Yoga For Runners
You already know that yoga is good for runners. We might not all practice it daily, but there’s a basic understanding within the running community that there’s benefit to hitting the mat on the regular.
But do you know which type of yoga you should do at different points in your training cycle? Or the various benefits you receive from each type?
To get the scoop on what classes to seek out and when to do them, we spoke to Alison Heilig, a registered yoga teacher and the creator of a unique line of online yoga videos called Yoga for Durability. She’s also a level two RRCA-certified running coach, certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist and creator/blogger at The Pursuit of Awesome, and her first book, The Durable Runner, is expected to be published next year.
Heilig strongly believes that yoga, when properly added to a training plan, can help all runners physically (improving strength and flexibility) and mentally (sharpening focus), and can also give our nervous systems a chance to reset.
Heilig would always prefer that a runner practice yoga, so if you’ve found a class, studio or instructor you absolutely love, chances are that nothing you’re going to read here will lead you to stop going—as long as you can pay attention to your body and will take modifications or resting poses as needed. If that’s not within your skillset, then going to the wrong classes at the wrong time can potentially lead to injury. And, as Heilig says, “There’s nothing more embarrassing to a runner than having to take a break because they got hurt in yoga.”
Regardless of the type of class you choose, remember that practicing yoga isn’t like attending a track workout. You have an instructor, and yes, they will guide you, but it’s not about how far you can bend or whether you need to use props. “There is no right, there is no wrong,” Heilig says. “There’s just what feels right to you, right now, in this body that you’re in. And we know that the training cycle changes the way your body feels from day to day.”
Hot or Not?
The first factor to consider in a class is the heat. In general, Heilig doesn’t recommend hot yoga for athletes in training for several reasons, with the main one being hydration. “Runners sweat a lot, and we know how much to drink when we run various distances, so we plan strategically,” she says. But we don’t do that for yoga, so a class that causes excessive sweating (and, in some cases, discourages drinking water) can put you at serious risk of dehydration.
Heat also creates a feeling of false flexibility, which can lead to major soreness and injury. “In hot yoga, you enjoy this ‘newfound’ flexibility and, really, you’re borrowing it from your body before your muscles and tendons are ready to go there,” Heilig says.
Some types of yoga, like Bikrim, are always heated and humid. Other classes or studios may use varying amounts of heat, so if a class is listed as warm or hot, it’s a good idea to find out exactly what that means.
Yoga Styles (And When To Practice Them)
While some yoga classes can certainly be classified as “easy,” many yoga classes require a great deal of physical (and sometimes mental) energy. Heilig suggests thinking of your energy expenditure as a bank account. Vigorous forms of yoga require considerable energy, so if you’re already using a lot of energy for running, it might not make sense to incorporate challenging yoga classes during that part of your training cycle—but a yoga class with a more gentle approach could be just what your body needs.
Here are some of the most common types of yoga, along with Heilig’s thoughts on the best times for runners to practice them.
Best during the off-season or base-building phase of training.
The intensity of these classes can vary widely by teacher, studio or level, but “vinyasa” means “to place in a particular way,” says Heilig, and in these classes, that pertains to movements as they relate to breath. If you breathe in to open, you breathe out to close.
“Vinyasa, or flow, classes are great for people who like to move,” says Heilig, noting that it can help to calm busy minds because you must stay focused on your movement and breath. “It’s great for building strength, body awareness, balance and mental focus, but it’s generally on the more vigorous end of yoga styles. It’s really great for cross-training, but if your main focus is running, I would not recommend it as a cross-training modality on top of hill repeats and fartleks and long runs.”
Bikrim And Ashtanga
Best during the off-season or base-building phase of training.
These styles are even more vigorous than vinyasa. “Bikrim is very hot and humid, and you’re often discouraged from drinking water,” Heilig says. “It’s traditionally 90 minutes long, and it’s a specific sequence done the same way, every time, so it’s great for people who love structure or who enjoy seeing their improvement.” Ashtanga is also a demanding, set sequence, incorporating powerful and swift movements that make it easy to monitor improvement.
These yoga styles can feel very repetitive, though, and they don’t encourage your body to adapt to different types of movement. “Just like running, there’s only a certain amount of the same movement you can do before your body craves something else,” Heilig says. Although these classes are viable choices for building strength, stamina, flexibility and focus, they’re quite intense and put you at risk of overloading your nervous system in addition to your muscles.
Best for early stages of training, but if you find a lower-intensity class or you’re someone who’s able to take modifications and reduce the intensity as appropriate, you can probably use it well into the middle of your season.
This type of class is a bit trickier to define because the term tends to have different meanings in various regions. “It’s more of a ‘generic’ style of yoga class, for lack of a better term,” Heilig explains. “It might be flow, might be pranayama, there will probably be some meditation. It can be kind of a wild-card class based on the teacher or studio or even the time of day.” (Heilig’s early morning Hatha yoga classes usually start slowly and build toward more energy at the end, while her evening classes gear down toward the end to prepare students for bed.)
A hatha class may be as vigorous as vinyasa, although there’s often less of a cardio aspect because the movements are slower and poses are held longer. “Those long holds can be very intense on your body,” says Heilig, who finds them to be tremendous for developing focus, body awareness and, in some cases, flexibility.
Best for early stages of training (or, like Hatha, potentially into the middle of your season).
Like Hatha, Iyengar focuses on long holds, but in this case, props are incorporated to get you into the right position for each pose. There is only one “right” position in this type of yoga, so whether you’re flexible or quite stiff, you’ll be aiming for the exact same alignment with varying degrees of assistance from blocks and straps.
“While there are lots and lots of propping options, there aren’t as many modifications, so if you have anything going on with your body, you’ll spend a lot of time setting up—and even then, the pose might not be ideal for your body,” Heilig says.
Best at any point in your training cycle—if you apply it conscientiously and are able to show restraint as needed. Otherwise, it’s better used as a recovery practice or at the end of your season.
“Yin is deceptively intense,” Heilig says. While the movement isn’t vigorous, many people find it very challenging. And that’s true both mentally and sometimes physically because each pose is held for three to five minutes, so it requires incredible focus in the face of discomfort—which can be a very helpful practice for runners.
“You go into a place that’s a little bit uncomfortable—but not painful, never painful—and you’re face to face with your inner demons. That could be a fantastic thing, or it could be a miserable experience based on how busy your head is that day,” Heilig says. “What I love about it for runners is that it’s a tremendous opportunity to open up ranges of motion that we’ve been limiting because of our sport.”
“Yin can help you reign in the taper crazies,” says Heilig, “and there are some great visualizations you can do in that space, like picturing yourself at the end of your race, feeling uncomfortable but keeping your mind calm.”
Restorative Or Gentle
Great at every stage or intensity level of training.
No surprises here—the names of these practices tell you exactly what you get. “Restorative, you’d traditionally hold each pose a long time, and it’s very supported,” Heilig says. “Gentle can feel a lot like a restorative practice, although you’re not holding each pose as long.”
This is a form of yoga that she believes we could all do more. “It’s a great way to reset your nervous system all throughout your season. And that’s really undervalued,” she says. “As we go for a new PR or a new distance, the nervous system is having progressively more stress placed on it, and we hope that it rises to the occasion each time. It can only do that when we rest and recover, so restorative and gentle are really great practices for allowing the nervous system to have a moment to regroup and reset.”
Whether you find yourself stretching your hamstrings in downward-facing dog during a vinyasa class or stretching your mind in the silence of a yin class, Heilig believes there’s great power in simply allowing yourself to be. “Rather than trying to be better and become someone, just be. Be exactly who you are, just for this one moment.”