The Rio Olympics was a showcase for gymnastic talent. From the pommel horse to the parallel bars, the floor to the vault, the world’s best came together in a carnival of tumbling, twisting and turning. Who could fail to be inspired?
With their blend of power, poise and flexibility, gymnasts seem to embody the athletic ideal. Show me a man who hasn’t wanted to master a backflip, and I’ll show you a liar. So it’s with a spring in my step that I travel to Bethnal Green for the CrossFit introductory tumbling class. The spin doctor for the day is Matteo Cara, a top-level gymnastics instructor with more spring than a sofa. Can I learn something from him that will benefit my running?
Pound-for-pound, gymnasts are among the strongest athletes on the planet. The discipline requires great ‘relative strength’ – i.e. strength-to-weight ratio – which is the Holy Grail for runners, who need to be both strong and light.
A simple way to test your strength-to-weight ratio is to attempt to do a handstand against a wall. If you can hold that position, try to do so with your feet away from the wall. It’s not easy but it’s a great exercise.
A wise man once said, “Running is jumping.” The muscles required to jump are pretty much identical to those required to run. Improve your jumping, therefore, and your running will follow suit.
It goes without saying, if one is to somersault successfully, a certain amount of ‘air time’ is required, so gymnastics is a great place to perfect your jump. “Push your weight to the balls of your feet and spring up,” says Matteo. “In gymnastics, you jump with a fairly straight leg.” It all sounds surprisingly similar to running.
Runners are not renowned for being the most flexible of athletes. All the more reason, then, to take up gymnastics, which will have you bending and flexing in ways you never thought possible.
Even simple exercises such as forwards and backwards rolls are good for increasing flexibility, which in turn can lead to a more efficient running style and, ultimately, a reduction in injury.
The importance of balance in running is often overlooked. When you break it down, however, running is essentially a series of one-legged balances, repeated over and over again. Gymnastics is great at improving both static and dynamic balance. Handstands are a great test of balance, but even cartwheels are a good place to start.
Sticking a handstand or performing a backflip requires some serious core strength. “Gymnastics can help to create great core stability and functional strength,” says Matteo. That’s good news for runners seeking the injury-reducing benefits of a cast-iron core – and another compelling reason to try your hand at a tumbling class.