Sick of swimming and bored of bike rides? You’re in luck: there’s a new cross-training trend in town. Ballet might be typically seen as the preserve of small children and impossibly flexible professionals, but it’s one hell of a workout. Fear not if you don’t know your arabesque from your elbow – barre workouts, inspired by ballet but adapted for a fitness class setting, have started hitting studios up and down the UK. With big names including Virgin Active’s Barre, Paola’s BodyBarre and barrecore, strength and conditioning for runners has got a whole lot more graceful.
Barre classes centre around classic ballet moves such as pliés and arabesques, with a focus on correct form and muscle recruitment as opposed to dance sequences. Legwork plays a major role, which helps strength train the upper legs and glutes. “We perform compound exercises to work the larger muscle groups such as the quads and hamstrings,” says Paola Di Lanzo, founder of Paola’s BodyBarre. “An example would be a plié where the hamstrings and the quads will be working in tandem. We also do a lot of gluteal work in isolation working the gluteus medius, minimus and maximus. All the barre classes work to strengthen the deeper stabilising muscles as well as the larger muscle groups.”
Principles of Pilates core work and stretching are often integrated – unsurprisingly, given Pilates’ popularity with dancers. “Every move should be ‘initiated’ via the core,” says Paola. “The core strengthening element of all our classes will allow a runner to keep the torso stable and well aligned, which will help prevent injury.”
Afraid you’ll be the only runner in the house? Don’t worry, this won’t be a repeat of your somewhat uncoordinated school dance show nightmares – runners are a mainstay in the barre community. “The most common complaints from runners are tight hamstrings, tight hip flexors and a weak core,” says barrecore instructor Natasha Wynn. Barre offers a solution to these, she says, as runners “[get] the benefit of both stretching and strengthening the problematic areas, plus some strong core work.”
Theoretically this is all very well, but does it work? We asked dietitian-in-training and runner Charlie Watson, who used barre classes as her sole cross-training activity while preparing for Chicago Marathon. “This was the first marathon I've trained for where I've actually gained flexibility as the mileage increased each week,” she told us. “The 'seat' section in each barrecore session was key in tackling my weak glutes, whilst the focus on core work throughout class improved my running form in both speed work and long runs.”
The benefits weren’t just physical, either: Charlie found that the intensity of the exercises helped her develop a higher pain threshold, something that any long distance runner finds helpful towards the end of a race. “Most dancers are able to push past a mental or pain barrier during a performance and focus on the task at hand. This transfers into class with a strong focus on making the work internal, putting mind to body and telling yourself 'you can!’ When the muscles are shaking and burning, it's definitely mind over matter as it is during a long distance run,” says Natasha.
So, barre fitness: working on body conditioning, boosting mental strength and feeling classy as you do it. We’re convinced.
Best barre moves for runners
Boost flexibility with these barrecore exercises from instructor Natasha Wynn.
Low arabesque: Hold on to the back of a chair or breakfast bar, stretch one leg behind you, bend your supporting knee and incline the chest slightly. Rotate the hips open just a little, so only your big toe rests on the floor. Slowly lift and lower the leg behind you, keeping it super-straight, and repeat 10 times. Hold the leg half way up, flex your foot and draw 8 small circles in each direction - try to keep your hips still. Finally, lift the leg a little higher and take 15-20 tiny pulses up, squeezing the glute every time. Repeat on the other leg.
Hip flexor stretch: Kneel with your back to a wall. Place your back knee against the wall with your shin and the top of your foot straight up it (you may want to place a cushion below your knee to prevent discomfort). Step your front knee into a lunge position, keeping the foot directly under the knee (or even slightly in front of it). With one hand either side of the front foot, gently sink the hips down to stretch the back hip flexor. To deepen the stretch, bring the hands to the front thigh, lift the chest and tuck the tailbone under - this can get intense! Stay in the position and breathe. Remember, never bounce in stretches and release if you get a sharp pain. Repeat on the other side.