The next, best step for runner? Pilates
Carrying kids left her hips misaligned. Core-training Rx got her back in the race.
By Dimity McDowell Special to The Denver Post
Posted: 10/03/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT
So I wasn't exactly speedy. In addition, I was coming from Denver, my 5,280-foot-high hometown, and I thought the plunge to sea level would've mitigated the heat, humidity and hills on the Nashville course. That wasn't to be; I was dehydrated and weary, and my head throbbed accordingly.
A wash of a race, right? Wrong, thanks to my recent work with Pilates. I was actually elated with every step of my 13.1-mile race. "I didn't hurt one bit," I told my friend Sarah, as we gathered water and bagels at the finish line, "I can't even believe it. Not one step." Tears welled up behind my sunglasses as I spoke.
For the first 10 years of my 20-year running career, my biggest concern was what I was going to eat, post-run. Then, when I was 31 and 34, I gave birth to cinder blocks. I mean kids. When I stand up straight, I am nearly 6 feet 4, and my husband, Grant, is 6 feet 2, and our kids definitely belong to us. They both clocked in just short of 10 pounds. By the time they were 1, an age where most their days were spent on the "shelf" of my left hip, they both weighed more than 35 stride-altering pounds.
I ran the Nike Women's Marathon in 2007, a year after I'd given birth to Ben, our second. The training for it, combined with my new misalignment, spun me into a three-year cycle of severe pain in my left hip and glute; the area was a tangle of triple- knotted nerves. The toxic web traveled down to my left knee and plunged a virtual railroad tie through my kneecap, and also migrated north to my back, which would go numb an hour into any run. Ibuprofen and just grinning and bearing were my survival strategies, but they were far from solutions. Most days, I just wanted to chop my left leg off at the hip.
Some (more rational) people would simply stop running, but running isn't just a hobby for me. Not only is it my preferred way to maintain a slice of sanity, I am a sports and fitness writer by profession, and co-author of a book called "Run Like a Mother" — how was I going to inspire other mothers to run while I was hobbling along? So I tried chiropractic work (helped temporarily, but the bone-jacking effects would fade within 48 hours); physical therapy exercises (helped somewhat, but I was a slacker doing them); and finally, a doctor who ordered an MRI of my back.
Diagnosis? Bulging L4 and L5 discs and arthritis commonly seen in a 60-year-old. "It's by far not the worst back I have seen," the doctor said, which made me feel a little better, "But it's not in great shape for a 38-year-old." I asked what he recommended. "Pilates," he said, with such assuredness I didn't have the courage to ask him for what I really wanted: cortisone or some other fix-it-all shot. I'd tried Pilates a couple of times, and to me it felt like an equipment-heavy, way-too-fastidious practice for dancers and their lithe bodies.
Cardio maniacn I, like most endurance athletes, like my exercise heavy on sweat and endorphins. I like pushing myself harder and faster than I think I can go; seeing tangible, numeric results for my effort; and moving through the world powered by my two feet, not lying flat on my back in one place.
But endurance athletes are perhaps the best candidates for Pilates.They typically move in one forward plane, overdeveloping some muscles while neglecting others. They do a repetitive motion for hours, which is the easiest way to exacerbate muscle imbalances. Pilates teaches your body to move as one balanced, comprehensive whole, not a handful of limbs, and to originate power in your core, the area from the bottom of your rib cage to the bottom of your bum. When you do that, your limbs, basically along for the ride, are nearly injury-proof.
Trying to keep an open mind, I made an appointment with Marcia Polas, owner of polaspilates and a instructor who mostly takes her core knowledge onsite to offices around the Denver area. (Many cubicle jockeys, not surprisingly, are totally out of whack, as well.)
During the first lesson, in May of 2010, we worked solely on the shush-breath, a loud, strong exhale that shrink-wraps the entire torso and, when done correctly, engages the body so well it causes my legs to shake. I left her apartment, where she gives private lessons, both exhausted and exhilarated. I did probably 50 good breaths in a 55-minute session, and already felt like I was standing taller and stronger.
Slowly, over months of twice-a- week sessions — everything in Pilates is very mindful and sometimes, to my faster-is-better mind, painfully deliberate — I got the shush breath down, and we proceeded into advanced beginner moves, like moving my legs while my core was engaged.
The first few times, I couldn't lift the left one a millimeter. "Just visualize you're moving it," instructed Marcia, a very intuitive and patient teacher. I eventually got that leg off the ground, as well as learned to balance my weight on both feet, got my hips back in alignment and corrected my slump, a permanent fixture in my life since about age 9.
Eighteen months since I took my first shush breath, I can handle the most basic moves, which actually get harder with time, as I'm more tuned into how to dig deep into my core. I've progressed to the point where I can move my arms and legs at the same time, albeit only in wobbly sets of 10 that are more challenging than any marathon I've ever run.
At age 39, thanks to a consistent Pilates practice, I am stronger than I've ever been. I'm also slower than I've ever been, and, like a typical endurance athlete, that's tough for me to stomach some days.
But then I remind myself that pain isn't ricocheting through my body with every step, and that my runs aren't ending in my wishing for a new body, in tears, or in some combination thereof. In fact, the only time running makes me tear up these days was in Nashville — and at the Ogden half-marathon in Utah in May and the ZOOMA 10K in Colorado Springs in July —when, more than anything, I'm simply grateful I still get to run.
Dimity McDowell, a Denver-based, sports-and-fitness freelance writer, is the co-author of "Run Like a Mother" (Andrews McMeel, 2010) and the upcoming "Train Like a Mother" (Andrews McMeel, March 2012).