When you suffer from lower-leg running injuries, an assessment might reveal your hips as the perpetrators. Hip imbalances turn some muscles into workhorses and others into slackers. These imbalances leave you vulnerable to injury, while your running style takes on a shuffling movement similar to your grandma's. Some Pilates exercises address this issue, and yes, you can try them at home, as long as you remember that quality of movement trumps quantity of reps.
Your Workaholic Hip Flexors
Your hip flexors use their connection between your thigh and your pelvis to pull your leg forward during the running movement. Sometimes they get tired of doing this. That's when they tighten up, prohibit efficient weight transfer in the pelvis and create the anatomical equivalent of a chastity belt. Even if your heart and lungs were still enjoying the run, tight hip flexors slow you down and take you out of the zone. Hip flexors that remain trapped in a seated position throughout the day are particularly susceptible to this inflexibility.
Pilates Hip Release
The Pilates hip release exercise enhances the dynamic flexibility of your hip flexors. Lie supine with bent knees and feet on the floor. Turn out one leg and slide your heel along the floor. When the leg straightens, rotate your thigh into parallel alignment, and slide your leg along the floor to bend your knee. Perform three reps, then reverse the sequence, sliding the leg out in a parallel position, then turning it out as you bend your knee. Do another three reps, then switch sides.
As your hip flexors tighten, your hip extensors, specifically your hamstrings and glutes, get weak. Since these muscles take charge of the propulsive movements in running, their weakness works to your disadvantage. That which drives you forward during running begins as a force that comes from behind. The Kenyans, who frequently win marathons, illustrate the point. Their ability to extend their hips through a large range of motion lengthens their stride and increases their speed. Powerful hamstring and butt muscles produce this propulsion, but only on one condition -- your lower back must maintain a stable, neutral position.
Pilates Hip Extension
The Pilates mat series offers many hip extension opportunities. The swimming exercise, for example, is particularly effective, but it's the coordination equivalent of tapping your head while rubbing your belly. Pilates instructor trainer Aliesa George developed a slower, more user-friendly version of the exercise, which she designed to enhance the gait patterns of running. Assume a prone position with your legs extended, your arms by your sides, and the tip of the nose to the mat. Inhale and lift your head, chest, right leg and left arm. Exhale, return to the floor, and switch sides. Aim for eight reps, or four on each side.
Integrating Hip and Core
Joseph Pilates was talking about "the powerhouse" long before the core exercise trend. During every exercise, the powerhouse, or deep core muscles, stabilize your spine. The plank with hip extension, also called the leg pull front, teaches runners to engage their core muscles and stabilize their back during hip extension. Assume a plank position, drawing your belly in and creating a straight line from head to tail. Maintain alignment as you lift one leg. Lower it and repeat on the other side. The repetition issue is tricky. Do only as many reps as you can perform while maintaining correct alignment. Stop if your back starts to arch, or if you feel stress in your shoulders. Five reps on each leg is usually sufficient.
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.