Roll out a yoga mat to become faster and fitter
Effects of Yoga on Runners
Running results in muscle tightening which, in turn, can lead to injury. On top of this, as many of us spend much of our lives sitting at our desks, our hamstrings naturally shorten, also increasing our risk of injury. Yoga is the perfect way to increase flexibility as a runner. Often spending little (if any) time stretching before or after our runs, attending regular yoga classes is a great way to fit that all essential stretching routine into your training plan, helping you to develop flexibility. As well as loosening out tight muscles and reducing the risk of injury, yoga is great for improving strength and even helping develop a runner’s breathing control.
Runners are often reluctant to try yoga; their most common fear is that they are not flexible enough. It is not uncommon for those attending their first Yoga for Runners class to ask whether the room will be filled with lithe and flexible bodies, in spite of the class being advertised “For runners; no yoga experience necessary.” This fear may be driven by the many media images showing people in advanced yoga poses, fueling the notion that you have to be able to bend like a pretzel to do yoga. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Yoga is suitable for every body type. It can be started at any age regardless of physical condition, and those who are the stiffest have the most to gain. Runners, specifically, have a tremendous amount to gain from adding yoga to their fitness regimens. Why strike a pose? Studies have shown that yoga squashes stress, aids weight loss, eases pain, helps people stick to an exercise routine, and even improves running times. The strength and flexibility you develop on the mat–namely in the core, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors–can help you run more efficiently and stay injury-free, says Adam St. Pierre, a coach, biomechanist, and exercise physiologist for the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine
Running can lead to injury because of its repetitive nature and the resulting musculoskeletal imbalances. On a physical level, yoga restores balance and symmetry to the body, making it the perfect complement to running. Runners are often drawn to yoga to deal with specific issues, such as improving flexibility or helping with an injury. Yet many are shocked at the world it opens for them, specifically, the strengthening capacity and the use of muscles they never knew they had. Let’s take a closer look at the effects of yoga, both physical and mental, on runners.
As seen in the preceding definitions, yoga encompasses more than the mere physical postures. Nonetheless, the physicality of yoga is what draws most people to their first yoga class. The following summarizes the physical benefits that runners can expect from yoga.
Many runners cite greater flexibility as the number one reason for beginning a yoga practice. This is a good reason, because yoga stretches the muscles that are tight, which in turn increases the range of motion in related joints. Increased flexibility decreases stiffness, results in greater ease of movement, and reduces many nagging aches and pains. With so much bending involved in yoga, two areas benefit – the hamstrings and the lower back. Tight hamstrings cause problems for lots of runners and are the route of many running related injuries. By flexing and loosening these out, the risk of injury, particularly in the form of hamstring tearing, is significantly increased.
“Yoga has certain focus points in lengthening through the posterior chain and opening up the hips which helps relieve tension in the hip flexors, TFL and hamstrings”, says Keith Hall, sports physiotherapist, “all of which are commonly responsible for injury in those runners who are tight”, he points out.
Sports physiotherapist Tim Allardyce also advises yoga classes for increasing a runner’s stride length. “Loose hamstrings tend to give more during running, but can also help with an increased stride length”, he says. “Yoga is fantastic at improving flexibility to the hamstring muscles, making running more efficient and also less prone to injury” adds Tim.
The poses held in yoga strengthen the core, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors. Weak hamstrings not only put runners at risk of injury as a result of frontal loading, whereby the quads are much stronger than the hamstrings, but will result in a much slower running speed.
A strong and balanced core is also vital to one’s running posture. “A strong core is vital for your posture as well as the transfer of energy between the upper and lower body”, says personal trainer Ashton Turner. “If your core is strong and your posture perfect”, he says, “you will become a much more efficient runner, saving energy”. Celebrity personal trainer Tyrone Brennand agrees. “Holding poses in yoga helps increase balance and strength in your core and legs”, he says. ‘This will transfer into your running increasing speed and endurance”, he adds. Strengthening the upper body and core helps improve posture during daily activities and also while running. Moreover, a strong core allows the arms and legs to move more efficiently, creating better overall form, less fatigue, less weight impact on the legs, and a reduced risk of injury. A strong core creates a strong runner!
If you’re looking to increase your strength through yoga, Keith Hall recommends trying “popular power” and “flow yoga” for a full body strength and control workout.
Runners are strong in ways that relate to running. However, a running stride involves only the lower body and movement in one plane—sagittal (i.e., forward and backward). Thus, certain muscles become strong while others are underused and remain weak. Runners have strong legs for running, but when faced with holding a standing yoga pose, they are quite surprised to find that their legs feel like jelly. This is simply because a properly aligned yoga pose involves using all the muscles in a variety of planes. The muscles that are weak fatigue quickly, and those that are tight scream for release—thus, the jelly-leg syndrome.
Overly tight muscles are also weak ones. To be fully functional, a muscle needs to contract when needed and also relax and lengthen when needed. For example, if your hand is perpetually in a state of contraction, as in a fist, its function is severely impaired. A healthy muscle is able to move through a healthy range of motion.
Additionally, running primarily uses the muscles from the hips down, whereas a balanced yoga practice involves the entire body. Muscles that are simply not used while running are called upon and strengthened—specifically in the arms, upper torso, abdominals, and back. Moreover, yoga uses the person’s own body weight to create resistance, working against gravity to build the muscle and bone strength vital for overall health. Muscles strengthen by various methods of contraction, followed by rest and supported with proper nutrition. In running, the strengthening is primarily in the legs, whereas a balanced yoga practice contracts and stretches the muscles of the entire body. For example, a fairly basic pose such as plank requires numerous muscles to actively engage; otherwise, the effect of gravity would result in the belly, hips, and upper torso sagging.
Additionally, a by-product of becoming stronger is greater muscle tone. Yoga helps shape long, lean muscles that do not hinder free range of movement in joints.
Overusing some muscles while underusing others creates muscular imbalances, which affect the entire musculoskeletal balance and impairs biomechanical efficiency. For runners, biomechanical imbalances eventually lead to pain and injury.
Depending on the action, a muscle is either contracting (i.e., an agonist) or lengthening (i.e., an antagonist). For example, if you make a fist and lift your forearm, the biceps contracts while the triceps stretches. If you want showy biceps and do repeated biceps curls to pump up the muscle, the triceps will shorten and you could lose the ability to straighten your arm.
A healthy balance is to work to both contract and stretch to maintain muscle equilibrium as well as functionality. For example, when stretching the hamstrings, the quadriceps need to contract. This coordinated action not only creates a deeper and safer hamstring stretch, but also provides an opportunity to strengthen the quadriceps, especially the inner quadriceps, which are weak in many runners. This is crucial for runners because the hamstrings most likely need lengthening while the commonly weak inner quads need strengthening.
Executed correctly, a seemingly simple yoga pose requires the balanced activity of opposing muscle groups. To hold a pose, some muscles need to stretch while others need to contract. In this way, a natural balancing of strength and flexibility occurs, which creates biomechanical balance over time. This is one of the major benefits that await runners who undertake a regular yoga practice.
Every yoga pose is a balance of stability (muscles contracting and strengthening) and mobility (muscles stretching and lengthening). At no time is only one muscle group used. Even the simplest yoga pose requires an awakening of every part of the body. Downward dog is an exemplary pose to demonstrate this. Following is a summary of the major muscle actions in this fundamental pose.
Arms: hands, wrists, lower arms, triceps, deltoids
Back: lower trapezius, serratus anterior
Legs: quadriceps, tibialis anterior (front of shins)
Arms: fingers, biceps
Back: latissimus dorsi, paraspinals (both superficial and deep layers of back muscles)
Legs: hamstrings, calves, Achilles tendon
A balanced yoga practice requires most of the muscles in the body to perform some action. At the same time, joints are taken through their full ranges of motion as the corresponding muscles contract or stretch to support the movement. The result is improved muscle balance, which translates to better form, stronger running, and fewer injuries.
A Complete, Inside-Out Body Workout
Yoga provides a workout that includes every muscle and all the joints. Yoga uses all muscle groups, including the small muscles in the hands and toes, the large muscles of the legs and torso, the superficial muscles such as the calves and hamstrings, and the deeply layered muscles that are not visible. When examining a person in the downward dog pose, you can see clearly that the superficial muscles of the back are stretching. What is less obvious is the lengthening of the intrinsic layer of paraspinal muscles, creating space and decompressing the vertebrae.
Furthermore, all of the body’s systems beyond the muscle groups are worked in yoga, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, skeletal, and endocrine systems. Additionally, the internal organs are massaged and oxygenated through yogic breathing and movement in the poses.
An Energized Body
Many forms of exercise deplete the body of its energy stores. Yet a yoga practice oxygenates the blood and creates more energy, leaving the body and mind feeling restored and energized. Yoga provides a vehicle through which the body can actively recover from the physical demands of running.
Lung capacity is of prime importance for runners, because it creates the ability to maintain an even breathing pattern through all phases of running. The better the lung capacity is, the more oxygen is circulated through the system, which is most helpful for running long and strong. However, the breathing pattern used in running and other forms of aerobic exercise involves quick and shallow inhalations and exhalations. This uses only the top portion of the lungs, leaving the middle and lower portions untouched. Yogic breathing involves slow, deep inhalations and long exhalations, making use of the upper, middle, and lower portions of the lungs. Yogic breathing has been shown to increase lung capacity, and greater lung capacity increases endurance and improves overall athletic performance.
Holding poses in yoga teaches controlled breathing when under pressure. When a runner’s lungs are under strain, breathing can become fast and shallow. Better breathing allows a larger delivery of oxygen to the muscles, consequently increasing performance. “Holding poses in yoga and controlling your breathing will benefit and transfer over to running”, says Tyronne, “it will help increase lung capacity and teach deep controlled patterned breathing, especially under pressure.”
In Sanskrit, prana means “energy,” and yogic breathing is called pranayama. Through the breath, you bring in oxygen, feeding your cells and creating vital life force, and remove carbon dioxide, eliminating toxins. The use of the breath in yoga is vital. Whereas holding the breath creates internal tightness, tension, and anxiety, deep breathing releases tension, reduces stress and anxiety, and physically helps the body ease into poses, particularly those that are challenging. Through this conscious breathing, the body is energized as a result of increased oxygen circulation throughout all of its systems.
Additionally, holding challenging poses builds tenacity that’ll pay off on the road. Lauren Fleshman, a two-time national outdoor 5000-meter champion, started practicing yoga after breaking her foot in 2008. But the poses gave her more than just foot strength: “Yoga helps me control my emotions while I’m in discomfort on the road,” she says. “Enduring an intense pose is a lot like enduring a long run or tempo run.”
A few tips to remember if you are attending your first yoga class:
TIME IT RIGHT
Your yoga practice should have a converse relationship with your training: When you’re ramping up mileage and churning out hard workouts, stick with relaxing sessions. When your training eases up, you can increase the intensity and frequency of your yoga workouts, says Sage Rountree, yoga instructor, triathlon coach, and author of The Runner’s Guide to Yoga. If you take on a rigorous practice in the midst of a monster training month, “you’ll interfere with your body’s recovery and risk hurting yourself,” Rountree says. Fleshman rolls out her mat most often during the winter in advance of her spring track season. “The strength yoga builds in my feet, lower legs, and core will hopefully support me when my running gets tough,” she says.
It can take years to master yoga poses, so don’t go to your first class (or your first 20) expecting to be the star pupil–no matter how many races you’ve run or how fast your PRs are. “Focus on yourself, not what the person on the mat next to you can do,” Rountree says. And realize there’s plenty to gain from a less-than-perfect practice. “So many runners are hard on themselves when they have an off day or they don’t PR,” Fleshman says. “In yoga, you’re encouraged to accept the body and mind that you have on that day and push it as far as it will go.”
Runners’ high pain thresholds coupled with their competitive natures can make them more prone to injury, warns St. Pierre, who speaks from experience. In 2011, the ultrarunner got too aggressive in pigeon pose, trying to stretch his glutes and piriformis, and missed three months of running as a result. Rountree sees this in her own classes, too. If you have a troublesome or tight spot you’d like to target, talk to your instructor about ways to modify poses so you can get a gentle–and safe–stretch.