Yoga For Runners – Why?

A look at the sports science to support adding yoga to your training

Many runners think of their fitness just in terms of how far or how fast they can run.  As a yoga teacher, when I work with athletes I do a fitness demands analysis to identify the components of fitness the individual currently has and which are dominant components for their sport, to determine what they need to work on.

Components of fitness are either health or skill-related.  Health-related components are necessary for good health and daily living. These are flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, aerobic endurance, and body composition.  Good health should be the runner’s first priority in order to have good immune function and avoid injury.  Specific skill-related components are necessary for sport-related performance.  These are agility, speed, muscular power, reaction time, coordination, and balance.  Which components you need to particularly work on will depend on the type of running you do and the terrain you run on.

So how can yoga help?  Yoga practice can be used to build any of the components of fitness.  There are many ways of working with yoga, with differing intensities, and it is possible for anyone to choose yoga postures and sequences to meet their needs.

The term ‘functional training’ has become popularly used in sport and fitness in recent years.  The concept of functional training is linked to the training principle of specificity. This states that a specific type of training is needed to produce a specific type of adaptation in the body.  Adaptation is the term for the physiological changes that occur in the body in response to training which lead to improved fitness or performance.

For example, for runners, the most functional postures for building leg strength are the standing postures.  Many postures involve the whole body, using body weight and resistance against gravity.  Linking postures together into flowing sequences will challenge the body further.  Some muscles will be working concentrically to maintain the pose or to initiate movement into it, other muscles will work eccentrically to control the movement.  All of the standing postures involve balance to some degree.  As your balance or strength develops there will always be a more challenging posture for you to try.  Increased muscle is a runner’s friend as it will lead to better body composition and a reduction in body fat.

Strengthening core muscles will help with core stability as well as improving posture.  Core muscles stabilise the spine, resisting the force of gravity or the force generated by moving arms and legs.  Core stability involves the muscles of the torso but also includes the shoulders and hips.  Core stability can be very functionally worked on in postures using opposing sides of the body especially when taking arms or legs further from your centre of gravity.

Progression is the gradual increase in intensity over time needed to stimulate continuous adaptation.  This is easily achieved with yoga.  Similarly overload, the need to perform exercise of a greater intensity than the athlete is accustomed to in order to stimulate a desired adaptation response.  Postures can be maintained for longer, modifications added, or postures can be sequenced together in a more demanding way.  Asymmetric postures allow the weaker side of the body to be worked to a greater intensity to balance the body. 

I’ve come to mention flexibility almost last even though this is the aspect for which yoga has become most associated. With increasingly sedentary workplaces, I find it is usually strength which I have to concentrate on first with my yoga clients.  Flexibility is important but you just need a good range of movement rather than to be hyper-mobile as some yoga images suggest.  If you have “the tightest hamstrings in the whole world” (as many people have introduced themselves to me as having) that is not necessarily a problem for you as a runner. That very tightness of the muscles surrounding your joints is what gives you stability as a runner. Tight hamstrings only becomes a problem if they affect the position of your pelvis and subsequently postural alignment or contribute to tightness in calves, leading to lower leg injuries.

The good news is that it is not true that you have to be flexible in order to start yoga.  Yoga will help you to become more flexible, whatever that is for you, leading to benefits like better stride length. My experience is actually that those who are stronger actually gain most benefit from stretching. Those who are strong have the ability to stabilise one joint while moving another which allows the target muscles and tissue to lengthen. A strong agonist muscle can allow for a strong inhibiting effect in the opposing muscle which you are targeting. Conserversely, you may feel tight because one or more muscles is overworking in order to compensate one which is not strong enough for the demands of your running. In this case, strengthening is going to be the answer.

Stretching is a positive thing to do even if you do not feel especially tight muscularly. When we stretch we affect the whole fascia of the body. Tensegrity is a term used to describe space and compression in the body. Stretching is not just the static experience many think of. Stretching is lengthening but this can be achieved in movement, with muscular effort, or with no effort using gravity to achieve. There are dynamic ways of working with yoga to stretch which are suitable for pre-run which will improve performance. There are static stretches too but these are associated with a loss of power and reduction of strength in the short-term and are best reserved for after your run. All of the directions you move your body in with yoga will mean that you have the mobility you need when running but the stability to control what needs to be still.

“Strength without mobility is rigidity. Mobility without strength is instability.”

When I started yoga I could hardly fold forwards due to the tightness of my hamstrings and glutes. Gradually, as I learnt technique, learnt to listen to my body and ease myself into stretches, I began to lengthen.  In the process I also developed the neuromuscular control to be aware of the position of my body in space and to be able to control my movements. I am aware that my movements are now much more fluid than they were at the start.

In time, with regular practice you begin to feel like your skin fits, feel that your movements are free and strong and comfortable, and you can train in the way that your running goals demand whilst avoiding developing injuries.

Yoga practices can also help you to coordinate breathing and movement, develop awareness of your health as well as your body, and learn how to balance training aims with other aspects of life and wellbeing. Psychological awareness and wellbeing are important.  Sports psychologists suggest a fifth of injuries are caused by factors due to stress.  Stress causes changes in attention as well as muscle tightening, leading to increased chance of injury.  People who practise yoga regularly report feeling more aware of their stress levels and can adapt their behaviour to lower those levels.

There are literally hundreds of yoga postures and many variations on how to work with them. These are some of my favourites with relevance to running.

Half Moon Pose is a balance which will strengthen all of the postural muscles needed for running, especially the gluteal muscles which stabilise the pelvis.

Downface Dog pose is a strengthening pose for the whole body and also offers an opportunity to stretch the backs of legs. Try raising one leg to increase the strengthening work as you have to balance the use of supporting muscles across the body and can also benefit from the increased hamstring and calf stretch that you can access when working asymmetrically.

The Rotated Low Lunge variation offers a twist for the torso, opens across the chest, improves core rotation, and is a very effective hip stretch, particularly targeting hip flexors.

Pigeon pose is a great hip stretch working on the hip flexors on one side and the glutes on the other. There are many variations on the pose (some of which you can see in one of the videos on the Home Yoga Practice Sequences page).

Plough pose is a great post-run practice as it is relaxing as well as providing a stretch for the back of the body. Beginners can rest feet on a chair to start with. It is important in this pose that you do not injure your neck. Your neck should be in a neutral position throughout. This is achieved by ensuring that you do not bring your pelvis towards your head to achieve lowering feet. Keep your pelvis back and flex at the hips to lower feet towards the floor. They can be supported on something if they don’t reach the floor.

These are just some of the postures which can benefit you as a runner. For more ideas of how to work with yoga see more of my videos on my YouTube channel and see my Home Yoga Practice Sequences page.

I’m always happy to answer any questions so please do contact me if you would like any more information about anything you have read here.

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