The benefits of Pilates for triathletes
During my own teaching of Pilates classes I have explored the benefits of teaching Pilates exercises for triathletes and its usefulness in correcting overused and tight muscles and joints.
All three triathlon components (running, cycling and swimming) mainly involve movement in the sagittal plane causing functional imbalance. This will impact on the body by causing an imbalance in the anterior and posterior sides of the body. I believe that by including Pilates exercises within a sport specific training session does benefit the athlete.
Tight shoulder girdles and pectorals, kyphosis, tight hip flexors and overdeveloped quadriceps will most likely be apparent in most triathletes.
The Illiotibial bands can become over strengthened, leading to knee and back injuries. Stretching the Illiotibial band and strengthening its opposing muscles in the inner thigh are essential. Running causes a tightening of the lumbar and hamstring musculature as a result of the shock absorption from pounding on the pavement and the effort of keeping the body upright and stable during forward movement.
The hamstrings work eccentrically to control the movement of the knee and when the foot hits the ground they work concentrically to stabilise the knee joint, extending the hip and absorbing the force with the help of the quadriceps. Therefore it is essential that triathletes lengthen the limbs during all exercises and lumbar spine and hamstring stretches are incorporated to combat this ongoing problem.
How can we overcome these problems?
As trainers, we should encourage our triathletes to open up the vertebrae to help prevent the sort of back injuries which can result from the constant impact. Chest expansion, hip, shoulder and spinal mobility exercises, hamstring flexibility, strengthening of the core, posterior deltoids and rhomboids are advantageous and should be included in their training repertoire for optimal sports specific training. Take into account that most athletes will also have a dominant side so initially, exercises will be better performed using one leg or arm at a time.
Cycling also causes problems with tightness and posture, including strain in the knees and spine and tightening of the hip flexors and hamstrings. Cycling requires being in constant forward flexion causing excessive bending of the lumbar spine, a forward rotation of the hips and pelvis and over stretching the muscles in the upper back resulting in the shoulders rolling forward and the pectorals becoming tight.
Some examples of beneficial Pilates exercises include:
The swan dive - strengthens and mobilises the spine
Swimming - sports specific exercise to strengthen the muscles of the core emphasis so the co-ordination of breathing with each stroke is important
Arm reaches and pulls (adaptation of swimming) - scapular stabilisation ideal for improving stability, strength and control in the shoulder girdle
Scissors - beneficial to all aspects of triathlon. Core strength and stability, hip flexor and hamstring flexibility and pelvic stabilisation
Plank - strengthens the core and upper body and is particularly helpful in training for cycling
Side-kicks - improve running posture and stride as well as hip mobility and hamstring flexibility
One leg circle - hip mobility, strength and pelvic stability
Shoulder bridge- rebalancing of the quads and hamstrings, core strength/mobility and pelvic stability
Chest opener- opens the chest and shoulder girdle
The rhythmic lateral thoracic breathing and body awareness practiced in Pilates also corresponds to the needs of swimming alongside co-ordination of arm movements with the core in order to enhance the hydrodynamics of their body. Core strength and balance is essential, as are exercises to increase strength in the gluteals, hamstrings and quadriceps to allow them to propel in the water. Appropriate exercises for this issue would include any exercise that extends the hip with a straight leg (swimming, swan dive, prone hip extensions, one leg stretch, one leg kick and double leg kick). Swimmers must also pay attention to the shoulder girdle and lattissimus dorsi as they are the source of power. Therefore working scapular stability, mobility and upper body strength exercises such as the push-up are greatly appreciated in the sessions.
Pilates training can enhance the muscular and proprioceptive skills, improve posture, flexibility and core strength. Athletes will be able to reach longer when swimming, pedal more powerfully when cycling, stride longer when running and support the core better when weight training, helping to perfect the training to perfect the athlete.