Sports and pilates

Sports & Pilates: Original article by: Tom Floyd, (2003 Piltes conection)

For most of my life, I have been obsessed with fitness-related activities. Though my physical abilities were modest (at least compared to my aspirations), I had enormous drive. Like many, I was influenced by two adages of the 1960s: “No pain, no gain” and “You can if you think you can.” By putting those phrases together, I built Quixotic dreams that led to both disappointments and injuries. These, then, are the highlights of my athletic and fitness endeavors (with Pilates coming to the rescue before it was too late):

Mesmerized by Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic marathon win (I was 17 at the time), I spent some 20 years on an on-again, off-again pursuit of gold in the sport. Though always desiring to run, my training was less than consistent due to my over-zealousness. My idea of a training run was as simple as it was naïve: to cover the distance as fast as possible, whether it be four miles or twelve.1 I would torture myself, not out of love for running, but out of the quest for the elusive prize.
Though aware of Bill Bowerman’s adage that in every case he would rather under-train an athlete than over-train him, I felt it did not apply to me. Sure, his protégé Steve Prefontaine could benefit from that advice, but he was already a world-class athlete. I simply thought I could make up for modest ability by working harder than anyone else. Consequently, I was either hurt, sick, or simply burned out more often than I could train.

Whippet-thin from years of running, I then turned to the “Iron Sport” for my next adventure in athletics. Throwing myself in the literature of the sport, I read the training principles of Joe Weider, and the success stories of his many proteges, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger. The number one training principle to emerge from my study was to train “to and, even beyond, muscular failure.” This was the common denominator of all the great champions in the sport. However else they trained, they trained to sheer, utter muscular failure. I must train the same way, or so I thought.
My body responded reasonably well to such an approach, at first at least. My shirt size went from medium to large in just a few months. I derived enormous satisfaction from seeing the poundage I could lift increase, and in some cases, triple. I looked good, got plenty of compliments, but even within the first year the effects began to take their toll.
Little aches and pains went from easy-to-ignore to full-blown injury. Two or three years into this training regimen found me in such great pain that I could barely dress myself because of rotator cuff impingement. Lower back pain kept me awake at night; in fact, I dreaded going to bed.
Physical therapy restored me to relatively normal functioning, but I knew I had to find another way to develop my body. Since both running and bodybuilding had exacerbated the tightness I’ve always had, I was now ready to focus on attaining flexibility.

The same intensity I applied to running and bodybuilding I brought to Yoga. Impatient in allowing my body to adapt at its own rate, I would force myself into poses – pulling, pushing, and otherwise contorting myself into postures beyond my ability. I was constantly sore, but since I experienced modest gains, I continued to push.
And I even had good Yoga teachers. They constantly reminded me to “relax,” “soften,” and otherwise get the tension out of my body, but I couldn’t do it. I muscled myself through the exercises, focusing only on how far I could stretch, with little regard to form or relaxation. Even though I intellectually knew the axiom “no pain, no gain” was wrong, I could not emotionally or experientially accept the fact. If I could hurt a bit more, maybe I’ll be able to do the splits…
My yoga practice came to a sudden stop one day when, with right foot planted near my groin and arms reaching toward the left out-stretched foot, I went way beyond the pain barrier. With a loud pop emanating from my right knee, along with excruciating pain, I knew I had pushed too hard. A trip to an orthopedist confirmed that I had torn cartilage. A cortisone shot got me walking, but once again, I knew I had to make some changes in my training.

My first glimpse of Pilates was with the December 1994 issue of Yoga Journal , which showcased the method. At the time, I was fascinated more with the unique machines than in the explanation of the method of exercise. Just one look at the Cadillac convinced me that if I could just train on that machine, I would develop the flexibility I desired…
Nearly five years elapsed before I finally had the chance to train on a Cadillac. It did not provide the instant magic I thought it would, but I did make a commitment to learn the method of exercise.
My first three months of Pilates was at a studio whose owner was trained in the classical performance of the exercises. I experienced challenging workouts, and for a while was happy under her tuteledge, but after approximately 30 private sessions I was growing increasingly aware that certain fundamental changes to my body I had hoped for were not happening.2
In January 2000, I made the Pilates Center of Austin3 my new fitness home. At the PCA I found a flexible approach to exercise in which people’s individual differences were taken into account. If I could not perform a certain exercise, my trainer would modify it to make it more accessible to me.
As my training progressed at the PCA, I became aware of the fundamental philosophy behind the program. Gradually understanding Core Connections®, the PCA’s trademarked approach to movement and stabilization, I experienced new breakthroughs. For instance, pelvic stability is a hallmark of many Pilates exercises. Yet, I long found it impossible to maintain a stable pelvis. If my leg moved, my pelvis moved. However, through applying the principles of Core Connections®,especially setting up the exercise from a base of support and initiating the movement with muscular opposition, I found my pelvis becoming increasingly stable and my exercise performance more productive.
The Pilates Center of Austin, as well as many other centers, views Pilates as a tool, subservient to the goals and needs of the client. Pilates is the core of its program, but it is by not the only discipline taught. Yoga, Body Rolling, and other methodologies are all integrated into a holistic approach to movement and body development.4
Body Rolling, especially, was, for a while, a perfect supplement to my Pilates pratice. By learning to relax a muscle into the curvature of the ball, I experienced the muscular release that had eluded me for so many years. In just a couple months of practice, I captured a degree of flexibility in both hamstrings and spine that not long ago I considered unattainable for me.

More recently, I have re-discovered Yoga and under the direction of Yoga master Bekir Algan, have made new physical breakthroughs, especially in pelvic flexibility.
There remain plenty of Pilates exercises that continue to be difficult for me to perform. However, instead of “powering” myself through them, I “feather” myself through the movements with gentle weight shifting and attention to breath. With this approach, I can typically experience improvement in an exercise within a single workout, while also experiencing a release of tension.
Now I am experiencing changes that are both dramatic and unexpected. These changes include a significant reduction in the pain that has always been with me since my running and bodybuilding days, and an enthusiasm for the exercise itself, rather than merely the gains I get from it. Pilates just feels good. No pain, but lots of gain.

End Notes

1 I never made it to marathon-training mileage because I would not pace myself properly. When you begin every training run at a sub 6:00 per mile pace, there is a limit to the distance you will run.
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2 I mean no denigration of the “classical” method, nor criticism of my former teacher. Plenty of people benefit from the classical method’s structured and high-tempo approach to body conditioning. But, as I discovered, bodies are different, and what works for one person will not necessarily work for another.
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3 This is not an unqualified advertisement for the Pilates Center of Austin. Yes, this facility is what I know, but many other Pilates centers have the characteristics and visions of the PCA.
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4 The presence of yoga, body rolling, or other disciplines in a Pilates studio does not necessarily make what is taught there a «mixture» or «hybrid» of the Pilates method. At the PCA, where I now teach and continue my Pilates eduction, the Pilates method is taught separately from other disciplines.
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