Yoga for runners: Why it’s beneficial and how to get started – runnersworld.com

Yoga for runners: Why it’s beneficial and how to get started  runnersworld.com

Over its 5,000 year history, yoga has morphed into many different versions, each becoming trendy during various moments in time.

The ancient form of exercise incorporates stretching, meditative breathing and mindfulness which help to rebalance and restore the body and mind.

Finding the right style of yoga as a runner will depend on what you want to achieve, whether its flexibility, restoration, strength or mindfulness.

The physical postures of yoga, known as asana, can be used to support different areas of running. Runners are often drawn to yoga to improve flexibility and reduce tightness in the hips and hamstrings, says Cat Merrick of Breathe Dance and Yoga. But yoga can also help to improve posture, mobility, strength, alignment and stability.

‘Yoga is a really beneficial practice for runners in more ways than one. Regular yoga practice will improve focus, breathing, mental clarity, down regulate a heightened nervous system, allow you to become more present and increase body awareness,’ she says.

Different types of yoga

Today the most popular types of yoga include hatha, vinyasa flow, iyengar, ashtanga, bikram (hot yoga), yin and restorative but there are many other variations.

Hatha

For beginners, hatha classes can be the best option as they involve slower movements and less complex poses.

Vinyasa

By comparison vinyasa is much faster moving with a continuous ‘flow’ from one posture to the next. It also incorporates poses called sun salutations where each movement is matched to the breath.

Ashtanga

Similarly, ashtanga is intense and fast paced and the series of poses are always performed in the same order. It is style that has been adopted by many western students during the past three decades.

Lyengar

For those more interested in bringing the body into the best possible alignment, iyengar is the preferred yoga style. The poses are held over longer periods of time and props like blankets, blocks and straps are often used.

Bikram

Bikram, also known as hot yoga, is performed in a room, heated between 95 and 104 degrees. This helps to loosen tight muscles and the method is made up of 26 set poses.

Yin

For more hard-core yoga students, yin is a more challenging option, as specific poses are held for several minutes in order to stretch the body’s connective tissues around the joints. It counteracts the movement-orientated yang styles of yoga.

Restorative

Restorative yoga takes a similar approach but uses props to help the body relax into long poses.

What are the benefits of yoga for runners?

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Performance

Although there is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence surrounding the benefits of yoga for runners, the science is yet to catch up. Peer review research in the field is extremely limited aside from a few studies published in yoga journals.

Athanassios Bissas, professor of sport and exercise technologies at the University of Gloucester, says there is no concrete evidence to demonstrate the benefits of yoga for runners. ‘Can yoga make you run faster? Not really. Can it make you stronger? There are other exercises to make you stronger,’ he says. But he acknowledges that, in theory, yoga could help in different ways, particularly to improve flexibility and posture.

‘Hypothetically it can help to improve range of motion but yoga is not better than a standard flexibility regime,’ he surmises.

Indeed, a study of 90 high school long distance runners, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found motivational shouting exercises had a greater impact on one-mile time trial results than yoga exercise.

But, the yoga practise did still improve running performance significantly, compared to the control participants who did no yoga or motivational shouting. The researchers concluded motivational and yoga interventions improved long-distance running performance but the former had a greater effect.

Meanwhile a study conducted as part of a PhD thesis found similarities between yoga practitioners and runners, with both having significantly lower resting heart rate, fewer depressive and anxious symptoms and superior aerobic fitness levels, compared to sedentary individuals.

Strength and flexibility

Despite the lack of evidence around performance in runners, there is some indication that yoga is beneficial to other athletes when it comes to flexibility.

Baseball and soccer athletes who regularly practised yoga over 10 weeks had increased flexibility and balance, according to a study published in the International Journal of Yoga.

Lead author Jay Polsgrove says athletes in the study also achieved a ‘sense of calm and ability to focus’ from performing yoga movements.

A second study looking at how the athletes perceived yoga practice found they saw it as being beneficial for joint flexibility, range of motion, improved body awareness, ability to concentrate and a sense of relaxation.

‘Most people think of it as modified stretching but it’s a lot deeper than that. It gives you an understanding of internal body alignment and you learn more about how you move and gain a deeper understanding of how to maximise your performance,’ says Polsgrove, who took up yoga himself after being plagued with injury as a competitive cyclist.

Marathon runner Amy Whitehead who competed in the 2014 Commonwealth Games says she began yoga when she started competing in long-distance races. ‘As a marathon runner I just did one yoga session for one hour once a week but still noticed the benefits; it became an integral part of my training week. I also used to incorporate yoga moves into my stretching routine, if I felt it was needed within the week too,’ says Whitehead.

Practising yoga also enabled Whitehead to do a lighter strength session without the risk of tearing a muscle. ‘My flexibility, core strength and balance definitely improved. I also felt like my posture and form were much better and that I was running taller, rather than being hunched over,’ she adds.

Injury prevention

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Runners are often encouraged to cross-train to maintain their aerobic fitness but reduce their risk of injury. And this is where a yoga session can step in.

Record breaking ultrarunner Carla Molinaro found yoga so beneficial that she developed her own strength conditioning and yoga programme for runners.

‘For past two years I have been doing yoga every single week and I haven’t had any injuries which is very good considering the amount of running I do,’ she says.

But results are not immediate and injury prevention will only come with regular yoga practice, she says. ‘I do 30 minutes of yoga a week, you don’t have to do a lot but consistency is key. You won’t see a difference in four weeks,’ says Molinaro.

Anecdotally, performing yoga can also keep runners more finely in tune with their body so they are able to spot a niggle early on.

‘When we run we are always going forward. In yoga we are getting the body to move in slightly different ways. You can spot if something is a bit tight and maybe you should get a massage or do some stretches or calf raises,’ explains Molinaro.

But it is important not to overstretch the muscles because too much flexibility is not beneficial to runners. It is the tension in muscles that generates the force to move runners forward quickly, so finding a middle ground of moderate flexibility is important.

Recovery and mindfulness

For European Champion triathlete Louise Croxson, yoga is a great way to recover from training or competing. ‘I think for a lot of runners it is better to do restorative gentle yoga. It is a great counterbalance to running, as running tends to use the same muscles over and over and they get shorter,’ she says.

Getting the body into recovery mode can be induced from simple yoga moves, particularly by focusing on breathing and relaxation.

‘It helps to switch on the rest and digest nervous system. It also helps with getting rid of adrenaline and cortisol and it helps you sleep better and sleep is the best recovery,’ says Croxson.

But again it is down to the individual runner to decide the purpose of their yoga practise and how it fits into their training cycle, as Croxson explains.

‘If you want to increase flexibility and range of movement then do it every other day. But people find benefits from doing it once a week, maybe on a rest day or at the end of the day after a long session. Fifteen to 20 minutes of yoga can be easier to fit around your training schedule. Try it and work out whether it helps or not if you are not sure.’

Yoga is also great for relieving the aches and pains runners might experience after a training session because it encourages lactic acid to disperse but also gives the nervous system time to down regulate. ‘This is absolutely key for quicker recovery,’ adds Merrick.

And the mindfulness benefits of yoga should not be underestimated.

‘I am by nature a very busy person and I find it hard to slow down. Yoga calmed my mind as well as my body, after each session I felt so relaxed. As a runner, positive thoughts are so important and I left each session feeling motivated and revived,’ says Whitehead.

How to get started

Whether you are using yoga for running preparation or recovery, the following exercises from Breathe Dance and Yoga will help to make you more resilient. For added benefit (and what really makes it yoga and not just stretching), link the poses together and move through them in a mindful way with a focus on keeping your breath slow and regular through your nose.

Cat Cow

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

Come onto your hands and knees, and as you inhale, lift the crown of your head and your tailbone upwards so that you come into a slight back bend. As you exhale, draw your navel in, reach your tailbone towards the back of your knees and draw your chin towards your chest. Repeat this four or five times and move with the breath.

Loaded lunge

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

Step back with one leg, leaving a good amount of space between your feet. Bend the front leg so that your front knee is above your ankle (make sure that your knee isn’t moving out to the side). Lift your back heel high which will activate your glutes, you will also stretch through the front of the hip. Lean your upper body forwards so that you come into a diagonal line from your back heel to your shoulder. Your arms can be outstretched above your head or palms together in front of your chest. Hold for between 10-30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

Twisted lunge

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

From your lunge position, lower your back knee if you wish and place the opposite hand to your front foot on the floor. Lift your other hand upwards or place the back of your hand on your lower back as you open your chest towards your inner thigh. Keep your pelvis aligned as much as you can with both hips at the same height, and stay as lengthened through your spine as possible. Hold here and breathe calmly, repeat on the other side.

Tree

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

From standing, bring your foot to your inner thigh or calf, press the foot and leg together as you press the ground away with your supporting leg. Aim to stand still and focus on keeping your ankle strong and not collapsing into your instep. Hold for 10-30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Garland pose (Malasana)

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

Depending on your ankle mobility, you may need to place something under your heels, like a rolled up mat, to allow you to access this position. From standing, step your feet just wider than hip distance then begin to squat down, lowering your hips below your knees. Bring your palms together and press your elbows to the inside of your knees. You can also place a block under your tailbone for added support. You can hold here or move up and down from standing to also build strength in your hips and glutes.

Standing forward fold

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

Stand with feet hip width apart and gently hinge forwards from your hip – you will most likely need to keep your knees slightly bent. Hold onto your elbows, relax your neck and let your upper body become heavy, you can even sway gently from side to side. Hold here for 30-60 seconds.

90-degree lunge

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

Bring your hands to your hips and tuck your tailbone under, this might be enough, otherwise take a slight shift forwards with the hips, keeping your tailbone tucked under. Hold here for 30-60 seconds and then repeat for the other side.

Reclined pigeon

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

Lie on your back with knees bent and bring the outside edge of your right foot onto the top of the left thigh. Keep the alignment of your ankle, don’t let the foot roll in. Press your right knee forward, you may want to place a block underneath your left foot and this will be enough of a stretch, but if you want you can bring the left knee in towards the left shoulder, keeping the right knee pressing forwards. You can clasp your hands behind your left thigh but just make sure that you’re not actually creating tension in your neck and shoulders if you do this. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

Reclined twist

Breathe Dance and Yoga

How to do it:

Lie down with your knees bent and feet together. Press into the feet and send your pelvis slightly to the left. Let your knees drop to your right and keep your knees stacked, arms are out to the sides while you keep both shoulder blades connected to the mat. Hold for 30-60 seconds, lift the knees and return the pelvis to a central position and then repeat on the other side.

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