Yoga is a powerful complement for runners to prevent injury and improve performance. One of our instructors, Lois Waite, is a decorated runner and we asked her to share her experience and tell us what runners need to know about yoga.
For close to 20 years, I have been competing in triathlons, duathlons, and road races. Running is one of my greatest joys. While training for a marathon over ten years ago, I had a coach suggest that I try yoga. I soon found that weaving in yoga along with my training made my body feel refreshed and calmed my mind. A regular yoga practice became a tremendous compliment to my training. These days, I practice and teach yoga more than I run races, but I still run daily and find the two activities help me maintain a healthy mind and body.
First and foremost, I find yoga to be very beneficial to aid recovery for the muscles that receive repetitive use while running. Yoga poses that target stretching the muscles that are most used for running can help to lengthen out tight muscles preventing future injuries. Practicing yoga for recovery also helps to reduce muscle soreness and stiffness, and returns pre-exercise range of motion. When practicing yoga for recovery, it is best to choose a restorative or gentle practice.
Yoga can also be used effectively as cross-training for runners. A yoga class such as Vinyasa Flow will not only help to stretch the muscles that receive repetitive use from running, it can also help to strengthen the supportive muscles that receive less use. Yoga poses require engagement of the core. Improving core strength can help runners maintain proper running form especially when late-race fatigue is setting in. A full yoga practice will also incorporate balance poses which help to strengthen the feet and ankles. There are also poses that encourage chest opening and shoulder movement which can counteract any collapsing in the chest or hunching of the shoulders that can occur while running. Twisting, folding, and back bending poses help to release and strengthen the muscles in the back body and along the spine helping to possibly prevent or alleviate low back pain that can be aggravated while running.
In any yoga class, whether for recovery or cross-training, breath work and meditation provide perhaps the greatest benefit. The deep, diaphragmatic or belly breathing encouraged in yoga is the same that is used for running. Contracting the diaphragm fully allows the lungs to expand completely, taking in their maximum volume of air. Breathwork, or pranayama, strengthens the muscles used for breathing and expands the intercostal muscles between the ribs, creating more space for the lungs to expand. The full inhales practiced in yoga help us learn to draw oxygen deep into the lungs where it then travels to the bloodstream and to the muscles for energy. The complete exhales also help to teach us to eliminate the lungs of carbon dioxide so that more oxygen can be taken in with the next breath. Along with the mechanics of breathing, the awareness focused on the breath help to calm the mind. The attention to the breath and physical sensations provide the opportunity to let the thinking mind rest and allow for a place of focus for meditation. The inward focus on physical sensations creates body awareness. For runners, it can help you learn to observe and scan the body for any potential injuries. It also helps you to better understand your energy level so you know when you might need to adjust your training. The meditation techniques can be very useful for eliminating pre-race jitters or to help you find balance between a busy life and a rigorous training schedule.
If you are a runner who is new to yoga, start slowly. Perhaps try yoga for recovery purposes first and slowly build up to a practice as cross-training from there. Whether you incorporate yoga into your running schedule for recovery or cross-training, it will help you improve your performance, find balance and keep you healthy, strong and running for many miles to come.
– Loise Waite
Decorated runner and 3 time 15k Masters Champion and yoga instructor at Bella Prana Yoga in Tampa Florida