SURE, YOU’RE time-crunched and, okay, maybe a little intimidated about being the only person who can’t touch your toes. But if you’re after nabbing an elusive PB or wrestling a nagging injury to the ground, yoga could be a critical piece of your get-faster or get-healthy plan. Yoga has the potential to do so much good – improving strength, flexibility and mental focus – that it’s surprising that so many runners don’t know a downward dog from an upward dog. In fact, 73 per cent of respondents to a Runner’s World poll said they don’t hit the mat.
Why strike a pose? Studies have shown that yoga squashes stress, aids weight loss, eases pain, helps people stick to an exercise routine, and even improves running times. The strength and flexibility you develop on the mat – namely in the core, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors – can help you run more efficiently and stay injury-free, says Adam St. Pierre, a coach, biomechanist, and exercise physiologist.
Additionally, holding challenging poses builds tenacity that’ll pay off on the road. Lauren Fleshman, a two-time US outdoor 5000-metre champion, started practicing yoga after breaking her foot in 2008. But the poses gave her more than just foot strength: “Yoga helps me control my emotions while I’m in discomfort on the road,” she says. “Enduring an intense pose is a lot like enduring a long run or tempo run.”
For all the perks yoga offers, it still requires a cautious approach. Get too ambitious, and you could end up hurt and frustrated. This guide will make easing in easy.
From yin yoga to vinyasa, there is a dizzying array of classes to choose from. There’s no single style that’s best for every runner, and “the consistency of your practice is far more important than the type of yoga you practice,” says Johnny Gillespie, owner of Empowered Yoga. If you’re turned off by the instructor, the vibe, or the pace of the class, move on. “Find a place with teachers you can connect with who understand your needs as a runner.”
Time It Right
Your yoga practice should have a converse relationship with your training: When you’re ramping up mileage and churning out hard workouts, stick with relaxing sessions. When your training eases up, you can increase the intensity and frequency of your yoga workouts, says Sage Rountree, yoga instructor, triathlon coach, and author of The Runner’s Guide to Yoga. If you take on a rigorous practice in the midst of a monster training month, “you’ll interfere with your body’s recovery and risk hurting yourself,” Rountree says. Fleshman rolls out her mat most often during the low-mileage months in advance of her racing season. “The strength yoga builds in my feet, lower legs, and core will hopefully support me when my running gets tough,” she says.
It can take years to master yoga poses, so don’t go to your first class (or your first 20) expecting to be the star pupil – no matter how many races you’ve run or how fast your PBs are. “Focus on yourself, not what the person on the mat next to you can do,” Rountree says. And realise there’s plenty to gain from a less-than-perfect practice. “So many runners are hard on themselves when they have an off day or they don’t PB,” Fleshman says. “In yoga, you’re encouraged to accept the body and mind that you have on that day and push it as far as it will go.”
Runners’ high pain thresholds coupled with their competitive natures can make them more prone to injury, warns St. Pierre, who speaks from experience. In 2011, the ultrarunner got too aggressive in pigeon pose, trying to stretch his glutes and piriformis, and missed three months of running as a result. Rountree sees this in her own classes, too. If you have a troublesome or tight spot you’d like to target, talk to your instructor about ways to modify poses so you can get a gentle – and safe – stretch.