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Running and Cycling and Pilates. Oh My!

Running and cycling are fantastic cardio activities to keep you fit and healthy but can cause a variety of lower back problems. Here’s why and how Pilates can help.

There is no doubt that running and cycling are two forms of exercise that will drive your overall cardiovascular fitness levels. If you are not really sure what that means, it refers to how well your heart, lungs, and organs consume, transport, and use oxygen throughout your workout. Overall fitness depends on how well your cardiovascular system (the bits that carry blood), your respiratory system (the bits that help you breathe and exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide) and your skeletal system work together. If they are efficient, you increase your fitness. To get fit you have to work out.

Cycling and running, especially long distance, also add extra stress of endurance on the body. Now, I am under no illusion that my two HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) classes a week do not make me as fit as a long distance runner or endurance cyclist but I am willing to bet that my spine is in better shape than both.

Often, running and cycling enthusiasts think that they have got their fitness and health needs covered but they generally don’t couple their workouts with activities that will strengthen their core and spinal muscles, such as Pilates.

Runners tend to get lower back pain as the impact of running on hard surfaces causes the discs between the vertebrae to become irritated, causing facet joint syndrome; or a general weakness throughout the abdominal muscles doesn’t provide enough support for the spine. As a runner tires, the result is a lack of discipline in the movement of the legs, causing the pelvis to wobble around and irritate the lumbar spine. This is a very simplistic explanation but the principle remains.

Cyclists spend a protracted period of time bent forward (flexion) over their handlebars, forcing the extensor muscles along the spine to support the lower back for a long time. I am sure that you must have caught a glimpse of the Tour de France at some point, or one of the Brownlee brothers in the cycling leg of a triathlon, on their bikes in a hunched position. This is because the erector spinae have become tired and cannot support the lower back (lumbar spine) in a neutral posture. This fixed position and lack of strength in the spinal muscles and abdomen will cause back pain. To compound the problem, the constant flex of the legs for pedalling means that the hip flexor muscles, that run from the abdomen around and down the front of the legs, become tight and ‘short’. These need to be stretched and extended to reverse the damage.

Imagine that your spine is a bendy straw. If you stick that straw into a lump of plasticine, it will wibble and wobble around, potentially getting damaged through movement and instability. If you turn that lump of plasticine into a lump of concrete, it will form a strong base to hold the straw in the right place and provide support. So what exactly is that lump of plasticine?

The core is made up of a series of muscles both front and back. We generally talk about the abdomen as the core, with the pretty rectus abdominis making our six-packs pop. But there is a whole lot more to the core that creates spinal stability. Our key muscle is the transverse abdominis, a deep muscle that runs across the body. When it’s engaged it is like a corset or waspie around our waist. This works with the internal and external obliques at the front to stabilise our pelvis and ribcage. There is also a series of muscles around our spine collectively known as the erector spinae that stabilise, flex and extend the spine.

These deep muscles are difficult to train and activate through general exercise like running, cycling and even HIIT classes. Pilates is a practice that focuses on building the powerhouse of core muscles to support the spine in all its range of movement, with healthy alignment and flexibility. Joseph Pilates famously said “If your spine is stiff at 30, you are old. If your spine is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”.

Several exercises in Pilates are ideal for runners and cyclists to include in their training repertoire: glute bridges which roll the lumbar spine up and down, with full articulation of the vertebrae, will encourage flexibility. The hundreds - an exercise synonymous with Pilates - builds deep abdominal strength. The swan and breast stroke exercises will build the deep muscles of the spine as well as articulating the spine in a direction it usually doesn’t get encouraged to move. These are just a few examples.

The lumbar spine takes the most wear and tear, being the most load-bearing and shock-absorbing section of the spinal column. Cyclists and runners tax this more than most. Pilates is a perfect complement to their regular regimes.

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