have unless they once were athletes or dancers. Don’t blame Pilates and alienate people who might be interested in the Feldenkrais method.

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    Jae August 7, 2013

    Thank you for your comments, Cathy. I’m definitely not trying to alienate Pilates teachers here, particularly since I work side-by-side with so many of them. However I’ve been working with runners for a decade and talking with Pilates instructors about the work I do, and my experience has been very often that runners who do a lot Pilates have both the habit and also the notion that their pelvises should not move, and Pilates teachers have the same notion about runners’ pelvises.

    I’ve done a lot of Pilates mat myself and am currently training to be a teacher, and I find that the exercises do cultivate movement habits that are not compatible with running. I have tried to present the kind of problem-solving that would help Pilates teachers meet the biomechanical needs of runners because I think it’s something that Pilates ought to be able to do. I write and tallk all the time about the movement capacities that are necessary for running and I hope the material I offer will be useful to Pilates teachers. But not saying what I see happening in my clientele is useful to nobody! So I have been frank and trust that the people who read my blog will make good use of what I’ve offered.

    Reply
Erin August 18, 2013

Jae,

I appreciate your response and I acknowledge your point that many runners misinterpret Pilates and hyperstabilize or try to “hold their core” while running, however, I think the blanket statement that Pilates is bad for runners perpetuates that idea that Pilates is about tightening and hyperstabilizing. Yes, I do think I try to teach a more sophisticated level of Pilates and I work with many runners and have had to re-explain things and re-work these ideas with my runners many times. I teach a Pilates for Runners workshop at least once a year and the major thrust of this program IS the spiral of movement from the foot through the pelvis, spine and to the head! Many times the hip or leg issues that runners having is because of lack of rotation in the spine. I work on the counterrotation of the thoracic spine with ALL of my runners (in fact, with all of my clients)! It is built into the equipment repertoire. I think the mat routine includes more supple differentiated spinal movement than we realize, again, it really depends on the way it is taught. I think so many runners can benefit from Pilates and I have personally seen many transformations. I agree that Pilates can be a very limiting exercise regimen if taught that way, but if you teach runners about fascia, breathing, and supple movement, the possibilities are rather exciting.

I will add that I have looked at your site and I find your tips extremely accurate and helpful. I look forward to your insights as you move into your Pilates training.

Best,

Erin

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Shawna March 23, 2015

I know I am two years to late, but I love this post! I am both a runner and a pilates teacher and I have found that pilates does not enhance my running in any way. When I was running competitively I had to stop doing pilates altogether because it impacted my running in such a negative way. Regardless of how you are trained, pilates teaches the body patterns and those patterns, as you so eloquently stated Jae, are not helpful for runners. I have found the same problem with yoga, except Kundalini yoga, which seems to work wonderfully with running. . . I find in my own experience, that pilates and many forms of yoga work the “core” in a way that inhibits the natural freedom and intelligence of the entire bony structure. I do find pilates helpful in reestablishing relationships in the body when one has had an opening in one part and the rest of the body does not know how to relate to this new freedom. I use pilates sparingly in my own practice and would think long and hard before recommending that a serious runner take up pilates.

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    Justine July 13, 2016

    Shawna,

    I really find your reply to Jae’s post very thoughtful.
    Running has been part of my physical activity ever since and the I have been engaging in Pilates too. And it was really great to have read your thoughts and experiences in this matter.

    -Justine

    Reply
Auggie July 22, 2016

You don’t what the hell you’re talking about. Pilates does more than just strengthen your core smh

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