Body Awareness -Yoga for Runners September 08, 2015 22:30
By: Cole Lehman
Photo Credit: Jackie Hutchings
Yoga is an important part of any runner’s training arsenal. It helps you reduce chronic pain, gain flexibility and strength, and build new physical and mental awareness to improve your running technique.
Knee and back pain, tight hamstrings, and general soreness come with running, but you can balance them out and even prevent them with a regular yoga practice. And by regular, we mean one day a week. You can practice more than that, but overworking yourself can also defeat the purpose.
Yoga doesn’t only solve for tightness and chronic pain—it increases strength, builds body awareness, and improves oxygen intake over time. The subtle parts of the practice, breath exercises and meditation, even help you find your zone faster and stay in it longer.
While many think that the physical practice of yoga is all about stretching, it’s not. One of the biggest benefits of yoga is developing balanced strength throughout the whole body by consciously engaging muscles you didn’t know you had or forget to use—like your rhomboid muscles and your iliopsoas muscle group.
Here are some of the important benefits runners can get from a regular yoga practice.
1. Increased Flexibility & Strength
Yoga is known as a practice that increases flexibility over time and it certainly does. But, it’s not just because you’re stretching and lengthening muscles.
A crucial factor behind flexibility is properly distributing the workload between muscle groups. For example, you could be straining your legs to do work that your core was designed for. When you consciously move that effort into your core, your quads, hamstrings, and glutes can take a break and open up.
Shifts like these cause chain reactions. As your core strengthens and your hamstrings unwind, it makes loosening your hips more accessible.
2. Heightened Body Awareness & Balance
Do you know that one of the main muscles we use for running is called the Psoas Major? It’s a part of the iliopsoas muscle group buried deep under our core and it can wreak havoc when it’s out of balance or injured.
In alignment-focused yoga styles like Iyengar and Anusara®, you’ll learn how to make these crucial muscles happy. Learning about the optimal way to line up your body will also boost your sense of balance, which is vital for trail runners and obstacle racers.
As you become aware of muscles you didn’t know you had, and new ways to use the muscles you already knew about, you build heightened body awareness that naturally improves your stride.
3. Decreased Recovery Time
Whether you’re recovering from an injury or trying to get back on your feet faster after a marathon, yoga can help.
Outside of the many therapeutic physical benefits, yoga can help you lower your resting heart rate and increase oxygen uptake through the development of your breath.
There’s a whole branch of yoga called pranayama devoted to breathwork, and runners who practice these consistently will develop a serious recovery advantage over those who don’t.
4. Reduced Chronic Pain
Lower back pain, chronically sore muscles, and joint pain plague many in the modern world and running can aggravate these conditions.
Remember the psoas muscles? They connect to your lumbar spine and become a common cause of lower back pain when out of balance. Chronic muscle soreness and joint pain could be injuries that yoga helps you discover the root cause of and these can be relieved as you strengthen other muscles.
Whatever chronic pain you have, if you practice yoga with therapeutic physical alignment in mind, there’s a good chance you can heal it yourself through dedication and awareness.
5. Improved Stress Reaction & Clarity of Mind
Our nervous system isn’t something we think we have any control over, but it is. Many of us spend time in our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) with adrenaline and cortisol pumping through our body and keeping us stressed out.
Yoga helps us switch back to our parasympathetic nervous system (lower heart rate and blood pressure) by stimulating the vagus nerve through the deep breathing and meditation techniques built into the practice.
Over time our stress levels go down and our ability to respond skillfully to stressful situations goes up. This comes in handy for trail runners who are faced with challenging terrain and road runners who want to learn how to handle the stress of their next race.
Finding the right kind of yoga for you is the first challenge. It depends on what you’re looking for. Power classes can help you develop strength faster, but if you don’t find one that teaches alignment, you could exacerbate existing problems.
Hatha, Iynegar, and Anusara yoga are all more focused on incorporating breath and physical alignment and offer a great starting point. Shop around. Take some beginners’ classes at different studios and find a teacher you like.