How to Practice Yoga: A Guide for Runners

Certain activities might not seem compatible with yoga–heavy lifting, for example, or scuba diving–but yoga can help athletes of almost any sport improve their strength, flexibility, and mobility. Running, on the other hand, seems made for yoga. Runners don’t necessarily need the limberness of a gymnast, or the flexibility of a performer in Cirque de Soleil, but running does require enough flexibility and mobility to prevent injuries. 

Yoga has become increasingly popular in recent years, and most cities offer a range of classes from Bikram to Hatha, to Kundalini and Vinyasa, and from Karmic to inventive practices like aerial, snowga, salty, animal and underwater. If you’re a runner, however, you might not benefit from high-intensity classes like Vinyasa or Bikram, or even slow-paced, breathing-based yoga like Kundalini. What can you do instead? Yoga for runners.

Yoga for runners isn’t a “real” type of yoga, but most styles can be adjusted to benefit runners. In her popular book, The Runner’s Guide to Yoga, yogi Sage Roundtree explains the benefits of having a certain amount of stiffness. After all, she says, “good runners are tight in the right places. Stiffness around the hips and core is critical for efficient transfer of energy to the ground and for recoil that takes the energetic rebound from the ground and rolls it into forward motion.” However, too much stiffness can also be detrimental to your running by shortening your stride, or altering your gait–ultimately resulting in injury. 

What’s the answer then? How does a runner practice yoga?

While many styles of yoga can be customized for a runner and his or her goals, it’s important to have the self-confidence to realize when a specific type is too hard for the training cycle you might be in. For instance, when I was training for a 100-mile race last summer, I found Vinyasa too difficult on my body. I needed a more relaxed form, like restorative yoga. Before you attend a class, ask yourself honestly: what does my body need right now? 

Does the instructor matter?

While classes matter, yoga instructors perhaps matter more. Roundtree advises runners to look for a teacher who might have experience as a runner or an athlete. “Don’t hesitate to study with anyone whose style speaks to you.” Additionally, you might find it helpful to use additional equipment like blocks and straps to achieve poses that feel especially tight. 

Do all yoga sessions need to be long?

Also keep in mind that hour to hour-and-a-half long sessions aren’t necessary to achieve benefits. Sometimes ten to fifteen minutes of yoga post-run are perfect for those who aren’t looking to master exotic or advanced moves. 

What areas should I focus on?

Not all runners experience tightness in the same areas, but it’s safe to say that the hips, legs, and core are the driving forces behind running. Our hips are used to stabilize ourselves while our legs provide the power to move. Often, however, our hips become especially tight due to our lifestyles: we get up, we go for a run, we drive to work, we start work and sit at a desk, we eat lunch and sit at a desk, we work some more at a desk, we drive home, we eat dinner at a desk and then we sit on the couch. All of this is repeated over and over. Unfortunately the seated position wreaks havoc on our hips, specifically our psoas. 

Look for yoga poses that stretch these often flexed muscles. Examples are as follows:

Stretching the psoas

Stretching the hips/thighs/hamstring

Where do I begin if I’m practicing at home?

Several DVDS and YouTube tutorials are available online for runners looking to practice at home. Start by following along with a step-by-step yoga class or try out a few of the poses above to see which targets your tightest areas. Keep in mind that overstretching–that is, straining your muscles past a comfortable point–can result in injury, particularly when you go for a run the next day. The key is to keep your muscles taut but supple, strong but mobile. 

For more information, several resources exist online on running journals like Runner’s World, Trail Runner, and yoga subscriptions like Yoga Journal. Better still, check your local bookstore for a book that specializes in runner’s yoga. Your body (and your enjoyment of running) will thank you. 

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