Yoga has been shown to reduce stress, increase fitness levels and help maintain a healthy lifestyle.
It’s no secret that running is hard on the body. Yoga, with its perfect mix of postures and breathing exercises, may offer just the right balance you’re looking for.
“Once runners know about yoga, they’re hooked,” says Tiffany Cruikshank, an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher at the Nike World Headquarters in Portland and author of the 30-day yogi detox book, “Optimal Health for a Vibrant Life.”
She says many runners come to her seeking yoga moves to heal an injury but end up considering it a crucial part of their training routine. Yoga has been shown to reduce stress, increase fitness levels and help maintain a healthy lifestyle. The combination of active and passive stretching helps warm up the muscles and avoid injuries most associated with the repetitive strain of running, explains Cruikshank. It can also replicate that elusive mental state known to athletes as The Zone.
To get the most of the ancient Indian technique, though, approach it as a complement to running. “Think of yoga as a balance to athletic competition, not an extension of it,” says Alice Markel, Registered Yoga Teacher who conducts a regular Yoga for Runners workshop in the Chicago area. “Yoga is not a competitive sport.”
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Here’s a brief list of benefits runners can get from yoga, as well as some common moves to achieve them. Since form is critical, be sure to check out resources like the “Yoga Journal” site to get free step-by-step instructions on how to perform these postures.
The Benefit: Muscle Pliability
People always associate yoga with flexibility, but that means something different for runners. “Really, it’s about becoming more pliable. You don’t need to be Gumby; you just have to make your body more adaptable to stressors,” says Cruikshank.
What does muscle pliability mean for runners? Cruikshank says the goal is to make muscles “more like a rubber band, less like a guitar string” by expanding the functional zone of the muscle spindles and creating a larger range of contraction that allows the muscles to lengthen. She says this increased range indirectly increases runners’ performance capacity, keeps the muscles supple and regulates nerve conduction.
How to Get It
Try the Low Lunge (anjaneyasana) for hips, Reclining Big Toe (supta padangusthasana) with a strap to stretch hamstrings and glutes, and Reclining Revolved Eagle (supta parivrtta garudasana) for the IT band.
The Benefit: Proper Body Alignment
Yoga also helps develop awareness of proper body alignment, explains Markel. A longtime runner, Markel actually put her jogs on hold when she began studying yoga professionally. “I realized that if I’m going to be pounding the pavement like that, I need to have the proper alignment,” she says. After developing better posture, she began running again and realized many of her regular aches and pains — which she’d attributed to “just getting older” — disappeared.
How to Get It
Start with the Mountain Pose (tadasana). Markel says attaining that proper alignment begins with this deceivingly simple pose, as you can easily see how your form is off. Keep your feet hip-distance apart and shift your weight on your feet. Look to see what your knees are doing. Are they misaligned? Markel adds that the moment to correct your form is on the mat, not when you’re in mid-run.
With each yoga pose, you’ll continue to become more mindful of how your body is, and isn’t, aligned properly.
The Benefit: Controlled Breathing
Yoga emphasizes the power of breath, with every movement related to deep diaphragmatic breathing. This makes the on-the-track benefit clear.
“I’ve had a lot of runners come in with tension and chest tightness, and yoga’s specific breath work strengthens their diaphragm significantly, allowing better control over their breathing,” says Cruikshank.
Focusing on the breath itself has a calming effect as well, says Markel. “If someone’s really nervous about a particular race, deep breathing and breathing awareness can really help.”
How to Get It
Practice diaphragmatic breathing through yoga’s pranayama, the practice of regulating breath and achieving mindfulness. Start with your hands on your stomach and feel the breath moving up and down. Practitioners refer to this as the “three-part breath,” for the abdomen, diaphragm and chest. You should feel the breath deeply and notice your diaphragm contracting, says Markel. This allows increased lung capacity while also helping achieve a more mindful state.
The Benefit: Mindfulness
“It’s easy to look at the physical stuff, but really the mental aspect of it that we look at” says Cruikshank. Athletes have another name for this mindful, present state: The Zone. Through yoga’s various postures, breathing exercises and meditative reflection, it’s possible to achieve this without crossing any finish line.
“The word ‘yoga’ means yolk or union, and it refers to the body, mind and spirit connection,” says Markel.
How to Get It
Just like other forms of exercise, yoga provides the greatest benefit when done consistently. That means as many days of the week as possible, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes each session.