In my nearly three years as a yoga instructor, I have taught a number of former and current runners.
While they vary greatly as far as age, size, and shape goes, they have certain things in common. When asked why they are interested in yoga, many share that they are hoping to find relief from various ailments.
The most common ones that come up are tight hamstrings, hip injuries, and various knee issues.
It’s little surprise that runners end up in yoga classes since yoga can be a wonderful compliment to running. As yoga instructor/long distance runner, Christine Felstead points out in her new book, Yoga For Runners, yoga improves balance, strengthens, and stretches balance—all of which can improve running and help with injuries.
Therefore, if you are runner either currently practice yoga or are interested in doing so, here are a few tips to keep in mind and some handy poses to keep you in top form:
1. Remember that yoga is not a competition.
It’s no surprise that most runners have a competitive streak, and many tend to be perfectionists to boot. While this is fine for many areas of life, it’s something to try and keep off the yoga mat especially in the beginning.
I rarely say “never” when I am teaching yoga, but never force yourself into a pose before your body is ready for it. Doing so will only lead to pain and possibly injury.
One thing I have noticed is that most runners tend to have tight hamstrings which means they are not able to get their heels to touch the floor in downward facing dog or place their hands to the floor with straight legs in forward folds. If you happen to fall into this camp, then don’t force it. Instead bend the knees, that’s what they are there for.
On a similar note, keep #2 in mind.
2. Don’t be afraid to modify or ask for modifications.
Whenever you see a photo, a web tutorial, or a live teacher demonstrate a pose keep in mind that your pose does not have to be exactly like that. Usually, if someone is brand new to yoga I suggest they take at least a few classes with an actual live instructor so they can get tips on alinement how to modify for their particular bodies.
However, for those that like to practice at home and/or practice to DVDs or web tutorials, then I suggest seeking out those that show various modifications including the use of props.
For those in an actual class, ask for a modification even if the teacher does not demonstrate one. Don’t be embarrassed or worried that the teacher will be upset. They won’t. After all, it’s your time and your practice.
3. Hip openers are your friend.
Running tends to tighten the hamstrings which in turn can lead to tightness in the hips and groin. Because of this characteristic tightness I can usually tell if someone was or is an avid runner just by how they sit in simple cross-legged seated position.
One of the best hip openers is bound angle pose or baddha konasana. I like all the variations, but the seated version where spine is straight, the soles of the feet are open like the pages, and the heels are as close to the perineum as possible is my favorite. If the knees are very high in the air, then placing blocks underneath of them or even rolled up towels is a great way to get them to relax so gravity can work with you and open those hip flexors a bit more.
Supta baddha konasana or the reclined variation of this pose is a good one, too. If you happen to have a bolster, a pillow or rolled up towel, then place it behind you at least three inches away from the buttocks and slowly lower down letting your prop support the back. Experiment with taking the heels closer or further away from your body until you arrive at that place where you feel a stretch in the groin, but it isn’t painful or too intense. (Just like in upright baddha konasana, towels or blocks may be placed under the knees for support.)
4. In order to improve balance, work on strengthen the core.
It goes without saying that running requires balance. Many only think of the feet and legs when it comes to balance but the truth is, the core plays an instrumental role as well.
If you can only squeeze in one core strengthening pose, then I recommend Bhujangasana or the humble cobra pose.
The key here is to imagine you are sucking the navel back to meet the spine which will automatically engage those lower, deeper abdominal muscles. (These deep abs aren’t the visible ones that most people immediately think of when they hear “6 pack abs.”)
For those that want more of a challenge, then hop aboard for navasana or boat pose. However, remember it’s perfectly okay to keep the knees bend here. It’s much better to do this pose with a straight back and bend knees than straight legs and a rounded or “collapsed” back.
Given its ability in preventing and healing various common running injuries yoga can be a runner’s best friend. The runners I teach often say that yoga helps them to improve their running as well as give them a sense of calmness that comes just by slowing down a bit and being aware of their breathing.
Ideally, by marrying the two they will be able to run longer, stronger, and better as well as be able to achieve a sense of mindfulness that can even rival that elusive “runner’s high.”
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Editor: Bryonie Wise