Yoga for Runners
Running for exercise seems a natural activity and remains one of the “pure” sports worldwide, as all you really need is a pair of suitable, athletic shoes in order to train. Apart from the shoes, shorts and a T-shirt, it is a pretty uncluttered sport in terms of needed equipment and an activity any able-bodied person can enjoy. That said, the stresses placed upon a human body through running regularly are pronounced and often manifest as intermittent injuries, regardless of how natural a component of the human experience running might be.
In a nutshell, from an athlete’s point of view, running shortens the muscles, whereas yoga lengthens them. The good news for athletic adults, is that running and yoga can complement each other very well. While muscles may shorten with persistent running, the activity also gives you a stamina and consciousness of breath & movement when on the yoga mat, stretching those muscles out again. Rugby, football and other national or competitive sports teams very often have yoga included in their training regimes nowadays, as the benefits of yoga are undisputed among professional trainers the world over.
Some of the best yoga poses (asanas) for runners
Yoga has a vast array of asanas (poses), often grouped within a broad category seen to benefit certain aspects of human health, such as digestive functions, the supple performance of the limbs, or even mental focus. Make no mistake, all yoga aids all aspects of a human life, but below are a series of six asanas that can either be performed individually, as a series, one after the other, and, for that matter, in any order. All will aid in offsetting the strain that running places on a human body and make your running practice that much more enjoyable. They can be performed at any time and, indeed, making their performance a regular event on both training and off days will simply make the gains in fitness, suppleness and balance come that much quicker.
You should always take a few minutes to sit or stand quietly and roll the feet and hands on the ankle and wrist joints, stretch a little leaning forwards, and generally extend your limbs before adopting a yoga pose. Very gently let your head drop from side to side too, and twist the torso gently first to one side and then the other, holding for a few breaths each side. Once you feel sufficiently aware of any tugs or minor nags, as well as feel focused on the task at hand, you can adopt the following poses that will slowly but demonstrably improve your skill pounding the street.
Kandharasana (shoulder pose) is a great asana for opening a runner up in a way that counters the hunch typically employed on uphills and when tiring. Gently pulling the body open and wide, it brings good stretch to the spine and you’ll feel it in the hamstrings too. Coming up to a basic bridge, one can lift the pelvis higher still while wriggling oneself a little to place the body’s weight on the shoulders as shown. Grasp the ankles and maintain the sensation of pushing your hips up & forwards. Hold for several breaths and lower slowly, coming back to lying flat on the ground, hold for an inhale & exhale and repeat, rising slowly.
Paschimottanasana (back stretching pose) is already a favorite warm-up for runners. You can adopt both a somewhat curved spine as shown here as you lean towards your toes and also try the version where you keep your spine straight as you lean forward. Both pull in slightly different ways although doing this pose with a straight spine tugs quite dramatically at your hamstrings. Don’t force it, but rather lower as you can with each breath. Hold for several breaths, sit up and stretch back down again.
Saithalyasana (animal relaxation pose) is one of those that seems so relaxed and simple, yet involves a serious amount of flexibility for many to adopt as demonstrated here. Tucking the legs away as shown, first one side and then the other, the aim is to rest the forehead on the floor with the arms outstretched in front of you. Don’t force yourself down, but rather sink further slowly, over time, without stressing the hips and spine, keeping the back straight and lowering from the pelvis, all the way down.
Gomukhasana (cow faced pose) is a great asana for finding those small areas of strain and fatigue and gently ironing them out, while releasing tension all over. Felt throughout the legs as well as the hips, spine and shoulders, this is another great stretching pose to adopt, holding for a minute or two either side. Keep your spine erect and keep breathing slowly, trying towards the end of a pose to ‘inflate’ somewhat with an in-breath and grasp a little tighter on the out-breath, finding comfort in the discomfort.
Uttan pristhasana (lizard pose) needs to be adopted slowly, coming from a basic plank (push up) position. Once in plank, look up and forwards and step first the one leg forward as shown and hold on that side for several breaths. Keep your spine straight and try to maintain it parallel with the floor. Relax into the pose as you feel it in the hips, quadriceps and especially the hamstrings of the back-stretched leg. Remain on your toes at the back. Swap sides and repeat several times on either side. This pose really counters the stiffening of your hips and shortening of leg muscles very effectively.
Garudasana (eagle pose) goes to work for a runner in quite subtle ways. Quite apart from impacting positively on the kidneys and innards overall, due to the slight squeeze applied in adopting this pose, the gradual refinement of one’s balance is invaluable when running, as a well-balanced body exerts less strain on the limbs & joints. Although taken for granted and seemingly insignificant, balance is an ideal focus for runners, especially longer distance runners, as even a slightly skewed gait can result in persistent small injuries, a gradual uneven wearing or chaffing in places both inside and outside the body and also a heightened risk of tripping and falling. Eagle pose enables a sense of balance any runner will find useful in maintaining posture and good movement over long distances. Keep the spine straight and pick a spot in front of you to focus on when lifting the leg into position. First one, then the other, with an accompanying swapping of the arm wrap too. Hold for a dozen breaths either side and repeat a few times. You will notice a marked improvement in your balance over time.
Yoga may seem like a frivolous pastime, especially as you look through the glass coming off the treadmill or fresh from a really intense weightlifting session in the gym, but don’t be fooled. Runners as a group are generally a savvy lot, constantly looking for small aids and tweaks to enable better performance, making their running that much more enjoyable. There is a lot of research and scientific endeavour that goes into running every year. So do yourself a favour and don’t dismiss yoga as a non-contributor simply because it often appears slow and simplistic. It’s precisely the pace (or non-pace!) and posture demands of yoga that are so different to almost all other sporting pursuits, that bring such a wealth of fine-tuning to a human body.
In addition, there is a remarkable focus that is enabled by doing yoga, and it’s definitely tied into the non-competitiveness and individuality of the practice. Stretch. Breathe. Enjoy!