6 Pilates Exercises to Boost Running Performance

I’m going through a phase right now where I want more conditioning and less lifting in my life. This is part voluntarily and part involuntary, mind you. A nagging shoulder injury is cramping my style in the weight room, and since doing a million squats every session is getting old, I’ve thrown in a few track workouts into the mix to spice it up.

Track workouts are the athletic masochist’s wet dream. You push yourself as hard as possible for 10-60 seconds repeatedly and somehow feel good about it afterwards. Sometimes, when I’m staring down at my feet after a sprint, about to dry heave my left lung I even think to myself ‘jeez, that was kind of fun!’

So, yeah. Track workouts are the bee’s knees right now.

However, these workouts are really hard on my body. The combination of sitting at a desk for 10+ hours a day and heavy lifting doesn’t translate into pain-free, fluid running mechanics. Nor does it make recovery any less painful. No matter what type of conditioning you choose to do, you want to avoid putting yourself in a compromising state. In order words, work hard without hurting yourself.

The sprinter’s warm-up plan

Staying injury-free is critical when you incorporate sprint sessions into your regimen. Us regular folk (read: not Usain Bolt) need to think and act strategically to improve performance on the track and avoid injury. Consider it a form of pre-hab, if you will.

In high school, every track workout started with a one-mile jog followed by some random static stretches of the lower body. Research has since taught us that a dynamic warm-up > 1-mile jog warm-up protocol. A better warm-up might look something like this:

-50m skip

-16-20 Walking lunges with rotation

-Bear crawl

-15-20 Air squats

-10 Forward leg swings

-10 Lateral leg swings

-8-10 strides

The goal is to prepare, not fatigue, the muscles, joints and tendons for the upcoming work. The warm-up will also give you feedback into the level of intensity you can put in that day. Say you’re dragging through the warm-up and those strides feel hard, you’ll know to dial back the intensity of the speed workout or hit a few less sets. Or, let’s say during the warm-up you feel your ankles are tight and compressed. That’s feedback to incorporate a few ankle rolls and calf stretches before the workout to accommodate a stronger gait. It might also mean you need better shoes, but you get the idea.

Improving running mechanics with Pilates

What you do outside of the track workout is just as important as what happens before, during and after. Recovery is critical and it encompasses multiple things: Static stretching, foam rolling, massage, sleep and good nutrients. There are a few exercises one can do after the run or on non-running days to speed up recovery, improve running mechanics and stay injury-free so you can keep on sprinting.

The majority of runners suffer from a few of the same issues:

-Tight hips

-Weak glutes

-Poor posture

-Weak trunk

-Improper breathing

All of these imbalances / issues affect running mechanics and efficiency. By addressing them head on, you can bring yourself back to proper alignment and improve your performance by also improving your running mechanics. I’ve put together a few Pilates exercises to address these five issues as part of the recovery plan.

Shoulder Bridge


Why it’s good for ya

A foundational exercise in the Pilates regimen, the shoulder bridge addresses weakness in the glutus and hip mobility. The most basic version (seen below) demands that the transversus abdominis (TA) compress the abdomen to stabilize the lumbo-pelvic region. Knowing how to activate the TA (aka ‘brace’ the deep abdominal muscles) ensures that runners avoid common groin and back issues that result from running and especially sprinting.

The second benefit of course, is that the exercise targets the glutes, a large group of muscles essential in producing explosive power output in the sprint. Unlike squats and deadlifts, which also builds up the glutes, the glute bridge can be done at higher reps unloaded or with load. It’s easy to do anywhere after your track workout or as part of the warm-up for light glute activation.

What to do

-Start by lying on the floor with knees flexed and hip-distance apart

-The arms are long by your side with equal pressure on both limbs

-Initiate the movement with an inhale, and on the exhale extend the hips to lift the pelvis to create a bridge position

-Inhale and hold the bridge, then exhale and release

-Repeat 5-10x

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Single leg stretch


Why it’s good for ya

The single leg stretch has a unilateral emphasis, forcing you to build up your rectus abdominis and obliques simultaneously while also stretching and strengthening the hips. The breath pattern is just as important here as it teaches you to breathe with your diaphragm versus your chest muscles – something worth practicing so you’re not gasping for oxygen half way through a 400m sprint.

What to do

-Begin in tabletop position with flexed spine

-Pull one leg into your chest, extend the opposite leg away from you at a diagonal

-Inhale on the transition through your nose, exhale as you switch legs

-Keep your torso, hips and pelvis stable during the movement

-Repeat 10-15X


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Double leg stretch


Why it’s good for ya

This builds off the previous exercise, incorporating breath, coordination and stability into one. The exercise is made more challenging by incorporating arm and leg movement while maintaining upper body flexion. The scapulae (think: shoulders) must remain stable and the abdominals compressed to stabilize the lumbo-pelvic region. On the track, this translates to breathing and coordination of the arms, shoulders and legs. Oh, and stronger abs. Because, why not?

What to do

-Start in a flexed position with both legs in tabletop; knees stacked over the hips and abdominals flat. Bring your arms to the ‘start’ position outside both calves

-Maintain upper body flexion and shoulder stability while reaching the arms overhead and extending the legs diagonally at the same time

-Circle the arms around toward the hips while drawing the knees back into tabletop

-The breath pattern matters here too: Inhale before initiating the movement, exhale as you draw your arms and legs away and inhale as you circle around

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Breast Stroke


Why it’s good for ya

This exercise only works when the abdominals, hamstrings and gluteus are fired up to help stabilize the pelvis. Given that the majority of us are in excessive spinal flexion throughout the day, throwing in spinal extension will work wonders to alleviate back pain, strengthen and correct imbalances in the back, neck and shoulders. A stronger trunk is a stronger, faster run.

What to do

-Lying face down on a mat with neutral spine, start with hands up by your shoulders and forearms on the floor

-Brace your abdominals on the inhale (don’t move yet!)

-As you exhale, reach arms forward, palms facing down, creating a long line from head to toe.

-Next, inhale and circle your arms out to the side toward your hips while simultaneously extending your spine by lifting the chest off the floor into a hover position. Imagine you are opening up your collarbone rather than pulling your head back.

-Maintain your gaze directly in front of you to avoid lifting the chin and extending the neck

-Repeat 8-10x

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Why it’s good for ya

While this one looks easy, it’s an intermediate exercise in Pilates, meaning most practioniers must earn the right to do this exercise. The benefits are two-fold for runners: one, the glutes and hamstrings work concentrically as the hip extends (yay!) and two, the obliques work bilaterally to prevent extension in the lower back. This exercise teaches scapulae stability, coordination and back strength – all necessary to improving running mechanics and strengthens the obliques to prevent unnecessary rotation or extension in the spine. In order words, this exercise un-f*&%s bad posture while sitting, standing or running.

What to do

-Start lying facedown with arms and legs reaching toward opposite ends. Toes are pointed slightly and spine is in neutral (i.e. look down on the floor not up)

-Exhale and lift your arms and legs off the floor, extending them away from one another

-Breathe in for 5 counts as you reach one arm and the opposite leg higher and the others lower

-Exhale for 5 counts

-Repeat for 20 reps

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Side bend


Why it’s good for ya

The side bend strengthens the abductors, adductors and obliques while also taking the spine into lateral flexion (i.e. a side bend). In running, walking and pretty much everything else we’re either moving forward and sometimes backwards. The side bend enforces shoulder stability while recruiting muscles in the hips, trunk and glutes to work together to keep the spine from rotating. At best, the side bend strengthens you all over. At worst, you get a decent stretch. Either way, it’s a win-win that runners can’t afford to miss out on.

What to do

-Begin seated on one hip, facing the side with pelvis and spine in neutral position

-With both knees flexed together at the bottom and hand on the mat slightly past the shoulder, inhale to prepare then exhale and lift the lower hip off the mat

-As you do, pull the lower obliques in toward the top of the hip, side bending the torso and reaching the top arm overhead

-Inhale to lower the hip and return to starting position

-Repeat 3-5X per side

NOTE: I demonstrate two variations below

Variation #1:

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Variation #2:

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When we lift or sprint with imbalances we essentially load or run with dysfunction. That leads to pain, injury and decreased power output. Even if performance on the track isn’t your primary goal, these mat Pilates exercises are easy to incorporate into your cool-down or accessory work 2-4x a week to alleviate back pain, improve posture and stretch areas in your body that foam rolling and static stretching can’t alleviate.

Learn how Pilates can build unbreakable bodies in and out of the gym here

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