Running is amazing and trains your body in a number of ways, yet it can also lead to some chronic issues or overuse injuries. Yoga is perfect for runners because it counterbalances your training, makes you run better and faster, supports your recovery, and makes you feel good.
What does running do to your body?
Muscles engaged by running
When you run, your quads, glutes, hamstrings, tensor fasciae latae (TFL), iliotibial (IT) band, calf muscles and foot flexors propel you forward and stabilize your body, while core muscles hold your posture. And while all these muscles work hard, they only move in a limited range of motion.
There’s one more hard-working yet hidden muscle – the psoas. It’s a strong muscle running from your lumbar spine, through your pelvis all the way to the upper part of your inner thigh bone. Every time you lift your knee, the psoas contracts and every time your leg swings back, the psoas lengthens. A tight psoas can cause all sorts of issues, such as back, hip or groin pain, and can even tilt your pelvis out of alignment.
While all the above muscles get an intense workout during a run, your chest, upper back, shoulders and arms don’t have to work very hard. Their movement is also helped by the dynamics of the running motion.
Running motion and impacts
Running involves repetitive motion, and repetitive landing impacts that your bones, joints, muscles and tendons have to cushion. As a result, some muscles and tendons get tighter and if you don’t stretch properly, the tightness can eventually limit your range of motion. That, in turn, can shorten your stride which might have a knock-on effect on your running technique.
Some muscles are hard to access through conventional stretching so you need to be smart about it. At the same time, the less-worked muscles need strengthening and conditioning so your body is balanced and on top form, making you run faster. But to be honest, it’s not just about running well and fast, it’s also about preventing injuries.
Yoga, along with correct running technique and a reasonable training plan, can help prevent a number of common runner issues, such as runner’s knee, IT band syndrome, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, hamstring injuries, and others.
How can yoga help runners?
Around 80% of running injuries happen because of repetitive stress – overuse and bad running technique. However, improving your running technique is not the only thing that matters in injury prevention. It’s also about how you complement your running and if you let your body recover properly between runs.
Yoga is an excellent running companion because it counterbalances your running training – it offers a sophisticated stretching, strengthening and grounding system. All those muscles that running tends to overwork can regain their length with yoga. At the same time, all the somewhat neglected muscles get stronger – overall, yoga gives you greater mobility, removes tight muscle limitations, and allows for better recovery.
Yoga helps to bring more blood into all your muscles and joints – lubricating and nourishing them. That is one of the reasons why it helps you recover faster. Another reason is that it reduces your stress hormone levels and that in turn makes recovery more efficient. Lastly, it helps the body break down lactic acid post-training.
In practice, it means yoga can help open up your hips and hamstrings, lengthen your stride, help you maintain good posture, prevent back and joint pain, injuries, and helps your body heal. It also trains you to be mindful – present in the moment and more focused. Science shows that mindfulness training improves your performance and movement precision.
9 must-do yoga poses for runners
These poses are useful for all runners, regardless of whether you are a sprinter or a long-distance runner. It’s not an exhaustive list but if you do these poses regularly, you’ll certainly feel the benefits.
1. Forward fold
Why? It’s an easy pose that effectively stretches your hamstrings and lower back.
Pay attention to: Feet parallel, knees bent, inner thighs ‘rotating inwards’
How to do it:
- Stand upright, feet hip-width apart
- Lift your arms up with an inbreath
- With an outbreath, fold forward from the hips, keeping your back straight and a bend in the knees, and let gravity pull your body down
- When you reach your limit, grab opposite elbows with your hands and let your body hang down
- To achieve the correct stance, move your inner thigh muscles backwards – it makes your thighs rotate a little and creates more room in your hips for the deep bend
- Stay there for ten deep breaths, then slowly come back up
2. Crescent lunge
Why? It stretches your hip flexors and when you lift your arms up, also your psoas.
Pay attention to: Front knee stacked over the ankle, hips pushing forward.
How to do it:
- Stand at the front of your mat, feet hip-width and hands on the hips
- Take a big step back with your right foot, landing on your right toes – keep your pelvis facing forward
- Left knee is bent, and directly above the ankle – you may need to adjust your stance
- Breathe in, lifting your arms up above your head, palms facing each other
- Breathe out, keep your arms up, and settle in the pose – most of us can go slightly lower
- Stay in the pose for ten deep breaths, then return to standing, and repeat on the other side
- Option to go deeper: When you’re done with the above, lower your back (right) knee down onto the mat, rest your left wrist on your left knee, and lift the right foot off the mat towards your buttocks. As you’re doing that, reach backward and catch the right foot with your right hand. Shift your pelvis towards the front of the mat, and pull your right foot towards your backside so you feel a pleasant stretch in your quads.
3. Warrior II
Why? It stretches the inner thigh muscles on both legs, conditions the front quads, strengthens the shoulders and core.
Pay attention to: Front knee stacked over the ankle, body upright – not leaning forward or backwards, arms at shoulder height
How to do it:
- Stand upright at the front of your mat, facing forward
- Keeping the left foot in place and bending the knee, take a big step back with your right leg. When you land, turn your right toes to the right, foot parallel with the short edge of the mat
- Bend your left knee, so it’s directly above the ankle, and keep your right leg straight, feet planted firmly into the mat, front and back heel aligned
- On an inbreath, raise your arms in line with your shoulders, parallel to the ground, focus on your front (left) fingertips and breathe – stay there for ten deep breaths, then repeat on the other side
4. Downward dog
Why? It stretches the hamstrings, calves, side body, and shoulders. If you pedal your feet while you’re in the pose, it also stretches the tiny feet muscles, which can help prevent plantar fasciitis. And when you let your head hang freely, it provides a welcome relief to the neck.
Pay attention to: Shoulders pressing down and towards your knees, legs parallel, tailbone up.
How to do it:
- Start on all fours, and lift your pelvis up, creating a triangle shape, your tailbone being the highest point – walk your feet further away if needs be, and make sure they are hip-width or wider apart
- Your legs don’t have to be straight, keep them a little bent, but they should be parallel to each other, heels pressing down
- Press into your hands, as if you wanted to push the ground away from you, elbow pits are facing each other, head hanging down
- Actively push the tailbone upwards – bend your knees a little more to achieve this, pressing equally into your hands and feet
- Remain there for at least five deep breaths
5. Pyramid pose
Why? It stretches your hamstrings, calves and lower back, while allowing your neck to release.
Pay attention to: Microbend in front knee, straight-ish back, back foot at 45° angle
- Stand upright, feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips
- Take a step back with your right foot – not too big, about the length of your leg
- Turn your right toes out at about 45° angle, your weight is evenly distributed between your feet
- Breathe in, make sure your pelvis is facing forward, and breathe out slowly bending forward with your back straight
- Keep a microbend in your front knee, and think ‘ribs to thigh’, rather than ‘head to knee’
- When you reach your deepest fold, put your fingertips on the floor, tenting them out to support your back not rounding
- Stay there for five to ten deep breaths, then repeat on the other side
6. Plank pose
Why? It strengthens your core which can help to improve your running technique, and it engages your shoulder and upper back muscles that don’t get much attention otherwise.
Pay attention to: Shoulders over the wrists, back in line with the shoulders or higher – never lower.
How to do it:
- Start on all fours, hands under your shoulders, fingers spread wide
- Step back, so you’re in a push-up position
- Press your hands into the floor, as if you wanted to push the floor away and towards your feet, lifting from your shoulders, not sinking between your shoulder blades
- Draw your belly button towards your spine and check that your lower back is straight
- Make sure your heels are above your toes
- Stay there for at least twenty breaths – over time, add more
7. Pigeon pose
Why? It’s an excellent hip opener, and helps to release the IT band.
Pay attention to: Your body being in a straight line – not falling sideways, and your back leg should be directly behind you in line with the body.
How to do it:
- Start in low lunge, left foot forward – shuffle your left foot across to the right, so it’s between your right knee and arm
- Lower the left knee out to the left, slide backwards with your right knee, and ‘sit’ into the position but keep your hips level, careful not to collapse to either side
- Your body is upright, supported by your hands in front of you, right leg is outstretched directly behind you
- Slowly lower onto your forearms – this may be enough
- If you want to go deeper, stretch out your arms on the floor in front of you and lower your upper body down over your left shin and knee
- Stay there for ten deep breaths, then repeat on the other side
8. Crow pose
Why? It engages and strengthens your arms, shoulder, back, and core muscles, improves balance and focus.
Pay attention to: Find a spot on the floor ahead of you to focus on to help you find balance.
How to do it:
- Crouch on the mat and put your hands down, shoulder-width apart, fingers spread wide
- Lift your bottom up and walk with your feet close to the outer edges of your hands
- Put your knees on top of each triceps, as if they were ledges, and lift the toes of one foot off the ground while leaning into your hands (some people prefer to put their knees on the outer edges of their arms, which works too)
- Find a spot on the floor ahead of you and focus on it – it will help you find balance
- Then, slowly and with control lift the other foot off the ground
- It’s normal to wobble and land back on your feet – play with your balance
- When you manage to lift both feet off the ground, stay there as long as you can – don’t forget to breathe!
9. Puppy pose
Why? It stretches the shoulders and side body that tend to get tighter with running
Pay attention to: Hips over the knees
How to do it:
- Starting on all fours, keep your hips above your knees, and walk your fingers forward
- Lower your chest towards the floor, rest your forehead on the mat and walk your fingers a little bit forward
- Keep your fingers tented (only fingertips on the mat, not palms), and your hips up
- Stay there for five to ten deep breaths, then return to the starting position
When is the best time for runners to practice yoga?
In general, it’s best to do yoga after your run – a shorter practice right after your training, or a longer one the next day. Practicing yoga before you run has its benefits but all the muscles that get tightened by running are best served if you do yoga afterwards.
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