Pilates training in swimming and triathlon

Pilates training in swimming and triathlon

By Laura Smith Specialist Sports Physiotherapist and Pilates Instructor

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Pilates can help prevent injury and improve your performance in the pool, on the bike, and in running, and whether you are a swimmer, cyclist, triathlete or runner you will see great results integrating pilates into your training. Pilates helps to strengthen the whole body, and improve balance and body awareness, joint position sense, and neuromuscular coordination of muscles and limbs. This enables us to move efficiently in the different positions we use in our sport, whether swimming on our stomach (prone) or back, sitting with our trunk and hips flexed on the bike, or working our muscles upright in running. Here at Reach Physiotherapy in our studio at 7 dials or at our new sea lanes clinic we can work with you on the mat, and the spring loaded reformer to help you reach your pilates and training goals . 

Pilates for Swimming

For swimming efficiency we need a strong core to help coordinate the limbs as we move and float through the water . Maintaining your body on the horizontal line is key to most swimming strokes and requires a strong and stable centre and core. Your core muscles, made up of your deep abdominals transversus abdominis, outer abdominals rectus abdominis and internal and external obliques, pelvic floor muscles, and spinal muscles multifidus and erector spinae, aid in keeping your horizontal line. Training your core and body balance, joint position sense and limb muscle strength in swim stroke specific positions, on your stomach, side or on your back, can be really beneficial.  Your core muscles will work harder on land as your body weight is not supported by water. On the reformer the spring resistance system can work your core and stability harder, as well as strengthening your arm and leg muscles in different movement ranges, and small equipment can be added to the mat to increase resistance

Exercises for spine and core strengthening  

Long stretch on the reformer and knee pull in prone to mountain climbers
will work on core, and balance, as well as working scapula and shoulder mobility and stability through resistance. 

Swimming on the mat is an exercise in prone that works on back strength, scapula stabilising muscles and hip gluteal strength, and challenges coordinating the limbs at a fast pace. 

As well as training the spine for stability, and maintaining the horizontal, pilates for swimmers focuses on mobilising and strengthening the spine into extension, a key movement for butterfly, breast stroke, and backstroke to lengthen and strengthen stroke. Thoracic rotation  is a primary movement in freestyle/frontcrawl to improve maximum thrust through the full arm stroke, with our upper body rolling and rotating up to 45 degrees in freestyle (Van Dorssen 2023) Much of backstroke is swam on the side, and pilates exercises in side lying can replicate movement patterns for this stroke. 

Exercises for spine extension and rotation

Pulling ropes and breast stroke on our stomach (prone) on the reformer can improve spine extension mobility and strength into resistance, to replicate swimming movement patterns.

Kneeling woodchoper rotation using the spring loaded reformer can improve range of movement, and strengthen and lengthen our rotation muscles the obliques, so working them becomes second nature in the water. Using a foam roller with exercises such as arm opening, and thread the needle on the mat, can increase our thoracic rotation movement. 

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The rotator cuff muscles stabilise our arm bone in its socket, and are the key muscle group for  producing the rotation through the reach glide, and catch phase of freestyle/frontcrawl, and the recovery phase as the arm lifts out of the water, abducts, and internally and then externally rotates. These muscle are also at play in backstroke, with the shoulder externally rotating at hand entry, and with butterfly with both shoulders working simultaneously, rotating internally at hand entry. Having a strong rotator cuff will minimise shoulder injuries in swimming, as well as strengthen your stroke through phases in and out of the water. 

Exercises for rotator cuff strength and shoulder stability

Working the arms in straps on the spring loaded reformer in supine arm circles and prone and kneeling shoulder rotation we can replicate the resistance produced by water through different phases of your stroke and strengthen these muscles at different ranges, as well as working in swimming specific positions. 

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On the mat, we can work with small equipment, and body weight in swimming specific positions such as in Breast Stroke in prone with weights and on the back ( supine) working shoulder  rotation with bands . 

Pilates for cycling

Pilates will help develop your body awareness and position sense when on the bike as well as your neuromuscular control. Training with pilates we can develop your spinal and hip flexibility required for riding in different positions. Riding upright lower limb power is key, and riding with drop bars, and in an aero/time trial (TT) position requires increased hamstring flexibility and powerful glutes, as well as strong but not tight hip flexors. All riding positions require neck control and mobility aided by scapula stability and thoracic spine mobility to help sequencing of movements, and lumbar spine flexibility that is free from hamstring pulling.  

Training long hours on the bike, particularly on drop bars, and in an aero/TT position can tighten our anterior muscle; our hip flexors and abdominals, and reduce our extension in our spine. Cross training in pilates to lengthen our anterior muscles, and strengthen our spinal and hip extension muscles can reduce risk of injury, and improve our cycle efficiency and endurance.
Exercises for spinal strengthening

Swan dive on the mat, using body weight and resistance band and Swan dive on the reformer will both strengthen our spinal extension muscles, take us out of flexed spine position, and lengthen our abdominal and hip flexors. 

Working on hip flexor and hamstring flexibility and strength into a lengthened position can reduce our risk of overuse injuries and enable stronger muscles.

Exercises for hip flexor and hamstring flexibility and strengthening

Front split on the reformer, or hamstring  bridge sliders on the reformer or on the mat will lengthen and strengthen these two key muscles groups.

Cycle specific training exercises

Strengthening our gluteals whilst loading our arms in a riding drop bar position, can improve our gluteal muscular coordination as well as our neck stability and endurance, and scapula stability. Training our leg extension kicks in 4 point on forearms on the reformer or on a mat will achieve all of these goals. 

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Bicycle legs and one leg stretch on the mat and spring resistance loaded reformer can train your gluteal, quadriceps, and calf coordination, one leg at a time, to help you work on any imbalances between sides. Working one leg stretch on reformer foot bar you can hold a loaded stretch to the calf and achilles at the end of the exercise, to counter the shortened position the calf complex works in when cycling.  

Pilates for running

If training triathlon, pilates can be a great tool to reduce overload injuries in running, and strengthen and mobilise key muscle groups including calf complex, hamstrings, glutes and quads to improve performance. 

Exercises for running

Scooter on the reformer or on the mat with resistance bands replicates running neuromuscular movement patterns, and improves stability through your pelvis through strengthening your gluteals of your standing leg, as you work the hamstrings of your other leg through resistance.


Running on the reformer and foot series on the reformer and in standing strengthen quads, works on coordination of the legs through a running movement pattern, and enables calf and achilles stretching through load. 

Arabesque and single leg dead lifts on the reformer and on mat, will work on hamstring strength in a flexed position to improve performance and speed on hills. 

Whether you are trying a new stroke in swimming, a new cycling position or bike,  working on your sprint speed or endurance, or simply starting out on your sporting journey, pilates can help you to gain the mobility, strength and body awareness to excel in swimming, cycling and running.

References: Van Dorssen, E et al 2020: Shoulder Injuries in Swimming Meeting the Challenge Sports Medicine 

To book in with Laura Smith at either our Sea Lanes or Seven Dials clinic please –
Call 01273 732835 or book online http://www.reachphysiotherapy.com