Runners may be forced to give up their favorite exercise sooner than they’d like due to injuries or pain in joints that experience repetitive impact. Fortunately, this does not have to be the fate of all runners. Incorporating a regular yoga practice can protect the runner from the most common injuries runners face and can improve their overall performance.
People who make running their exercise of choice typically experience many benefits from a regular running routine. The mind/body connection a runner feels when outside pounding the pavement can be euphoric and the stamina it takes to continue running on one’s edge carries on into other aspects of a runner’s life, allowing them to complete their goals and tasks with greater ease. These and other benefits compel a runner to keep at it, time and time again. Over time, the repetitive motions of running can create stress to certain joints, like the ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders. The athlete might complain of a bad back or knees, tight shoulders and neck (maybe even headaches), tight hamstrings, sore feet, and more. Runners may be forced to give up their favorite exercise sooner than they’d like due to injuries or pain in these joints. Fortunately, this does not have to be the fate of all runners. Incorporating a regular yoga practice can protect the runner from the most common injuries runners face and can improve their overall performance.
More and more, runners are finding yoga to be the perfect compliment to their routine. A regular yoga practice strengthens the muscles that surround and support the joints that take a beating during running. Running too often, and the repetitive pounding to the body, creates a tightening and shortening of the muscles and ligaments. The hip flexors can start to tighten up and do the work of lifting the legs when the core tires out, and the body becomes unbalanced. This imbalance in the body causes a person to walk and move in unnatural ways, in order to compensate for the imbalance they experience. This unevenness adds stress on the joints, muscles, and skeletal system, as the tight muscles tighten and the weak muscles get weaken.
Yoga undoes this damage by lengthening the muscles and ligaments and restoring pliability to the body. Yoga movement is anything but repetitious; as parts of the body open, the muscles that support this opening on the body strengths, and vice versa. Asanas require movement in all directions, and linking the breath to the postures teaches the athlete to use their breath as a tool.
Mental and Respiratory Benefits
Yoga can improve running by way of the mental benefits that yoga naturally provides. Practitioners of yoga often report that they feel calmer, have more mental clarity and acuity, and have more stamina (because they can keep their mind still in difficult situations). Quieting the mind (and the ego) and being in the moment is a constant struggle in certain yoga poses as the mind panics and attempts to escape the pose. Focusing on the breath allows the yogi to deepen the pose safely, and to use the breath the open the body. Similarly, the mental connection to breath while running will keep the runner calm, focused, in their body, and sending their breath to areas that feel lethargic. A regular yoga practice increases the lung’s capacity and the amount of air one can inhale per breath. The increase of breath oxygenates the blood and muscles with fresh blood, allowing the runner to run farther and faster. From quieting the ego, though, the runner will be more focused on their internal process versus their external goal of time or distance.
The training routine of most runners tends to focus on specific exercises or muscles groups that they believe will improve their running performance. Unfortunately, this manner of training in a very specific way reinforces the rightness and rigidity of the body, and does nothing to release the tension and stress that running causes. A friend of mine that runs almost daily has been complaining about a 4-day headache, which I believe to be caused from excessive, repetitive training in the gym and lack of focus on lengthening and releasing the body, or undoing the effects of repetitive running and pounding on the body. In running, we tighten the shoulders and neck, and weight lifting and training invariably reinforces this tightening and scrunching of the neck, and restricts blood flow to the head. Yoga, on the other hand, targets the muscles surrounding these vulnerable areas, allowing us to open and release them naturally, without resorting to external remedies like pain medications or chiropractors.
A regular yoga practice will increase the athlete’s range of motion and overall strength. It will heighten awareness of specific muscles groups as integration of body, mind, and breath occurs. It will bring a new aspect to the run-of-the-mill training routine and is sure to challenge typical runners in ways they never imagined (it is sure to be a challenge for all athletes!). Athletes learn to gain confidence over their bodies and cultivate wisdom, listening and responding to the body. Many runners complain of knees injuries, and this can be caused by lack of awareness of stress to the joint, ignoring the pain, and tightness in the hips, hamstrings, and quads. A deeper connection to the body and how it works will allow athletes to test their limits while staying safe and active, allowing them to continue their favorite sport for years to come.
Finally, yoga will help runners practice relaxation. Many runners run because it can serve as a distraction from the day. Yoga can help the runner learn to properly relax, clear their head, meditate, versus being too stuck in their head and out of the moment (which can have an anxiety-provoking effect). This also helps to release tension in the body and to undo the effects of repetitive movement in the body. The focus on breath and breathing exercises soothes the nervous system and strengthens the immune system, and will carry out into all aspects of life, in addition to running.
A Match Made in Heaven
Yoga and running are a match made in Heaven for many reasons. Runners would benefit from a regular yoga practice, but even incorporating some yoga asanas into their training regimen would be beneficial. If only doing a few asanas, focus on poses that target the hips, hamstrings, and quads, like crescent lunge, single-legged pigeon, warrior I, II and III, triangle, chair pose and half moon pose. Then run like the wind!
Images via: @meggy_hardey