Many runners find yoga to be an incredibly helpful addition to their workout regimen. It can help us increase the range of motion in areas that, traditionally, get overly tight due to the repetitive movements of our sport. Yoga is also beneficial for strengthening and lengthening some of the muscles that can get a bit lazy without prodding. It helps with balance and minimizing the compounding pressures of running. And let’s not forget about all the good yoga does for the mind—not to mention the nervous system.
But we’ve learned that not every type of yoga is ideal for every stage of training. And if yoga has caused you injury in the past, you may even wonder if yoga is good for runners or how to make it work for you. Yes, there are some yoga poses that runners—particularly those dealing with some of the physical ailments typical to long-distance runners, like arthritic knees or extremely tight IT bands—might want to approach with caution.
Don’t take this as a pass to skip your next session on the mat, though. Overall, the benefits of yoga far, far outweigh any potential problems you might encounter.
Beginning Yoga for Runners: Be Mindful of Your Limits
Pushing yourself beyond your perceived limits may serve you well in running, but the result is different in yoga. “It’s really important for runners to be honest with where their body is, tightness-wise,” says Tanya Siejhi, a certified yoga therapist, licensed massage therapist, and founder of Florida-based Healsci Yoga School. “Sometimes in class we’re driven to push for more, reach for more. But you have to be really mindful of when you reach your edge—particularly with forward folding, because runners’ hamstrings tend to be so tender.”
This is important to keep in mind, because in many classes, like a vinyasa flow class where you’re going through repeated sun salutations, there are a lot of forward bends. You can still do them, of course—just modify by bending your knees a bit (or a lot) to reduce the strain on areas that are tight.
Keri Bergeron, a Denver-based yoga instructor and physical therapist, notes that going ‘deeper’ into a pose will not be beneficial for runners if they are not approaching the pose correctly to begin with. “All of us, as humans, are very good at finding the path of least resistance in our bodies. That is, of course, the easiest place to go and it requires the least amount of effort.” In those instances, going deeper into a pose often just means sinking into the natural compensations of the body. “The major principles in my philosophy are instead of sinking into a shape where we are subject to gravity, that we instead engage down into the earth so we are now an active participant against gravity,” she says.
That kind of active engagement will create muscle length and joint space and help runners avoid injury while practicing yoga.
Yoga Moves Runners Should Modify
Siejhi advises runners approach anything that involves crossing the midline, such as eagle pose arms, with caution because these movements can put a great deal of stress on the outside of your joint. When doing these poses, be careful to allow your body to move into them rather than trying to force it into those positions in order to get all the benefits without the risk of injury.
“Pigeon is another one of those that, because runners tend to have tighter hips and tighter knees, it can often be this tortuous experience for runners,” says Bergeron. A lot of people compensate for the intensity by pushing up into their back, which makes it a back pose and not a glute stretch. Bergeron’s modification: Stay up on your hands and push your front foot into the ground. “Pushing the foot into the floor stabilizes the ankles, stabilizes the knee, so the rotation is in fact only happening at the hip.”
If you feel it pinch in your hip or your knee, then something is off.
Thunderbolt (Diamond Pose)
For runners, beginning yoga might seem challenging when even just a common kneeling pose like this one is torture on the knees. Try sitting on blocks rather than attempting to sit back onto your feet or between your shins.
Forward bends, whether standing or sitting, should involve stretching the hamstrings. When the hamstrings are tight, it’s easy to compensate by rounding the back, which makes it so you’re not targeting the hamstrings at all. The solution: Keep a little bend in the knee, pull your chest forward and your butt backwards, and use a strap or some sort of prop to help out.
Sinking into a lunge can put pressure on the low back and creates a bit of arching. Bergeron recommends pushing both feet into the ground to create length, stability around the pelvis and low back, and therefore actually stretches the hip flexors in the front leg. If you’re feeling too much pressure, don’t bend quite so deeply. Consider placing a block or pillow beneath your bottom knee to offer support when going into a low lunge.
Remember, you should be feeling your hip flexors stretching and not pressure in the low back.
This common posture is easy to sink into, just like with a standard lunge. “I think about runners and the tendency for things like labral tears and instead of sinking into that front hip, stomp both of your feet so there is space at both hip joints. You’re engaging stabilizer glute muscles and it’s not just a quad shredder,” says Bergeron.
It’s also wise to keep props handy in a class—even if you’re the only one with blocks. Remember, using props in yoga isn’t a sign of weakness. They simply offer a way to add to your yoga practice. “The more props you have, the happier your body is going to be,” Siejhi says. “We often think of props as being for people who can’t get into a pose, but I prefer to think of them as something that makes my body happy.” Chairs, walls, blankets, pillows, and belts (for stretching out hamstrings) can work as at-home substitutes if you’re not in a studio.
Overall, it’s important that runners do a bit of research on the poses they’re doing if they’re not working directly with a yoga instructor. Knowing what the pose is supposed to look and feel like will help you check in with your body in the moment. If you can, practice in front of mirror as another way to tell if you are compensating in a pose and not getting the intended stretch.