I have to point out that I'm no expert on Pilates and this is in now way official advice like you'd get from a qualified instructor . . . it's just my view as someone who didn't know much about it before I started going along to Pilates once a week in December 2013.
Back in October 2013, I ended up with sciatica after the abuse my body took on the rough course of the Relentless 24 hour race. I didn't have any pain; just a horrible buzzing / pins and needles sensation in my left foot if I bent over or stretched my hamstring. Around the same time, a good friend of mine who is a physio, heard that I was going to take my racing a lot more seriously for the upcoming 2014 season and suggested that Pilates may help give me that competitive edge from a physical point of view. It also had the added benefit of sorting out the sciatica and it has only come back once, very slightly.
My preconceptions of Pilates were that it was a bit "airy fairy" and just involved stretching and flexibility. I had no idea just how tough it was and that it absolutely revolved around core strength. The instructor I go to each week also focuses some of her classes on very sports-specific areas and so it's anything but "airy fairy"! I come out of some of those classes in agony! Tougher than many of my sessions in the gym with weights!
My view is that Pilates helps with the following areas:
- Core strength - keeping you upright on the bike and strong over rough terrain or when the bike breaks away from you. Strong abs and lower back muscles have also helped give me the support to prevent my sciatica coming back during last year's WEMBO 24 hour solo world champs
- Posture - for those of us who sit at a desk for a lot of our day job it really does help with posture. But it also helps us cyclists who are bent over on a bike a lot of the time and prevents any issues caused by that
- Leg strength - I had no idea how much time would be spent on exercises that strengthen the calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes and hips. It's amazing the workout you can give your quads without any weights!
- Upper body strength - we often also workout our upper back, lats and arms, which all help with moving the bike around over trail features
- Flexibility - us cyclists are renowned for our poor flexibility so this is absolutely critical for injury prevention and also more efficient use of your legs on the bike
- Balance - It may not seem an immediately obvious one as it's not often you have to stand on one leg on the bike! But, the strong core strength and balance come hand in hand, and it'll help you with your track stands and other low speed skills on the bike
- Breathing - with a strong focus on abdominal breathing, this not only helps strengthen the core muscles but can make your breathing on the bike far more efficient
So, that's what I think it covers and I really do notice a difference on the bike. My body doesn't "fold" as much on tough technical terrain. I've only had one slight issue with sciatica since I took up Pilates and it resolved the original issue. I genuinely feel stronger on the bike and I'm sure it helps with putting the power down at the start of races or getting over technical uphill features.
I missed a couple of months of Pilates at the tail end of last year when I was having a break from training and I really did notice the difference when I got back on the bike. I already feel stronger just 8 weeks back into my first block of the Pilates class for this year.
How much it benefits you will obviously depend on the quality of the instructor so I'd suggest going for someone that focuses on Pilates rather than just a general instructor at your local gym.
Maybe not the most entertaining of my blog posts and sorry for the lack of pictures (you really don't want to see my face when I'm doing some of these Pilates exercises!) but hopefully that's of use to some of you and helps explain why I think Pilates is so good for mountain bikers, whether you are a racer or just do it for fun.