As a matter of mats
Choosing a mat can be a bit of a minefield. Here is a guide to help you choose and care for your Pilates mat.
I recently surveyed my customers about their mats, and the conclusion I drew was that it isn’t necessary to spend a large amount of money on a mat for Pilates. A budget of £15 to £20 will give you a large choice of mats that are fit for purpose. The main factors to consider when choosing a mat for Pilates are thickness (≥10 mm is ideal for Pilates) and grip. You don't want to be slipping along your mat in side bend! So, if there is an opening in the packaging, poke your finger in to see if it offers grip, or if you are buying online, look out for what the reviewers mention about grip. Generic 'fitness mats' don't always offer a good non-slip surface.
Another consideration is length. Some mats are as short as 132 cm. A rule of thumb is to get a mat that is approximately the same length as you are. I am 170 cm tall (5'7") and have a 172 cm mat. Taller people need longer mats, or to accept that they may have to overreach the mats onto the floor for some exercises.
Many people use yoga mats for their Pilates classes. They are easy to balance on and offer good grip. If you practice both Pilates and yoga, they will serve you well. Pilates mats are thicker to offer better cushioning, which is particularly helpful for for kneeling, side-lying and rolling work. Rolling involves impact on your spine, and a yoga mat on a hard floor can be quite severe. If you practice Pilates over a carpeted floor you may get away with it, otherwise, folding your mat in two will offer more cushioning. You can then unfold the mat as needed for other exercises, though be aware that too much folding and unfolding may interrupt the flow between exercises.
What about 'eco' mats? Some stores sell environmentally friendly mats that avoid synthetic materials. There are websites which claim that yoga mats made from synthetic materials (PVC) are toxic. My advice is DO NOT EAT your yoga mat. I was given a second-hand standard mat at roughly the same time as I bought a natural rubber and jute mat. The natural rubber mat (pictured) never offered the same quality of surface as the synthetic mat, and became unusable after a few years; whereas the PVC mat is in as-new condition (also pictured). If you plan to use your mat for many years, the benefit of using natural materials must be weighed against the environmental cost of regular replacement. If you have a synthetic mat that you no longer use, please find a good home for it, as they don't break down in land fill sites. If you are a die-hard eco-warrior (for which I salute you) then get a second hand mat - ask around your friends for an unwanted one, or look on Freecycle, Gumtree, eBay etc. for a nearly new mat. See below for tips on how to clean it before use. Avoid natural rubber mats if you have a latex allergy.
You may wish to consider how to carry your mats. Most mats roll up and often come with a carry strap. If your mat didn't come with one, you can make your own. Other mats fold, and can be carried in a plastic bag. Wherever possible, I cycle to my Pilates classes, so I made an extra deep pannier bag to contain my mat.
Looking after your mat - new and old
When your mat is new it may have a ‘new mat smell’. This will pass after a few uses, but if you get the opportunity to roll it out for an airing (ideally outside, or in a room with open windows, if the weather allows) before your first class, you will find it more pleasant. Also, it will have been rolled up tightly since it was manufactured, so unrolling will help it to release and lie flat. You may need to alternate the direction that your mat is rolled in between uses, to further help flatten it.
Regularly cleaning your mat will keep it pleasant, maintain its grip and increase its longevity. You can extend the time between washes by covering the mat with a towel during use (particularly if you sweat a lot during your practice), washing your hands without applying hand cream before use, and wearing socks. An occasional quick wipe down with a damp j-cloth and a thorough air will keep it fresh, but every now and again, a deep clean is needed. Some yoga mats are machine washable, but pilates mats won’t squish into a machine, so I prefer to soak mine in a warm bath with a little laundry liquid, sponge it down to clean, change the water to rinse it, and hang it on the line to dry. Be aware that the mat absorbs A LOT of water, which doesn’t wring out, so it will be heavy and it will drip. I let it drip in the bath for a half hour or so before I even contemplate taking it out. It’s best done in the morning on a clear day, so it has time to dry thoroughly in the sunshine. Then leave it over an airer for as long as possible. Never put your mat away when it is damp - it will quickly deteriorate.
Look after your mat well, and it will last you for years. And in case you are wondering, if your mat has two different faces, the ribbed goes side up, smooth side to the floor!
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Fitness and Pilates instructor with a passion for science.