Pilates for Athletes

When asked to write an article on Pilates for athletes I wasn’t at first sure what to focus on with the upcoming Olympics. After watching the London games the article became clear. Pilates can provide many things; better flexibility, core strength, deeper muscle endurance, spinal mobility, and alignment. It can deepen your awareness, mental clarity and focus. Beach volleyball has been dominated over the last decade by Walsh-Jennings and Misty-May Treanor, yet in 2009 they fell in their rankings mainly due to injury and motherhood.  Treanor missed most of the 2009 season due to an achilles tendon injury and Jennings went through two pregnancies.  The pair took hourlong Pilates sessions two to three days per week and Walsh-Jennings stated that not only did it improve her body, but also her performance – “It’s really given me an extra 20% in my performance on the sand”.  The team went on to win their third, yes third, gold Olympic medal.

Misty May Treanor & Kerry Walsh win 3rd Gold

Misty May Treanor & Kerry Walsh win 3rd Olympic Gold medal.

In a pain client Pilates helps to release held muscles when, if not released, will continue the cycle of pain. When in pain people have a pain response to hold themselves and guard against it. This often just makes things worse, making it harder and harder to get over the injury. Similarly in a client who is highly stressed from external factors such as work or family factors. The external stress causes their body to respond with certain muscle tensions, shoulder, upper back and chest tension being common.

Canadian Womens 2012 Olympic Basketball Team In explaining how Pilates works for athletes I’d like to focus on basketball players. Firstly, big kudos to our woman’s national basketball team in winning a spot at the Olympics. They did well considering it was their first appearance in 12 years. Beating Brazil was no small feat. Brazil has a highly competitive program with their top players being national sport celebrities.

Canadian basketball has been slugging away for a decade developing players only to have them scooped up by US colleges and club teams. Without scholarship programs and competitive club teams instilled in our Canadian system, it is unlikely we will field a truly ‘Canadian’ Olympic team. The 2012 national team roster was made up of players who compete and train in the States. Only the coaching staff takes permanent residency in Canada.

Looking at the consistently dominant US team, you see pure experience with the WMBA, strong US colleges and club teams abound and of course the sheer number of youth playing the game. Yet, in Canada we develop hardy athletes. The game of hoops is not an easy ride, taking athleticism, skill and development of experience to know how to react under pressure, close games, adapt to changes in defense, how to cover a high scorer, and running various offenses. The athlete must be mentally focused, motivated, able to communicate with and listen to teammates, be calm yet quick thinking and reacting to responding to a plethora of variables. A training program which develops all aspects of body, mind and spirit is important if not necessary.

I played competitive basketball from junior high school through university, also playing with the junior nation team and a club team, travelling to Portugal and Brazil, just missing a trip to Japan due to a knee injury. After graduating and specializing in biomechanics at U of T, I became a Pilate’s instructor. I am now the owner and operator of Pilate Body Mechanics, providing therapeutic Pilates in Toronto at Pro Care Rehabilitation and in my home town of Erin.

The position of playing defence and good offence, being a triple threat, requires one to hold a squat with shoulders over hips (as best as possible) with thighs close to if not parallel to the ground, pretty well throughout the entire game, other than the times you are running or jumping. The better you can get into this position the quicker you can react on defense or fake and beat your check, jump and rebound. Many sports share this same mechanic such as volleyball, tennis, hockey, squash, and skiing. Some occupations emphasize this mechanic like carpentry especially framing, insulation and drywall installation, electricians, mechanics and anything else where one must hold or perform a repetitive squat.

Try holding a squat; bend your ankles and knees till your thighs are parallel to the ground. Now check what your back is doing can you look up the court and see your check approaching? Where are your shoulders in relation to your hips? Try to keep shoulders over hips and your back straight, try not to round the lower back and stick your glutes out. If this is difficult, try putting your back against a wall and slide down keeping your hips and shoulders to the wall. Hold the squat for a while and you begin to get the picture, these athletes work. However, without adequate flexibility and muscle balancing this sport can leave players exhausted, with little energy as they are constantly fighting their own bodies to hold the position and chronic overuse injuries can prevail. Like any repetitive and prolonged activity, overuse injuries can occur, similar to tennis or golfer’s elbow or carpel tunnel syndrome.

I recall a tryout for the national team we had 2-3 practices a day. Between practices we would be exhausted. You would think that eventually a body would adapt, develop better endurance and be able to cope. Most of us went to our rooms to rest. However, I remember one player in particularly, Cynthia Johnston, who would go play tennis with the coach! I was envious of her natural grace, tall, lean, agile, and fierce, yet such a nice and calm individual. She seemed at peace with herself, didn’t seem fazed by the training sessions with boundless energy. If only I knew her secret then, but now I do – a balanced body. Pilates can help people achieve just that – equilibrium.

Basketball players can’t help but use and develop the quadriceps muscles, which happen to be one of the largest most powerful muscles in the body. It makes sense to use this muscle along with the glute max and medius muscles. No problem, the athlete has strong jumping and running muscles. As we play on over the years we continue to go to our strongest muscles and overly tight hip flexors result, causing the shutdown of the psoas, lower abdominals, and deep hip rotators. The player develops strong quads, legs and glutes, yet weak abs, deep hip rotators and core. This changes the mechanics of the hips, pelvis and lower back which can lead to back problems. Then mix in mal-alignment of the ankle and/or knee and the condition becomes compounded with possible patella-tendonitis, shin splints and taped ankles.

Ankle sprains, the number one injury in basketball so much so, that coaches and trainers in their wisdom decided to take a preventative step and have players taped for every game and practice. Tapping almost immobilizes the ankle changing the squat mechanics. It was intended to help the athlete, maybe even help them squat better by relying on the tape, but ultimately weakens the ankle and can translate injuries up the kinetic chain to the knee and hip even the back.

“The body is an intricate, dynamic, integrated system not a collection of parts that fail independently of the whole. Often conventional medicine attempts to repair or immobilize the injury without addressing the cause” Irwin Hoenig, Holistic Health and Wellness, 2012. Which would you prefer for your entrance; a door battered and dented, with squeaky hinges, where you must wiggle the handle just the right way, lift up and push as it grinds a groove in the floor opening partially or a perfectly installed door, plumb and level with hinges that glide, a handle which unlatches with a gentle turn, enabling the door to swing open with a simple touch of a finger tip? Installing a door properly takes having several factors correct; a level and square door and frame, the hinges at the right depth and way up, a level floor or a trimmed bottom door edge, the screws attaching the hinges must be drilled in the right spot, an accurately installed door handle, the point in the frame accepting the latch must be precisely lined up to make the whole thing work properly. Many factors must be addressed and done right for quality results.

Is there a source for blame? There really is no blame for a chronic repetitive injury. The coaches perhaps could do a better job of being better educated in the biomechanics of the game and how to include well rounded training into the program. Coaches, however, already have so much to pack into their practices; conditioning, learning and running an offense, defense, and special plays that often the individual conditioning of each player is overlooked or left to the sports med staff. Individual is an important word here, as players are different with various biomechanical nuances making their bodies respond differently to the same training. They must be looked at individually, yet coaches tend to treat each player the same, just placing them into their specific position on the court practicing drills for that position.

With the pride of the Olympics, national competition and pure athleticism players drive themselves on to work hard, continuing to push on to please the coach, most likely being unaware that damage is being done. Youth and being naturally gifted helps them overcome and develop as an athlete. Yet as athletes grow older it becomes harder to adapt and the game can take its toll. Accumulated stresses become more prevalent and we may seek alternative training and treatments. A though flexibility and core strengthening program never used to be the norm, nowadays almost every athlete has some core training and a yoga or flexibility program, which also develops better body awareness.

Near the end of my basketball career I decided to learn Pilates, mainly because it jived so well with my biomechanical studies. I was lucky enough to take my full Pilates training with a very talented, independent, group of instructors at Body Matrix. The name speaks for itself. Some of the trainers had worked for Stott Pilates, the more established corporate training facility, they brought the knowledge of Stott and classic Pilates training methods of Pilates elder Alan Herdman of London England. There is now a school of Pilate’s instructors who have the classical training with a gentle touch.

What amazed me once I began the training was that I realized I had little connection with my core and the deep abdominals were weak. I had very strong legs and arms and exterior abs, yet a very weak core. So it goes with most athletes I now see. We have to learn new muscle patterning, release tight and overused muscles and learn how to recruit alternative ones in harmony with those large, external, stronger muscles. Once this is achieved you have a new body. Let’s just say it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes practice, attention and good instruction.

It’s the core that protects the back, holds it in proper alignment, reducing wear and tear on the spine and discs. The core also translates the power from the lower body to the upper body to the basketball, the tennis racquet, . If your pelvis and lower back are pulled out of alignment that translation is not as effective, energy is dissipated, we struggle, we are not efficient. Pilates helps us use the proper amount of force for the activity, with less stress on the spinal segments and joints, increasing the overall power output. Now I know this sounds car-like but it is true. We drive more like a Mercedes and less like a muscle car.

Coming back to the Olympic volleyball team, May- Treanor commented that, “Pilates helped us to know how to take the foot off the gas when in park”. Instead of always being on overdrive or in a state of over recruitment, Pilates teaches us how to take a breath, calm the body and increase our ability to focus and respond appropriately. Furthermore, tight muscles become relaxed, weak muscles become stronger and the alignment of the ankles, knees and hips, as well as, the shoulder girdle change. In my case, my hips released, my femurs were no longer externally rotated and the forces acting through the ankle, knee and hip joints improved. My shoulders relaxed, my neck lengthened and I truly felt taller and more agile. Along the Pilates training path you will also increase flexibility, balance, precision, spinal and joint mobility, muscular strength and endurance, and develop better breathing mechanics.

After my Pilates training I truly did feel amazing, I had greater energy and vitality. My body was no longer struggling for alignment. To be free to move through full range of motion was absolutely liberating, empowering, leaving a sense of freedom and play. Many people never find this freedom in their body and remain bound in their habitual patterns. I went on to play competitive Ultimate for a few years, snowboarded for another 10, and took up beach volleyball. I chose to also work in construction, mainly because I was tired of sitting at a desk, but also I wanted to test my theory that we were essentially mechanically the same. With proper alignment, core strength and awareness we can do just about anything without injury.

Pilates can make you stronger, smarter and probably faster, appropriate training for competitive basketball and I’d like to think all Olympians. Now, I help others find their inner balance. A lack of connection is a common trait of a fast paced world, we sometimes find ourselves eating without tasting, listening without being truly present and exercising without experiencing the feeling that arises within us. We can come to our senses – and Pilateon!

Samantha T. Reed B.PHE. Specialist in Biomechanics
Certified Pilates Instructor
Pilates Body Mechanics

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