It’s likely that you’ve heard about yoga, and perhaps also know about some of its benefits. But if you’re a runner, you may have wondered if it’s really the best thing for you. Is a yoga practice likely to improve my running performance? Does a yoga practice help prevent running injuries?
As it turns out, there are good reasons (lots of them!) for runners to include yoga as a cross-training activity. We’ll outline these reasons below, and provide you with a sequence of yoga poses especially beneficial for runners. But first, let’s have a look at some of the overall benefits of yoga.
Physical, Mental & Emotional Benefits Of Yoga
Whether you’re a runner, a cyclist, a swimmer, a climber, a gymnast, a basketball player–or simply someone trying to take good care of your body–an intelligent yoga practice is almost guaranteed to help. As you’ll discover (if you haven’t already), there are many different styles of yoga. What they all have in common is their well-rounded and holistic approach: Yoga is designed to integrate and benefit the body, mind, and spirit.
According to the experts at Yoga Journal, a consistent yoga practice has positive effects on pretty much every system in your human body. This begins with the muscular and skeletal systems but also includes the endocrine, respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, immune and central nervous systems. A regular yoga practice:
Improves flexibility & balance
Increases energy & stamina
Increases strength & muscle tone
Improves athletic performance
Reduces or eliminates chronic pain
Balances the body’s metabolism
Stabilizes weight at its optimal level
Restores a youthful, vibrant body
But a yoga practice offers more than just an excellent all-around physical workout. It also delivers a wide variety of “attitude adjustments.” Some of the mental-emotional benefits that you’ll likely notice, as you progress in your yoga practice, are:
“As far as the physical practice, running is a repetitive activity using similar muscles over and over. Yoga’s use of all muscles in positions very different from running allows for cross training. It also develops stability and strength within the trunk and hips, which is essential for running, and can lengthen chronically shortened tissues.”
An intelligent yoga practice builds core strength and hip stability. It enhances our mindfulness of movement, allowing us to be more easeful and efficient. And it teaches us how to use the breath as a tool to support the body: to generate energy, reduce tension, and soothe the nervous system. This makes yoga a perfect cross-training activity for runners.
How Yoga Helps Prevent Common Running Injuries
Because running is a repetitive activity, specific muscle groups–along with corresponding ligaments, tendons, and joints–are regularly stressed and tightened. Without any opposing, balancing movements, the body will try to compensate, putting stress on the entire skeletal and muscular system. Imbalanced muscles weaken and become more vulnerable to injury.
The wide variety of movements associated with a yoga practice–twists, inversions, forward folds, backward extensions, standing poses, seated poses–provide much-needed balance and help to counteract the more unidimensional movements associated with running. Yoga increases strength, stability, and range of motion in an integrated and balanced way, while at the same time soothing the nervous system. As such, it’s a perfect practice to help a runner’s body recover from strenuous runs and to help prevent injury.
Yoga Pose Sequence For Runners
If practiced regularly, the following sequence of yoga poses will support your running practice and nourish your body-mind in a variety of other ways. While the first several poses (Mountain, Low and Crescent Lunge, and Downward Dog) can provide a nice brief warm-up to a run, the sequence as a whole is best done separately from your running practice, e.g. in the evening or right before bed, if your running practice is in the morning; or first thing in the morning if your running practice is later in the day. It can also be completed shortly after a run, as part of the recovery process.
If you’re new to yoga, aim for practicing the sequence three times per week (e.g. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). As it becomes comfortable, you can practice it daily, if you’d like. The names of the poses are listed both in English and in Sanskrit (the original language of the Indian yoga tradition). Brief instructions and benefits are offered here. For more in-depth instructions, follow the links provided.
Benefit: Calms and focuses the body and mind. Stand upright with your feet together. Place the palms of your hand together in front of your heart-center (the center of your chest). Smile gently, and relax your jaw as though you’re saying “ahh.” Take four or five deep, slow breaths. Direct your attention inward, to the sensations of the breath in your body. Stand tall, strong, vibrantly regal and relaxed: like a mountain.
Benefit: Lengthens and strengthens the hip flexors, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Place your hands on the floor, and then step your right foot back into a lunge. Drop your right knee to the floor, and take several breaths in this “low lunge” position. Then extend your right leg fully, bring both hands up onto your left thigh, lifting your chest into the “crescent lunge” variation. Repeat on the second side.
Benefit: Stretches the hip flexors, and strengthens the hamstrings and quadriceps. From a kneeling position–with hands and knees both on the floor–curl your toes under and lift your hips up toward the ceiling. At the same time, press strongly into your hands, drop your head between your upper arms, lengthen along your side-body, and draw the hips strongly away from your hands. Take several long deep breaths in this position, and then drop back to the starting position, on your hands and knees.
4. Thunderbolt (Vajrasana) with toes curled under and then extended, into Hero Pose (Virasana)
Benefit: Helps to prevent plantar fasciitis by stretching the shin muscles and arches of the feet. Kneel down on the floor, with your legs close together. Then curl your toes under, and sit back on your heels. After a few breaths, extend the toes so the tops of the feet are now flat on the floor–and once again sit back on your heels. After several breaths, come back to kneeling, separate your legs and feet to hip-distance apart, and then sit down between your feet in Hero Pose. You can also place a pillow, cushion, or yoga block between your two feet, and sit down on that–if sitting directly on the floor is not possible.
Benefit: Stretches and balances the hip flexors. Sit down on the floor and cross your shins loosely, into a narrow cross-legged position: with the knees no wider than the hips, and the feet drawn across toward the opposite side of the mat. Remain in this position for a couple of minutes, and then fold forward, allowing the chest and head to drop toward the legs, and the arms to extend forward onto the floor. Remain in this position for another couple of minutes. This is a foundational pose of the powerfully therapeutic/restorative Kaiut Yoga system.
Benefit:Lengthens the hamstrings, and builds core strength. Lie down on your back. Hook your right big toe with the first two fingers of your right hand, as you extend your right leg upward. Alternatively, slide a yoga strap around the arch of your right foot, and hold the ends of the strap with your right hand. Extend the right leg upward toward the ceiling, lengthening as much as possible. Then turn the toes outward slightly, and angle the right leg off to the right–doing your best to keep the left leg and left hip firmly anchored on the floor. Repeat on the second side.
7. Reclining Pigeon Pose, aka “Eye of the Needle” (a variation of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
Benefit:Releases hip tension. While still lying on your back, hinge your knees and place the soles of your feet flat on the floor. Then cross your left ankle over your right knee, and interlace your fingers behind your right thigh. Gently draw your right leg closer to your chest, and you reach the left knee away from your chest. Hold for a couple of minutes, and then switch sides.
Benefit:Improves range of motion in the hips; lengthens gluteus and hamstrings. While still lying on your back, draw your knees toward your chest, stacking them one on top the other. Then allow the lower legs to cross, so you can grab your left foot with your right hand, and your right foot with your left hand. Hold for several breaths, and then switch the cross of the legs.
Benefit: Balances and relaxes the lower back, and stretches the gluteus. Still lying with your back on the ground, hinge the knees and place the soles of your feet flat, about hip distance apart. Extend your arms outward from your shoulders, along the floor. Then allow your knees to fall to the left, toward or onto the floor, as you look over your right shoulder. Hold for several breaths, and then bring your legs and head back to center. Repeat on the second side.
Benefit:Relieves tension and aids recovery in the legs, feet, and back, and lengthens the hamstrings. Sit down next to a wall, facing sideways with your hips 4-6 inches away from the wall. Then release your torso down to the floor and at the same time swing your legs up the wall. It’s fine for your pelvis to be several inches away from the wall, or–if you’re quite flexible in the hips and legs–you can have the base of your pelvis touching the wall. Rest your hands on the floor near your hips. Or, alternatively, interlace your fingers behind your head, if this is comfortable. Remain in this position for 5-10 minutes. Viparita Karani is one of the most restorative of all yoga poses and can be used as a stand-alone pose whenever you wish.
Benefit: Releases tension throughout the body and mind. Lie down on the floor, with a cushion or rolled-up blanket or yoga bolster placed underneath your knees/thighs for support. Close your eyes, and relax the jaw completely, as though you’re saying “ahh.” Direct attention inward, feeling the breath in the body. Notice, with equanimity, any physical sensations or emotional energy that is arising and dissolving, moment by moment. Relax completely–as though your body were a stick of butter, slowly melting on a warm skillet. Remain in this pose for 5-10 minutes, or longer. When you’re ready to come out, roll to the side, rest there for several breaths, and then gently press back to a seated position.
This powerful sequence of yoga poses will nourish and support your running practice, by opening your hips, balancing your spine, strengthening your core, and calming your nervous system. As is true when learning any new skill, it can be useful and wise to consult with a teacher, or attend a formal yoga class or two, to receive instruction tailored to your unique circumstances.