Runners can avoid injuries and improve their performance with a simple yoga practice.
Kristi Peacock, a 23-year-old account executive in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, was preparing for her first marathon. The intense training was strengthening her body but also taking a toll. As the miles racked up, so did the strain to her iliotibial band, Achilles tendons and back.
Despite these injuries, Peacock finished the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, with a time of 4:01:13, and she can’t wait to do it all over again. According to Peacock, what got her through the training and to the starting line was a regular yoga practice. “I can’t express my appreciation for yoga—especially pigeon pose!—enough.”
Many runners, like Peacock, are discovering the many benefits of yoga for runners, including its ability to prevent or heal injuries, improve performance and even transform running into a moving meditation. Stacey Shipman, MEd, a coach in Weymouth, Massachusetts, who now teaches yoga for runners, says, “I run smoother and faster because of yoga. I am more tuned into my body, and I notice my environment more—I’m more engaged with my senses. Running has become a true mind-body practice.”
Susi Hately Aldous, a yoga teacher in Calgary, Alberta, and author of Anatomy and Asana: Preventing Yoga Injuries (Eastland Press 2006), trains a wide range of runners, from recreational athletes to Ironman® triathletes. According to Hately Aldous, yoga helps runners avoid or heal injuries by developing two important skills: balance in the body and awareness in the mind.
“As great as running is, it creates physical imbalances that lead to inefficiencies and injuries. Yoga can help by stretching what is tight, strengthening what is weak and improving the essential stabilizers of the body.” Some key areas that runners need help releasing are the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, back and shoulders. Poses that stretch these muscle groups and strengthen the comparatively weaker hip abductors and rotators create more balance in the lower body. This balance relieves some of the most common complaints of runners, including pain in the iliotibial band, knees and lower back.
Many runners become used to injury and develop a high pain tolerance. Hately Aldous says, “Runners often get caught up in what they should do—such as run for 45 minutes—even when their body is saying otherwise. Runners who ignore pain aren’t doing themselves any favors. They are just creating more compensatory strategies and more tightness.”
This is where the benefits of awareness come in. Yoga teaches runners how to tell the difference between “good” pain and “bad” pain by bringing awareness to the different sensations in challenging poses. Rather than blocking out the sensations, participants learn to pay attention to the fatigue of their quadriceps in warrior pose, or the stretch of their hamstrings in a forward bend. Hately Aldous says that runners who develop this self-awareness in yoga are better able to tolerate the safe “burn” of challenging endurance. At the same time, they are less likely to ignore the louder warning signals of strain or exhaustion that can lead to injuries.
Yoga can improve runners’ performance by increasing physical endurance, core strength, range of motion and proprioception. But other training methods can also improve these physical skills. Where yoga has the training edge is in a more commonly neglected aspect of running performance: energy management.
Sage Rountree, PhD, a certified USA Triathlon coach in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga (VeloPress 2007), trains runners with a focus on energy management, starting with the breath. “I often ask runners, ‘How many footsteps do you take per breath at a long-run pace? At your tempo pace? At mile race pace?’ Rarely do they know.” Rountree teaches athletes how to observe their breathing during a yoga practice and then bring this awareness to running in order to improve their pacing and conserve energy.
Another big energy lesson is economy of form. Poor posture and extra tension in the body, whether in yoga or running, waste energy and compromise safety. Yoga teaches economy of form with its dual focus on alignment and on long holds of challenging poses. It is commonly said that yoga begins the moment you wish you could come out of a pose. The challenge becomes: How can you stay in the pose with the least amount of effort needed to maintain good posture and safe alignment?
According to Rountree, learning this kind of relaxed effort translates directly from the mat to the trail, boosting runners’ stamina and speed. “Both yoga and running take you to the edge of intensity—to your perceived limits—and teach you how to use form and breath to stay there. Adopt the most efficient, economical form you can, breathe as deeply as you can, and you will learn what you are made of.”
The following yoga poses for runners will help you and your clients to balance your body, develop awareness and explore breath and form. You should practice the sequence after a dynamic warm-up, which could be running or traditional yoga warm-ups, such as sun salutations. Hold each pose for 5–10 breaths, and increase the time in each pose as comfort and experience allow. Practice this sequence 2–3 times a week.
Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1)
This yoga pose builds lower-body endurance and stretches the hip flexors and foot of the back leg. Keep the front knee over the heel, and balance on the toes of the back foot. Keep your hips square to the front, and draw your tailbone under. To build breath awareness and mental focus, lift your arms out to the sides and overhead as you inhale, and circle them back down to your sides as you exhale.
Natarajasana (Dancer's Pose)
This yoga pose stretches the front of the hip, thigh and shin. It also improves balance, body awareness and mental focus. The pose is a familiar stretch to many runners. Emphasize the mental aspect of the pose by focusing your gaze on one spot and keeping your breath steady and smooth.
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
This yoga pose builds endurance in the legs; stretches the hips, groin and side torso; and increases breathing flexibility and depth in the rib cage. Keep the bent knee over the heel, and ground strongly through the outer edge of the back foot. Let the inhalation expand your side rib cage.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Balance)
This yoga pose builds strength in the abductors and develops proprioception. Keep your hands, arms and shoulders in one line and your hips stacked. As in plank pose (below), relax any unnecessary tension and remember to breathe. For an extra challenge, try looking up.
This yoga pose builds core and upper-body strength and teaches you how to “stay in the fire” without burning out. Keep your shoulders over your wrists, draw the navel to the spine without rounding your back, and press backward through your heels. The challenge is not just to hold the pose, but to hold it while maintaining a fluid, steady breath and relaxing any unnecessary tension in your face, throat, neck and shoulders.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
One of the best full-body yoga poses, downward-facing dog strengthens the upper body; lengthens the spine; opens the shoulders, chest and back; and stretches the hips, legs, ankles and feet. Runners may need to keep their knees bent at first to learn the action of the upper body and spine. “Walking the dog” (bending one knee while straightening the other) can help you ease into the full pose. Bonus: Move between plank and downward- facing dog with your breath. Inhale as you move between the poses; exhale as you hold each pose.
Dandasana (Staff Pose)
This yoga pose is an opportunity to practice good posture, breathing and mental focus, just as you will on a run. Sit tall, and imagine the crown of the head being pulled to the ceiling.
Supta Kapotasana (Reclining Pigeoon Pose)
This yoga pose stretches the groin and hips, including the piriformis muscle, which is especially tight for many runners. Flex the foot of the crossed ankle to protect the knee and ankle. The biggest challenge of this pose is practicing patience. Once you find a stretch that is strong but not painfully intense, relax as much as possible and breathe.
Jathara Parivrtti (Reclining Twist)
This yoga pose stretches the iliotibial band, a common source of pain for runners, and offers the spine a deep twist. It also opens the chest, ribs and abdominal muscles to improve the flow of breath. Do not force your shoulders or knee to the ground. Let gravity draw you into the pose.
Finish your practice with relaxation. This may be the most challenging of all the yoga poses for runners, or other competitive athletes, who have a hard time “lying around, doing nothing.” To make savasana more appealing, consider beginning with active relaxation (tensing each body part, one at a time, and then consciously letting go).