Running is a high-impact, repetitive motion, linear activity that favors concentric muscle activity (unless you’re running downhill). Yoga, in contrast, is none of these. Running shortens muscles, yoga lengthens them. Running compresses joints, yoga opens them. Running stresses the body, yoga relaxes the body and promotes active recovery. Lastly and perhaps most important, yoga dynamically works the body across all three planes—sagittal, coronal and transverse. The two exercises could not be more different yet more complimentary, and that’s why yoga is a must for anyone who’s consistently going the distance. Runners who cross-train with yoga report fewer injuries and improved performance.
Injury prevention is one of the biggest benefits of yoga for runners. The practice does this in two uniquely different ways. One, yoga encourages tired and contracted muscles to relax and lengthen. When you hold a pose for 45-60 seconds, deeply breathing into sensation, it not only increases flexibility but it initiates a relaxation response that calms the entire body. In a relaxed state there is more room for fresh, oxygen rich blood to flow through the muscles and surrounding connective tissues. This promotes healing and recovery. Relaxed muscles are also more pliable and less susceptible to injury.
The second way yoga prevents injury is far less obvious—it highlights imbalance and weakness in the body. Unlike running, which favors the larger more dominant muscle groups of the gluts, quads and hamstrings, many yoga poses require practitioners to actively recruit smaller, often ignored muscle groups. The stabilizing muscles of the foot and lower leg, for example, are what help us hold a single leg balance. They also provide additional power during a sprint, and stamina on a long run. If these muscles are week, other muscles need to work harder to compensate. This creates imbalance in the body, and anytime we are out of balance we are at risk for injury.
There are many different styles of yoga. All are fantastic, and what you choose to practice is a matter of time and preference. That said, runners and endurance athletes who consistently tax their bodies will benefit most from a more mellow, restorative practice. Begin by adding the eight poses below to your training routine. Collectively they address major muscle groups in the lower body, release the lower back, and strengthen, lengthen and align the spine. Aim to do the poses in order, 2-3 times per week, preferably when your body is warm (but not necessarily after a run). Take a minimum of 4-6 deep breaths in each pose, focusing on length during your inhale and depth on your exhale. Most importantly, resist the urge to over-effort. A gentle stretch is all you need!
All photos courtesy of Yoga Six Studios
Low lunge is primarily a hip opener. It releases the psoas muscle, which is responsible for drawing the knee forward and up, and gently taps into the hamstrings and inner thigh. Tight psoas muscles are very common, particularly for runners and people who sit most of the day, can contribute to lower back pain.
Begin kneeling on one knee with your hands on your hips or two blocks. Align your front thigh parallel to the floor, and ensure your foot is under or in front of your knee. Maintain a neutral, upright spine as you sink into your front knee. Inhale and back of slightly, exhale and send your hips forward once again. Continue with this gentle pulsing action for several rounds of breath. When your hop feels ready, hold the pose for several rounds of breath near the endpoint of your stretch. Repeat on the opposite side.
Standing Figure 4
Figure 4 opens your outer hips muscles, also known as the deep 6 rotators. This pose can be done lying on your back (supine), but the standing version is recommended for others as it engages the small, stabilizer muscles of the standing leg. Lower leg stabilizers are especially important for trail runners.
Begin standing with your feet hips width apart. Draw your left knee up, flex your foot, and externally rotate your thigh. Place the outer left ankle just above the right knee. Reach your arms out to the horizon for balance and bend the standing leg as if you were sitting cross legged in an imaginary chair. If your balance is wobbly use a wall or the back of a chair for support. Hang out here for several rounds of breath, and repeat on the opposite side.
Downward dog strengthens your upper body, lengthens the spine, and stretches your hamstring and calf muscles. The pose also puts your head beneath your heart, making it a mild inversion. Inversions reverse the blood flow in the body and improve circulation. The increased dose of fresh blood to the brain also improves energy.
Begin on your hands and knees in table top position. Walk your hands 6 to 8 inches in front of your shoulder and tuck your does under. Inhale and lengthen your legs, sending your hips skyward. Press into your palms and allow your head to hang heavy, tractioning the cervical spine. Maintaining a neutral spine is more important than the hamstring stretch, so keep a soft bend in your knees and resist the urge to get your heels on the floor. Hold here for several breaths, and feel free to rise to your tippy toes to stretch the soles of your feet.
Here’s a modified version if your hamstrings are tighter:
Locust seems like an unlikely pose for runners, but it plays a key role in strengthening the muscles of the back and neck, as well as the glutes, hamstrings and the backs of your arms. It also opens the chest which, along spine strength, contributes to good posture and increased lung capacity.
From downward dog, hinge forward into a high push-up position, then lower all the way down to your belly. Draw your arms by your sides, palms face down. Inhale and float your chest, arms and legs off the ground. Reach your fingertips toward your feet and stay active in your triceps. Feel free to interlace your palms for a deeper chest stretch. Hold for 10 seconds, release and repeat, and don’t forget to breathe.
Sphinx with Quad Opener
Like locust, sphinx pose strengthens the spine and opens the chest. Adding a quad opener makes this pose even more impactful. Overly tight quad muscles can cause knee pain and create excess tension at the hip joints.
After locust, prop yourself up on your elbows and stack your shoulders directly over your elbows. Align your forearms parallel to each other, puff out your chest, and press your forearms and palms firmly into the floor. Bend one knee and reach back with the same side arm to catch your foot.
If you struggle to connect your hand and foot use a towel or strap to facilitate the connection. Breathe deeply as you gently draw your foot closer to your butt.
Revolve Head to Knee
Revolve head to knee is a stretching triple threat! This pose stretches your hips, inner thighs and side body. Side bends are is especially important for runners. They not only lengthen and align the spine but they stretch the intercostal muscles. Intercostal muscles support the mechanical aspect of breathing.
Begin seated with one leg extended. Bend the opposite leg and place the sole of your foot on your inner thigh, and open your hips to create an angle greater than 90 degrees with our legs. Anchor your forearm to the floor on the inside of your extended leg. Reach up with the opposite arm to create length in your body, then bed sideways and wrap your bottom rips up to slightly rotate your torso skyward.
Supine Hamstring Stretch (with Yoga Strap)
Supine hamstring stretches work with gravity to open and release the backs of the legs. They also help you maintain a neutral spine while stretching the hamstrings. Tight hamstrings can cause lower back pain and create unnecessary tension in the hips and knees.
Grab a yoga strap (or towel) and lay on your back. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the ground about a foot away from your hips. Keep a gentle bend in your knee as you extend one leg skyward and loop the strap around your foot. Keep your hips anchored and draw your foot toward your head. Release and repeat two more times on the same leg. First open your leg wide like a gate to stretch the inner line, then dray your leg across your body to stretch the outer thigh and IT band.
Legs Up the Wall
Legs up the wall is a sweet release after a long run, and the perfect ending to your stretch routine. This pose reverses the effects of gravity, boosts circulation toward the upper body and relaxes your entire system.
Find a wall and lay on your side, knees tucked toward your chest. Roll onto your back and extend your legs up the wall. How close or far your hips are to the wall depends on your hamstring flexibility. There’s really no way to do this pose wrong, just get comfortable, breathe and enjoy!