Yoga has provided more benefits for my health and fitness journey than I can begin to describe. I began yoga in college when I would come home for Christmas and summer break; I would buy a class pass to the local gym and do yoga once a week. I remember my first few times going.. I didn't have my own mat, I walked on the floor with tennis shoes on and I had absolutely no idea that yoga poses are first said in Sanskrit before explained in English. I was very lost but I was adamant to learn. To be honest, I thought the beautiful poses I saw on Pinterest were incredible and I wanted to be able to do them. Little did I know that yoga would provide me with way more than just holding hard poses.
At this time in my life, yoga provided me something new. I had been a runner for years now and I had no interest in lifting weights. So, yoga seemed to make sense. After completing 10 classes at my hometown gym, I came to terms with what was the most challenging part for me. That was, being still. I am a type A person. I run on adrenaline and lots of coffee. So to be still on my mat and focus on breathing was more of a challenge than going on a five mile run.
Fast forward a few years, I graduated college and found an actual yoga studio that really spoke to me. The community was incredible and the instructors met me where I was. I bought more classes and kept up with yoga once a week. After about a year of this schedule, I noticed that I had not gotten injured that entire year. Being a runner first and foremost, I accepted that these "overuse" injuries would continue to happen for as long as I kept up with the sport. But this particular year, I had no knee pain, my ankles were mobile, and my hips didn't hurt. The only thing I added in was yoga.
In present time, I have continued down the journey of furthering my practice because of the benefits I found in my running (and mind, body, spirit... I could go on and on). I have done countless classes at different studios, received my 200 hour teacher training certification, and devote 4-5 hours weekly to this practice. It has become a part of my physical fitness journey and spiritual wellness.
I started this year with a fun new interest; I began dancing on Monday nights (which were originally devoted to sweating in Kacee's class). I also swapped 8:30 AM Wednesday yoga for my long run while training for my half marathon. This left Friday as my only day for yoga; and that was IF we were in town. Needless to say, yoga fell on the wayside and as much as I missed it, I was enjoying the other activities. I quickly started to "feel it" almost everywhere in my body. My sciatic nerve started irritating my hips and almost every run was painful. I was tight from head to toe. My mobility in my ankles started to suffer. My core wasn't as "chiseled" as I was so accustomed to. I would cramp up at night and feel agitated in the morning. A few months in, I realized the only thing I changed was not going to yoga.
Since completing my half marathon and finishing my dance course, I had re-added yoga into my schedule at least three times a week. Immediately, I am deadlifting without pain, running easier, and sleeping sounder. It's crazy that this practice has provided me with all of these benefits that I overlooked for so long.
The Running + Yoga Connection
By going back to my regular yoga classes, I've been able to hoan in on what muscles tightened, what muscles became less mobile, and what muscles became less stable. These categories are of the up most importance for any physical goal. If you're training to get stronger, you need both mobility, stability, and yes.. even flexibility. If you are a runner, you need the same things. The emphasis will be different depending on what your physical goals are.
As a runner, there are certain joints and muscles that need special emphasis to keep your performance high and your body pain free. These categories and muscles may sound familiar to you if you've been running for a long time:
Runners have tight..
Runners need mobile..
Runners need stable..
These aren't just general statements; these are vital for the performance and health of each runner. I have found that certain yoga poses have tremendously helped each of these requirements. I must preface that an actual yoga class devoted to runners would be the best scenario if you're looking for maximal benefits; but practicing these poses will suffice in reaping their benefits. Let's begin to dive into each pose, the anatomy involved and why this may help you as a runner.
Runners have tight....
Hamstrings | Supta Padangusthasana
How many times have you heard that? Runners are constantly moving forward and your hamstrings are turned on to prevent you from falling forward. Rarely do runners need to stretch their hamstrings during the actual sport; but we all know that neglecting this will cause your running to become harder. If your hamstrings are constantly tight, how can you increase the speed at which you need to move forward?
In yoga, there are plenty of hamstring stretches in many traditional poses. I could give you the easy answer of simply "forward folding" but I believe this pose gets messed up too frequently and their is a much better hamstring stretch that one can do. This pose in mind is called Supta Padangusthasana. "Hand to Big Toe Post" can be done standing or reclined; I feel as though the reclined version allows for a greater focus on stretching and less on balance.
How to practice: Lye on your back and straighten on leg into the sky. Flex your foot and straighten your knee without locking the joint. Reach for the big toe and begin to draw the foot closer to your chest while keeping the leg as straight as possible. Keep both hips, spine and shoulders relaxed on the ground. I am using a strap to help support bringing my foot closer to my chest.
Hips | Agnistambhasana
When runners neglect both mobility and flexibility in their hips, they tend to get pain everywhere. You might notice your IT band tighten, your knees weaken, and your piriformis scream. A traditional stretch many runners do incorrectly is pigeon pose. Pigeon is a very complicated and rather advanced stretch that is best taught in person. One easier stretch to get in to is fire log pose. Agnistambhasana targets two of the major muscles that get tight during countless running; the glute med and pirirformis.
How to practice: Sitting crisscross applesauce, begin to stack on ankle over the other knee. One leg will be resting on top of the other leg. If this is too intense, you can place blocks underneath both knees to allow a greater range. Sit up tall and draw your lower abdominals up and in.
Quads | Ardha Bhekasana
Tight quads don't necessarily cause pain for runners in their quads, but they do cause tremendous soreness. We all know the day after running hills will make your quads light up and hinder your running performance the next few days. By stretching your quads, your recovery time will be much quicker and you won't feel lingering tightness to follow. Ardha Bhekasana can be done anywhere as long as you're comfortable with lying on your stomach.
How to practice: Lying prone (on stomach) with legs stretched out behind you. Begin in sphinx pose with your forearms on the ground and your chest lifted. Your elbows should be under your shoulders and head lifted. Begin to bend one knee and reach for the foot with your same side hand. For example, bend your right knee and bring your foot close to your butt. Reach your right hand band and begin to push your foot down to feel a quad stretch. To intensify and open your chest, rotate your hand so your fingers are pointed forward and your palm presses your foot down closer to your butt. Keep both knees on the ground and close to each other.
Runners need mobile....
Hips | Eka Pada Trikonasana
We discussed earlier how fire log pose helps stretch tight hips. It is as equally important to work mobility in your hips. In yoga, postures are broken down into two categories: open pelvis and closed pelvis. As a runner, you are constantly moving forward (and sometimes backwards) which is a closed-pelvis movement. To keep mobility in your hips, you must then practice open-pelvis poses. My absolute favorite open-pelvis pose is triangle pose. An added benefit of triangle pose is the hamstring stretch you get in your forward leg.
How to practice: Starting from warrior 2, straighten your front leg and pivot your back foot slightly forward (similar to warrior 1 footing). Begin to shift your hips to the back of the mat while reaching forward with your front arm. Begin to reach your front arm to your front shin as your back arm reaches overhead towards the sky. This pose opens your hips and helps increase mobility in all directions.
Ankles | Supta Virasana
Ankles are one of the last joints runners prioritize despite being the most complex. Healthy ankles will keep your feet and calves pain free. There is one yoga pose that is incredibly challenging for me due to my ankle mobility, and that is Supta Virasana; reclining hero's pose.
How to practice: Starting in hero's pose, begin to inch your calves to the side so you can sit in between your feet. If this is too intense, you can slide a blanket under your butt and sit on top. From here, begin to slowly lower yourself down to your forearms. You'll notice your quads stretch. The top of your feet and ankles will stretch by them pressing into the mat as you lower your back to the ground.
Runners need stable....
Knees | Anjanayasana to Crescent Pose
To create stable knees, one must strengthen the muscles all around the knee joint. One of the best practices in strength training is a lunge. Yoga provides a similar pose - transition that allows you to gain strength in your quads and glutes. This will in turn, strengthen your knees.
How to practice: Starting from anjanayasana, stretch the hip flexors. Tuck the back toes under and push your back knee off the ground coming into crescent pose. Your arms are straight overhead and your tailbone is tucked. Keep your core firmly pulling in and practice lifting the knee and lowering the knee.
Core | Plank
Last but definitely not least; core strength is vital to each and every runner. Without a strong core, your body will move insufficiently and can promote bad posture and form. The absolute best core strengthening exercise is one that does not promote flexion or rotation. Just think, while you're running, you want to maintain a neutral and long spine. Why would you practice crunching when that is not going to help your running performance? A plank creates both strength and stability in your core that will directly transition to your running posture.
How to practice: Dropping to your forearms, tuck the toes and lift your knees off the ground. Be sure to keep your elbows under your shoulders, your abdominals tucked up and in and a firm gluten squeeze. Keep your spine neutral and breath into your back. Hold for 20-40 seconds.
The Yoga + Exercise Prescription
Think of doing these poses as a practice; just like yoga, don't approach the class as your time to perform. These stretches and poses will help you become a runner who is strong and pain free. This doesn't require you to do daily; but it will require you to practice them consistently to reap the most benefits. I have found that my runners see the benefits by doing an entire yoga class or practicing these poses one to two times per week. This will keep your joints mobile, muscles stretched, and key anatomy stable.
If you find benefits from practicing these poses, please share this post with your fellow running community so they can also run with ease.