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Benefits of Yoga for Runners

Updated: Feb 27

Running is great. It provides a feeling of freedom, it boosts the cardiovascular system and it’s really convenient. Simply put on your running shoes and go!

The benefits of running outweigh the disadvantages, however, it’s important to be aware of the risks, in particular if it’s your only way to keep in good shape physically and mentally. These include shin splints, stress fractures, joint pain, and an imbalance of the muscular system which can lead to a whole array of problems.

By introducing alternative workouts into your weekly routine, you can not only help prevent these problems but also boost your running performance in ways you may not have imagined.

Yoga is a great example of a cross-training method, that is perfectly complementary to running, and here are some reasons.

1. Increased muscle flexibility

We all know that to prevent injuries and to help recover from a run we should stretch afterwards. This stretching helps prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Yoga will increase your overall flexibility and also introduce good stretching techniques combined with breathing patterns that increase the effectiveness of the movements.

Increased flexibility can also help to improve stride length and speed.

2. Compensate for overused muscles

On the forward stride, the quadriceps are mostly engaged, and then the gastrocnemius (upper back of the calf) is worked. Throughout the stride the hip flexors are active and the hamstrings are working, in particular when running uphill.

Many other muscles are utilised during a run, however to a lesser extent, and therefore we need to balance our muscular system. The glutes are probably the best example of this. 

We use the glutes to stabilise and align our legs, pelvis, and torso and it should be the largest muscle in the body. Unfortunately in the modern world, we often sit on a chair all day, we use the lift to get upstairs, and running alone is not enough to keep this muscle as strong as it should be. This combined with the disproportionate strengthening of other muscles can lead to overuse/overcompensation with subsequent muscle strains. The same applies to the rest of the core muscles which can be understrength if we don’t also train those.

Yoga very much focuses on deep muscle strengthening and is oriented to core strength. This is because the postures are static (isometric). Deep muscles are strengthened less in dynamic activities such as running, therefore Yoga is complimentary by ensuring the entire system is strengthened. The deep muscles are also fundamental to stability which is important not only for running but also for day-to-day life and longevity.

Yoga or other types of workouts such as pilates and circuit training are the perfect cross-training formats to build the muscles and balance out the system.

3. Restoration

Yoga is a low-impact activity. This means that it can often be performed when there are certain physical constraints including recovering from injury. Nearly every runner I have met has had an injury due to running. Unfortunately, this often leads to a total stop in physical activity until they feel confident enough to return to running. This is a shame because there are many alternative ways to keep in shape and make the journey back to running quicker with less risk of recurrence.

4. Breath awareness

In life, we need to breathe, when running we need to breathe “efficiently”. Yoga is all about breath control, either during the postures (asana) or dedicated breathing exercises called “pranayama”. Some people state that the single most effective benefit of Yoga for runners is the increased awareness of proper breath and diaphragm control and it is difficult to argue against this considering that for aerobic exercise we are getting our energy thanks to oxygen.

5. Training the mind

Mental health benefits associated with an active lifestyle are widely known and have been demonstrated time and time again. See this article for some further insights.

However, the science behind the "mentality" that allows certain people to perform higher than others is still relatively young. There is growing evidence that mindfulness is a significant factor linked to high performance in running, particularly distance runners.

If we think about it it’s quite logical that, to be able to commit to a repetitive training programme, often being alone at times of the day when you would prefer to be in bed, a non-stressed state of mind could help a lot. 

Furthermore, during a race, having a balanced mind to ensure that the pace is appropriate (in particular at the start) as well as focusing on the here and now, rather than a finish that is many hours away, will help with the race performance and subsequent result. 

The tenacity to simply keep going during the tough moments needs not only mental strength but a willingness to be "in the moment", dealing with that single challenge and nothing before or after.

In Yoga, you will often hear the coach say “Listen to your body and observe how you feel”. This has various motives including having single-pointed attention “clearing the mind” whilst discovering what feels correct and what feels incorrect. This understanding of your body can be a real asset during training to not be disturbed by discomfort whilst being concerned when it’s a real pain.

Traditional Yoga has very little to do with the postures; it is nearly entirely focused on our spiritual state and part of this journey is to calm the mind. In fact, the original purpose of Asana is to prepare for meditation. That said, even without mediation, in an Asana Yoga class the focus on breath, balance, and concentration helps to train the mind to be peaceful, relaxed, and in the “here and now”.

This, over time, should lead to a balanced state whilst running and possibly boost performance.

Yoga can improve your running

It is important to have a varied approach to physical activity. It's understood that many people have limited time and really like to focus on their passion for running. 

So, if there is little motivation to do alternative types of training, such as Yoga, then note that it is likely to increase your performance and therefore it’s not a waste of time. Maybe this will help to put it up your priority list.

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