Running holds a whole host of benefits for cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and mental health. However, with your feet striking the ground over 1000 times in the average mile and the force of impact being up to 4 times your body weight, it is unsurprising that over time regular running can often lead to body stiffness, aches and pains.
Yoga sits at the other end of the movement spectrum. Whether you are a casual jogger or seasoned athlete, yoga forms a perfect partnership with running.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that explores mind, body and breath. There are many aspects of yoga (eight different limbs to be precise). The aspect that is most commonly practiced in the West is the physical postures (asanas).
Is yoga a religion?
No. Yoga practice is very personal and every teacher will deliver something different. You will encounter some teachers who dive into philosophy, chanting and moral teachings. Many teachers will focus solely on the physical postures and their benefits. Others will be somewhere in-between.
How does Yoga Benefit Runners?
Running is a repeated unidirectional movement. It improves some bodily functions fantastically but neglects many others. Yoga encourages your body to move in all different directions and planes, engaging and stretching a variety of muscles.
Strength: Yoga classes often incorporate poses such as lunges, twists, side bends, inversions and balances. This can build great strength in the core, legs, hips and also the feet. All of these help to improve running ability and reduce the risk of injury.
Flexibility: Tight hamstrings and hip flexors are an issue for many runners. Forward folds and ‘hip opening’ postures in yoga target these areas well. Lunges in yoga classes are similar to the running stride. Regular practice can help this motion to become more fluid.
Balance: Running can be broken down into a continual sequence of balancing on one foot at a time. One-leg balances in yoga help to build strength and endurance in the smaller muscles of the leg that contribute to helping us balance.
Posture: Yoga increases your awareness of body alignment and posture. It can counteract some of the bad postural patterns we develop when sitting at desks or on the sofa.
Mental strength & flexibility
During a yoga class, you are likely to find yourself in some poses that are humbling. It is also likely that you will notice small gains in your ability from session to session.
Yoga develops the ability to stay centred in the state of shifting circumstance. This can be relevant when running long distances. Your mental and physical state can shift with each mile. Yoga helps to develop mental balance, focus and ability to remain in the present.
How efficiently you breathe can have a huge impact on your running. Each breath enables oxygen to reach your muscles and allows them to keep working. Without enough oxygen, lactic acid builds up in the muscles causing them to ache and fatigue.
Yoga focuses on direct awareness of the breath. Every movement is cued by the inhale or exhale. Additionally, there are many breathing techniques (called pranayama) that are taught in yoga, providing a number of physiological and psychological benefits. Developing the ability to voluntarily control the breath and using the breath as a point of focus are skills that can be transferred into running.
What type of yoga should runners do?
If you are new to yoga or training for a race: Focus more towards gentler classes (Hatha, yin yoga, or vinyasa for beginners). For many runners who are used to an active, fast-paced lifestyle, slower classes can be more mentally challenging than physical.
For those with more yoga experience or are ‘off-season’ running: Try vinyasa yoga (a sequence of poses guided by the breath) or a hot yoga class (often holding poses statically in high temperatures). This can be alongside gentler classes such as those mentioned above.
How often and how long? Don’t feel that you have to jump into a 90 minute class. Shorter classes more regularly (possibly once a week) can often see more benefits for runners. If you are new to yoga, it is best to try classes with a teacher, rather than online, so you can get support with pose alignment.
Why runners must also be careful…
Don’t overdo it. Yoga is a broad umbrella of many different styles and intensities. If you have scheduled a rest day in your training plan, do not attend a yoga class that will have you breaking a sweat. Your body and mind needs time for recovery. A restorative yoga class can be beneficial for this but save ashtanga and vinyasa classes for days you want to build strength. The closer to a peak race, the less physically intense your yoga practice should be.
Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be people in a class or online who seem to twist themselves like a pretzel or find every pose effortless. Runners need some level stiffness in the body to run well. Hyperflexibility of joints and muscles is not beneficial (for anyone). It is important to have a balance between the two. Listen to your body and modify poses in a way that is best for you.
Some final tips
Be open minded. Yoga can be a completely new experience for many of us. Encountering new spaces, people and ways of moving your body can feel uncomfortable. Try different teachers and classes and you will be sure to find something that works for you.
Be patient. Yoga is not a quick fix. While you can feel great after just one class, the benefits you experience grow with a more consistent practice.
By Rebekah Jade BSc, RYT