Like many runners, I first got into yoga to "get a good stretch." But after four years, innumerable races, and a 200-hour teacher training later, I've learned there is a lot more we runners can gain from a yoga practice, outside of increased mobility in our legs and hips.
Here are five ways that yoga can benefit runners, that are often overlooked:
1. There's a mini sports psychology session in every practice.
"Set an intention." It's a phrase we often hear in yoga class. An intention can be whatever you need it to be, so long as it is not goal-oriented. We are setting an intention, but we're not attaching ourselves to a particular outcome. It seems counterintuitive, but it actually makes things easier in the long run — both literally and figuratively.
There's a technique in sports psychology where athletes concentrate on process, not product. Athletes can control the process (their training, nutrition, etc.), but they cannot control the product (whether or not they are going to win). A focus on the product can be disheartening and frustrating and it can make an athlete act out of desperation if they feel they cannot have the outcome they desire.
All runners — from marathoners to weekend joggers — are athletes in some fashion. It's far too easy to focus on how many miles we want to run, what speed we'd like to achieve, or whether or not we can win a race. We get so wrapped up in our product that we compromise our process. Going to yoga, setting an intention — but letting go of that attachment towards a specific goal — is a great way to rework that.
2. Listening to your body on the mat makes you better at listening to your body on race day.
As runners we are used to persevering, which is quite admirable. But we run the risk of pushing past perseverance and into neglect. This is how many runners get injured: "muscling through" one more mile, only to realize we've strained, sprained, or torn something.
In yoga, we grant ourselves the luxury of listening to our bodies and doing exactly what it needs, be it a gentler variation of a pose, the use of props, or going into Child's Pose. It is incredibly hard to let go of that sense of competition — particularly with ourselves — but by learning to modify our practice to suit us best on the mat, we become better able to assess what our body is trying to tell us on the racetrack.
3. Yoga strengthens your upper body, which will make you a better runner.
How should you move your arms on a run — should they remain stationary or should there be a swing to them? Research is starting to show that there might be a neurological link between arm swinging and leg movement. Swinging our arms actually takes up the least amount of energy of any arm movement during a run — including no arm movement. It is suggested the optimal arm position is with elbows bent at 90 degrees, close to the ribs with your arms swinging back-and-forth along the sides of your body.
It takes strong arm, shoulder and back muscles to swing our arms in such a fashion, and to be able to control how they move. We can work this arm positioning in yoga with Chaturanga (high-to-low pushup), or lowering to knees-chin-chest, in Dolphin Pose and even a forearm stand. All these asanas position our arms at 90 degrees with the elbows tucked in. This upper body work prepares us for proper aligned movement in our runs.
4. Yoga builds a strong, stable core.
How can you become a faster runner? How can you get longer distances? How can you potentially prevent injury? By strengthening your core.
A strong, stable core doesn't come from doing a million sit-ups. It comes from poses that require balance and stability, that challenge all the muscles in our torso (yes, the muscles on your back also count as your core). A healthy core will improve your posture, provide balance and make it that much easier to be a runner.
5. With emphasis on breath work, yoga reminds us to breathe mindfully on our runs.
I don't know a single runner who has not experienced "The Stitch" — that stabbing sensation in between or under our ribs that hits us in the middle of our run. While many of us know this comes from a lack of sufficient oxygen in the system, we're still unsure how to remedy the problem.
The natural response to physical stress is to stop breathing. Stress triggers our "fight or flight" response which in turn, floods the body with adrenaline and gives us rapid, shallow breath. This is great in the short-term if you're fighting off or fleeing from an immediate threat. But if you're running for more than a few minutes, this stops being helpful.
This is where yoga comes in. A common saying in yoga is, "If you're not breathing, you're just doing calisthenics." In yoga, we keep the type of long, steady breath that we have when we're at ease throughout our entire practice. If we're unable to maintain the breath in any given asana, then it's time for us to ease out or come to a resting pose.
As runners, we can utilize this vital aspect of yoga to train ourselves to breathe through physical strain and keep The Stitch from returning on race day.