Being flexible with training: Incorporating yoga into a running program
text by Chrissy Horan
photos by Jonathan Pozniak
When runners seek to improve performance, they might think about enhancing speed work, increasing mileage or even changing their running shoes. They try to develop strength and endurance or correct muscular imbalances to stay healthy for and perform better at their next race. While it might not be in a typical training plan, yoga can offer many runners an opportunity to work on these areas and more.
While yoga’s health benefits are well documented for athletes used to a sport that moves them miles, what can standing (or lying!) on a 6’ by 2’ mat offer? As it turns out, quite a bit.
“Runners need to be well-rounded athletes”, says Rebecca Breslow, MD, physician, runner and owner of Run Strong Studio in Brookline. Breslow supports incorporating non-running activities as part of complementary training and injury prevention for runners. She notes that yoga offers what runners often lack: mobility, flexibility, strength and balance. While running focuses on a front to back motion, yoga poses can work many different planes, strengthening different muscles that can support or stabilize those muscles most frequently used while running.
Jessica Douglas, physical therapist and Director of Clinical Operations at Joint Ventures Physical Therapy and Fitness also supports incorporating yoga into a runner’s training regimen because many poses are done on one leg, or in a stride position, similar to positions in a runner’s gait cycle. Also a triathlete, Douglas believes yoga is beneficial because it uses controlled lengthened positions, which work on strength and flexibility at the same time. “By challenging the body to work on stability in these runner-specific poses, runners can improve their ability to handle uneven roads, trails, potholes, ice and snowbanks without injury.”
While the physical benefits are often the first things to motivate runners to consider practicing yoga, the mental benefits should not be overlooked. From this perspective, the 2 activities have more in common than, at first glance, one might think.
Rebecca Pacheco, author of Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life (HarperCollins), creator of the popular yoga and wellness blog OmGal.com and resident yoga expert for Runner’s World says, “In terms of the mental focus yoga creates, few activities rival it. Especially for race day prep or the determination needed not to give up on a tough workout, yoga and its meditative elements are like hill repeats for the mind.”
Gail Martin owner of Gail Martin Muscular Therapy, a runner, yoga instructor and massage therapist, considers running an ultra-marathon to be “movement meditation.” She says focusing on breath and taking one moment at a time may be one way to cope with long distances and tired bodies.
Paying attention to one’s breath also offers a runner a way to check in with his body, to figure out when he has room to push or might need to back off a bit. Breath can help with focus as well, by giving runners a place to direct their concentration. Yoga teaches about drishti , focusing the eyes to control attention. Focusing on what is ahead, rather than be distracted by the noise and movement around them, can help runners stay “in the zone.” Staying present, or thinking just about the current mile or lap can help prevent a runner from getting ahead of himself and dreaming, or worrying, about the end of the race or workout.
Runners, especially those trying yoga for the first time, may be intimidated by taking a class with yogis in color-coordinated lululemon outfits who can bend their bodies like pretzels. While that may be the image many people hold of yoga today, it is neither a requirement, nor the standard everywhere. Many yoga studios offer classes specifically for runners. Martin, who teaches students with a broad range of abilities at the YMCA, proudly declares she “is not a typical bendy yoga instructor.” She notes that taking class with an instructor who knows how to modify a pose for someone with tighter hamstrings or hips can be important for less flexible or first-time students. Pacheco, who has trained and run 2 marathons herself, notes everyone is different and suggests trying a few styles and teachers before deciding what works best. “Like finding the right shoe, you need to figure out what ‘fits’ you,” she offers.
And if going to a class still is not interesting or feasible, there are plenty of online resources as well. In Pacheco’s classes on Runner’s World’s Yoga Center, routines range from a few minutes to full classes. She says, “Start slowly…and enjoy the journey of being new at something. Yoga is not competitive, which offers a nice balance to running and great opportunity to relax and have fun.”
While yoga does have plenty of benefits, there are times when it may not be the right choice. The standard rule of “don’t try anything new” before a big race also applies to yoga. Stretching muscles to new lengths and in new positions may result in soreness and affect performance for the next few days.
Going to a yoga class before a run may also not be a great idea. Says Douglas, “Recent studies have shown that holding the end range of motion or fully stretched position of a muscle can actually impair the strength that muscle can produce, and decrease the stability in that area for a short period of time. That can mean that a runner won’t have as good a performance as he is expecting, or that he might take a funny step and injure himself.”
Breslow suggests runners also to use caution when doing yoga as an alternative to running when injured. She advises runners to use stretching productively, and perhaps avoid the more physically taxing types of yoga or modify poses until injuries heal.
Incorporating yoga into a training plan can have both physical and mental benefits for runners. Whether it is a once-a-week class or 5 favorite post-run stretches, runners can decide how yoga can best compliment their personal programs. Yoga is flexible.