November 3, 2012

Mending This Broken Skater: How Pilates Changed My Life

The idea for this post came to me during my pilates class two weeks ago (and yes, this is me, just now, finding the time to finally do something about it!). It's a subject very dear to my heart, and one I want to talk to you about today due to the high number of injuries that occur in the sport of skating. If there was some sort of "pilates ambassador" title, I'd have it. It's simple: pilates changed my life.

I know that sounds dramatic, huh? Well if you've ever experienced any type of chronic pain (or pain full stop, for that matter) then you'll know that the possibility of relief comes as a miraculous ray of sunshine. And if you're lucky enough to have escaped any such injury or chronic syndrome so far, then read anyway. Pilates can be a life-changer for everybody.

So, what is pilates anyhow?
Pilates is a conditioning system that was invented by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century. It combines controlled breathing (a huge stress-reliever) with highly controlled movements to build a strong core, and long, lean, strong muscles. It's hugely beneficial to coordination, and balance, as the exercises are based on working several parts of your body together at once, to achieve an overall work out.

How did it help me?
A couple of years ago I was training hard for the up coming national solo dance championships, in which I was planning to compete in the senior category. I was working out a lot, stretching for around 1.5 hours per day, and very focused on the event. That's when it happened.

I'd been practising layback-into-haircutter spins. I fancied putting it in my FD for a few extra points (I hoped), and with just 3 weeks to go, training was more intense than ever. My back was getting more and more painful with every spin, but I didn't stop. I didn't slow down. I was in the zone. I really wanted to perfect the move, and get it in the program.

When I did eventually call that session a day, I went on home and put some heat on my back. By that night, I couldn't move.

Doctors, X-rays, and physios later, I was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis: a displacement of a vertebra (or vertebrae) in relation to the ones below it. I had literally caused my spine to dis-align. Permanently.

Needless to say that the competition was a no-no, which in itself was massively disappointing. But worse, I was facing the rest of my life in pain.

I went through months of physiotherapy. Firstly just massaging to release the muscular knots which had formed as a protective mechanism around my spine, and then eventually we moved onto spinal replacing and osteo work. I hadn't put a foot on the ice for months, and by this point I didn't care. All I wanted was to be able to lift a heavy bag of shopping again, or run up a flight of stairs. That's when my amazing physiotherapist (who was an official physio at the London 2012 Games this summer, and of whom I am very proud!) started giving me a few pilates exercises. In order to support the dis-placed spine, I needed a solid core, lower back muscles of steel, and an abdominal belt fit for a professional athlete. And that's where pilates came in.

What kinds of things do we do in pilates?
If you've never been to a class, you could be wondering what types of moves are carried out. You might worry that it's too fast paced for you, or that you're not flexible enough. First of all, lay any pre-conceptions to one side. Do not confuse pilates with yoga. Those photos you've seen of people who literally have their ankles behind their ears? Not pilates.

The most important thing for you to do during a pilates class is to respect your own limitations: each move is designed with a series of add-ons which make the move harder. You can cycle through these as your body becomes stronger and more capable of taking on a higher work load. Firstly you'll start with the base level, and will only advance to the next step when you're ready, and feel confident it's right for you.

There is no requirement to take pilates: you don't need to be able to put your leg behind your head, or run a marathon. My pilates class is a wide range of ages and backgrounds, and it's great to see such a varied bunch of people all working with the common goal of looking after their bodies and feeling great.

Movements are based on coordination, and breathing is the key to successful moves and an amazing sense of stress relief. My class usually starts with a simple closing of the eyes, and deep breathing. This is pretty much my favourite part of the class: feeling my lungs fill with air, and the way my muscles react to this is a moment of unadulterated self-conciousness. All I am aware of is the air, and my body. Stress leaves, pain leaves, and all that is left is myself and my body. It's hugely liberating, you should try it sometime!

Typical movements work the abdo-lower back belt, and involve lifting the legs, extending the arms above the head, and engaging the abdominals in combined ways to yield maximum effect.

You also needn't fret about spending money on fancy equipment. If you own a t-shirt and a pair of comfy trousers (like jogging pants or stretchy leggings), you're good to go.

So where am I up to now?
Since stopping skating, my unique goal with regard to my back has been to get pain free, and stay there. I'd have good days and bad, being sore after a day of long driving, and even sent myself back down a month-long muscle-spasm spiral after going for a run before my body was ready to cope with the stress of my own weight through my spine.

All those things are now a distant memory. From day to day, I'm pain free. I'm able to go for runs around our local park (my meagre attempt to keep fit now all I do is sit in lecture halls and eat while revising!) without so much as a hint of pain.

I'm taking 1 pilates class per week, and it's already made all the difference. When this session finishes, I plan to ramp it up to 2 classes per week in 2013. I've managed to work to a point where I've consolidated my spine, supporting it through the daily tasks that are now easy to me. Pilates had undoubtedly changed my life. Pilates has rid me of pain.

So why should you care?
Whether you're a skater, a skating parent, injured, in mint condition, or just wanting to take one hour per week for you, pilates can transform your life.

It has taken me from being a pain-ridden scuffed-up past-it skater to the vibrant pain-free person I used to be. It can also be massively beneficial in injury prevention. If I had had a solid muscular belt protecting my spine in the first place, I do have to wonder whether I would have caused myself such an injury in the first place.

If you do pilates or some other form of conditioning, I'd love to hear all about it! Please get in touch via one of the methods below and tell us about your experiences ^_^

Until next time, keep on keepin' on!

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  1. I know that without Pilates I would never have been able to start skating at the age of fortysix. Skating quickly made me realize that I needed core-specific exercises and knew Pilates would provide that. I am in a Reformer class three times a week as a result, and the benefits of just feeling strong and flexible are worth the price of classes.

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  2. Your story was very motivating! I've skated since I was 4 years old, when I was going towards novice, and I ruptured two disks in my back. I thought I could keep going, but it just kept getting worse, I was told by many doctors that I had to stop jumping. I tried to switch to maybe Ice Dancing or Syncro, but who was I kidding, at my age, I wasn't going to get anywhere trying a new form of skating... I'm still not recovered mentally, and have no clue how to accept it. Some days I'm pain free and others I can't move! Your story is very inspiring!

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  3. I saw this article while groaning and generally feeling sore all over (trying to re-introduce myself to exercise). It reminded me of how I got over my knee problems and that I need to go back to pilates.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your story. God bless

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  4. Congratulations on the article.

    In regards to the actual workouts there many perks of pilates, that will end up being nearly right away apparent once you begin the method and exercises of the numerous kinds thereof. Pilates workouts have actually changed and evolved since that of which Joseph Pilates, the developer of pilates, initially developed and developed

    Pilates workouts have actually changed and evolved...


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