Conditioning for athletes

We’re looking forward to the Olympics in Rio, starting on 5th August. Our athletes will be in full-flow with preparations, and doing everything they can to be in optimum physical condition for the competition. Whether it’s Hannah Miley perfecting her tumble turns, Jessica Ennis-Hill pushing for the extra inch in the high jump, or Sir Bradley Wiggins shaving off nanoseconds from a relay baton handover, physical conditioning will be high on our athletes’ agendas in these last few days.

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But it’s not just elite level athletes who should consider their physical conditioning, we know that great gains can be made by someone who plays 5-a-side football once a week, a parkrunner, golfer, cyclist… Any sport or activity can become more enjoyable when your body is well prepared for it. You will reduce your risk of injury as well, by having the underlying strength and mobility required for the sport before you start.

So this is for anyone who takes part in regular sport. But if Hannah Miley is reading this, we’d love to hear from you, and good luck!

As you know, we are Pilates obsessed! But this is because Pilates covers so many bases in addressing joint mobility, stabilisation as well as improving body awareness which will help with any specific technique required for a sport. It builds a strong foundation to allow for the demands of a sport. Pilates has the flexibility within the practice to find a level which is challenging for athletes at any level of physical conditioning.

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We know that resistance and strength training are beneficial to athletes of all disciplines. Even a marathon runner who has specialised their physiology for endurance can improve this endurance by doing short sessions with high resistance. Pilates uses bodyweight, small equipment and reformers to find the increased resistance. Anyone who has done single leg bridges on a swiss ball will know you don’t need heavy weights to make your muscles work hard!

Regular Pilates class attendees will have heard us talking about the key principles: breath focus, coordination, alignment, balance, mobility, stability, functional strength, endurance. Experts in athletic conditioning agree that injury prevention and rehabilitation¬†programmes should include all of the same elements. So Pilates is perfectly suited to an athlete’s needs.

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Pilates can be adapted to suit the needs of athletes in any sport, and can benefit diverse body types. From a gymnast to a discus thrower, from a swimmer to a weightlifter, there’s something to be offered to every sport out there. As an instructor, knowing the sport’s demands and challenges is key to creating the right programme for that group. For example, while we normally encourage the hip flexor muscles to switch off during Pilates exercises, in a cyclist a large part of rotating the crank of the bike effectively comes from power in the hip flexors. Equally, in cycling we will teach a lot of exercises in a tucked position to build endurance in the riding position. Less ‘lengthen through your spine’ in that case!

If we were to provide a Pilates class for the whole of Team GB (we can dream, right?!) what exercises would be the key exercises for participants in every sport to focus on? It’s an interesting hypothetical challenge, let’s give it a go…

Even a swimmer, supported by the water, needs to work on their balance and centre to generate a powerful stroke, so we would get everyone doing some work in standing. For example, a single leg deadlift:

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Stand on one leg, hands on hips. Keeping the hips level, hinge forward at the hips, lifting the other leg behind you, as far as you are comfortable. Aiming to get the torso and back leg horizontal. Return to the start position and repeat, ten times on each side.

Even if a sport demands that an athlete keep their spine relatively aligned under load, for example in rowing, an athlete will be more prone to injury if they do not have good spinal mobility and control throughout the full range of their spine. A roll down will be beneficial to train this:

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Start standing tall, engage centre. Tuck your chin in to your chest and peel down through the spine, one vertebra at a time until you have curled down as far as you are comfortable. Pause at any areas of stiffness to ease them out. At the bottom of the roll down let your shoulders and neck loosen, engage through the centre and rebuild the spine from the bottom up. Repeat three times.

Many athletes, like their less active counterparts, will benefit from improving pelvis and core stability. A strong foundation allows the athlete to load up their body and take an increased challenge. A shoulder bridge will train stability through the whole centre of the body. Here we’ll try shoulder bridge level 2:

Start in the rest position, tilt your pelvis and curl up into the bridge. Then, keeping your hips level extend one leg out so that the thighs are parallel. Fold the leg back in and repeat on the other side. Peel back down out of the bridge. Repeat ten times.

 

All exercises are carried out at your own risk. See your physiotherapist or Pilates instructor if you have any questions.