Yoga is an incredible discipline (practice, lifestyle.. whatever you want to call it) that delivers so much more than you actually thought possible. From changing your whole outlook on life, to changing your posture, yoga holds mysteries I feel like I could spend lifetimes exploring. One of the most obvious benefits, and probably the most explored one in the West, is the physical or the health benefit of yoga.
Yoga can help you gain strength, flexibility, loose weight, you name it. You just have to find the right type and practice properly and sufficiently. Even if you are not a “yoga junkie”, this practice is a great compliment to any other athletic activity.
It is quite unfortunate that many athletes consider yoga too easy or too boring to give a try! I have participated in countless run clubs, teaching yoga/stretch sessions at the end of many, and I consistently saw a great number of runners religiously skipping the stretch session. Whether they were too tired or thought they did not need it, either way it isn’t a good call. Runners and triathletes are some of the tightest athletes out there, if I say so from personal experience not only teaching them, but being one of them. No matter how consistent I am with my practice, my hips and hamstrings will always be just a tad tighter than if I didn’t run or ride.
The consistent and repetitive motion of running (and cycling) has a profound effect on the body. First of all, the circular motion in the hips affects all the connective tissue, the ligaments and tendons around the hip joint, regardless of the distance you cover or your pace.
The quads contract and extend with each step, and the impact from the ground affects those muscles, as well as our knees and calfs. If you ever run trails and hills, the impact running has on your quads is even more perceivable. Not only do these four muscles of our thighs require attention, but they compliment the hamstrings on the backs of our legs - making them shorter and tighter. Pair that will our sedentary lifestyle habits, where our knees are bent and we rarely extend our legs standing, what to speak of folding forward, and you got a perfect formula for tight hamstrings.
Hamstrings and hips are directly connected with our lower back, and to avoid back pain, maintaining these vital areas of our bodies flexible is a must.
There are many benefits to pairing yoga with running:
- Becoming a better, more efficient runner
- Faster and smoother recovery
- Avoiding injuries
- Healing and managing existing injuries
Runners should pay special attention to their hamstrings, psoas muscle, IT band, hips and lower back. Luckily, yoga targets those areas with plethora of poses you will just love to hate! Here are five of my favorite:
Downward dog is one of the best yoga poses for anyone! It may seem like a resting or in-between pose in a flow class, but when performed properly, down dog will stretch your whole body. From an energetic perspective, this pose balances all the seven chakras or energy centers. As simple as it may seem, to a beginner this pose is very hard and takes time to master!
Start on all fours, spread your fingers wide and grip the ground. Tuck your toes under and lift your hips up and back, coming into an inverted V position. If you are not sure about the distance between your feet and hands, shift forward into a plank, with your shoulders over your wrists. Ideally, your feet and hands shouldn’t move from plank to down dog, but rather stay in the same plane.
Down dog is a great stretch for the backs of the legs and feet - Hamstrings, calf muscles, achilles tendon and plantar. Work on lifting your hips up high, make your arms straight and bring your shoulder blades together, pressing your heart towards your legs - so the spine is nice and straight. This pose feels juicy on the lower back as well, specially right after a run.
NOTE: If your hamstrings are tight and you are new to this, you can bend your knees to achieve that straight spine and lift the hips as high as possible.
Once you start to build flexibility and upper body strength, work on One Legged dog. Lift the right leg up, maintaining the hips neutral, meaning the right hip stays in the same height as the left. Flex your foot, so the toes point down. Work on maintaining the leg in the air just as extended and active as the one on the ground. The extra weight will gently press the bottom heel closer to the ground, giving that leg more of a stretch. Hold for 3-5 breaths, and repeat sides.
Lunge poses and variations are great for runners - hence the name “Runner’s lunge”. Start by stepping the right foot forward in between your hands (once you master the one legged dog, you can work on stepping forward from that pose). Front knee is bent 90 degrees, meaning knee over ankle alignment. Press the left heel back, making the left leg straight and engaged. Pull the belly in and look forward to start, spine long.
On an exhale twist, bringing the right arm to your right hip (same knee bent, same arm). Stack the shoulders and with each exhale twist a bit further. Optional: extend the arm up, look up and even back if it feels good. If your fingers do not touch the ground, use a block. Hold for 3-5 breaths, switch sides.
This pose targets the hip of the front leg, and the psoas and quads of the back leg. The psoas muscle is a sneaky muscle that runs from the lower vertebrae all the way to the front of our hip and down the leg, connecting at the knee. It is in charge of lifting our leg up, or a hip flexor - very important for runners. It is often tight on many people, sitting being the main reason for it overall, and it is often responsible for back pain as well!
Warrior 2 is another very popular and well known pose, and for a good reason. Warriors build leg and lower body strength, while stretching the hips. Start in the same stance as runner’s lunge, but spin the back heel down, so the back foot is parallel to the back of the mat, and the front foot parallel to the front of the mat. Bend the front knee 90 degrees, and stand up, stretching the right arm forward (same as the front leg), left arm back, in line with your shoulders and the palms facing down. This is Warrior 2. Settle into the hips, engaging the right glute and opening the hip, tracking the knee towards the pinkie toe (it has a tendency to turn in, specially on tight hips).
To come into a reverse warrior, flip the right palm up and lift the arm up, releasing the left arm to the back leg. The legs stay as they are - in a lunge! Find stability in the lower body, while enjoying a side stretch in the upper body. Stay for a few breaths and then switch sides, with an optional vinyasa (flow) in between - or add the following pose before switching sides.
Parsvakonasana has the same set up as Warrior II - legs in a lunge, back leg parallel to the back of the mat, with the heel of the front foot in line with the arch of the back foot. Bend into that front knee and align it over the ankle, work on getting the front thigh parallel to the ground - meaning, find a comfortable but wide stance. From warrior II, release the front arm onto the thigh (same arm, same leg), with the elbow bent and the palm facing up. Reach the back arm overhead, palm facing the ground, and make your arm straight and engaged. You are creating one straight line all the way from your back foot to the fingertips, extending the side body (hence the name).
This pose strengthens the legs and glutes, stretches the front hip and the inner thigh of the back leg. It also targets the side body, lengthening and stretching the side abdominals and the intercostals, the little muscles in between the ribs. Learning from yoga, take those tips when you go on a run, maintaining the side body long!
Now that we have warmed up the legs and stretched the hips, here comes the real deal - triangle pose! This pose may seem simple, but it is very easy (and common) to miss key alignment cues.
Start with your feet in the same position as Warrior II - another pose you can add on to your sequence! You can alternatively shorten your stance for a few inches if that feels more comfortable. Straighten both legs, reaching the right (front) arm forward, lean the upper body and tilt, lowering the right arm onto your right leg, and twist. Engage the front quad, lifting the knee cap up - that will protect the front knee from hyperextending and lengthen the hamstrings even more. If you do have issues with your front knee, you can maintain it micro-bent, but we want to feel a stretch in the back of our leg.
The upper body should be in line with the lower body, so look down and notice if you are leaning forward, and then lean back a little if you need to. Right shoulder should be over your right leg. Pull the belly in, and bring the upper (left) shoulder and ribs back, reaching the arm up and spreading the fingers wide, maintaining engagement.
Your bottom fingertips do not need to touch the ground (notice the picture)! That is not our goal. The goal is to feel a stretch and to maintain the integrity of the pose - straight front leg, with the upper body long and twisting. Hold for at least 5 breaths, this is a pose you can stay in longer, and then switch sides.
Bonus tip from yoga: Have some fun! Handstands are one of the most fun (albeit sometimes terrifying) poses you can do in yoga. You can feel that childlike playfulness, test your strength, and end up exhilarated and with a great sense of accomplishment! If handstands are not your thing, do not fear - there are plenty of inversions in yoga you can give a try.
For the purpose of benefiting and complimenting your running pastimes, kicking your legs up and over your head is very healthy! Even a simple pose like legs up the wall will do. It’s something I like to do after a long run or a long day, on a regular basis. Reverse the flow of circulation and alleviate the stress and weight from your feet, ankles and legs! Inversions are great for combating inflammation and swelling as well, and paired with compression gear, will speed up your recovery big time.
If you want to give a handstand a try, start by practicing your down dog well - the set up is the same, and it will build your upper body strength. Spread your fingers nice and wide and grip the floor - they are your feet for the moment. Use a wall if you need to (I am no handstand pro and have no shame in admitting I use it), and try kicking up with one leg at a time. The key here is to get your shoulders over your wrists, then hips over shoulders. One rule: DO NOT bend your elbows! Once you are up, look forward in between your hands, and breathe! Try to land softly when coming out, and take a break in child’s pose for a moment.
These poses are great right after a run or after a long day! They compliment each other and can be practiced together like a sequence. Here’s an example:
- Start in down dog, and stretch for a few breaths. You can walk your dog by bending one knee, and switching.
- Lift the right leg up into your one legged dog, then step the foot in between your hands - long lunge.
- From your lunge, come into twisted lunge by lifting the right arm up high. Come back to regular lunge.
- Lower the back heel down, back foot parallel to the back of the mat, and come up - Warrior II.
- Reach the right arm up, reverse warrior.
- Come back to warrior II, and move to side angle by releasing the right arm onto the right leg.
- Lift back into warrior II, straighten the front leg, and lean into triangle pose.
- Plant both palms onto the ground, coming back to runner’s lunge, and step back into down dog. You can flow through a vinyasa before repeating the other side.
- After completing the sequence on right and left sides, rest in down dog or child’s pose. Then kick your legs up into an inversion of your choice to give them a break!