With marathon and race season fast approaching it’s the perfect time to talk about yoga for runners. Being a runner myself I know how much pressure we put on our legs and bodies in general during training. For years I neglected my warm ups and post run stretches and ended up paying for it with a string of injuries from plantar fasciitis (yes that’s a real thing), to a pulled groin and a strained hip!
These days I always take my time to warm up beforehand and ensure I stretch for at least 15 minutes afterwards depending on how far I have run. With my yoga teacher training I learned a lot about the different muscle groups of the body and how different asanas can help us to strengthen, but more importantly in this case lengthen and stretch the muscles we use when running. I find personally that yoga is a fantastic counter-activity to running but sometimes if you go to a regular class you may feel that you haven’t stretched your legs quite enough as the flow will also be focusing on other areas of your body.
In this article I’m going to cover the muscles that we mainly use during running and how we can use yoga to help stretch and also prevent injury. I’ll also provide some top tips for post run yoga stretches which I have added to my routine and found massively helpful.
Why Do Yoga As A Runner?
Running requires repetitive movement so this means that specific muscle groups are over worked. The main ones being hamstrings, hip flexors and calves, but stabilising muscles like the abductors (outer thighs) and IT band are also taxed.
So why bother with yoga as a runner? The benefits are threefold. Incorporating yoga in to your routine can firstly lengthen out these tight muscles – speeding up recovery and maintaining a healthy range of motion. On the other side yoga helps to strengthen areas of the body which help support you during running such as your core, feet and ankles. Thirdly learning to control your breath, and more importantly your mind can have a massively beneficial effect on your performance. Ever had that mid race fear or gremlin where your brain is yelling ‘why the hell am I doing this?’, or ‘I’ll never make it to the finish line!’ Well yogic techniques can help you to keep a clear and positive mind…sounds good right?
Yoga To Stretch It Out
The main areas of the body we strain when running are hamstrings, hip flexors and calves. The below yoga postures are ones that I have found really useful to do post-run to help relieve any tension. Do these regularly and you will start to notice a difference in your body.
Stand straight with your feet hip distance apart. Place your palms on your hands on your hips. Inhale and open your chest whilst looking up. From here engage your abdominals and start to bend forward from the pelvis maintaining a straight spine. Once you’ve come forward release your hands and try and grab on to your big toes with your index and middle fingers below the toes and your thumbs on top. Inhale again and make sure you’ve maintained a straight spine (try and look straight ahead and broaden your collar bones). On the exhale you try and fold deeper, without hunching your shoulders and back. If you use your fingers to really pull up on your toes this should keep your shoulders away from your ears.
If you’re doing this right your elbows should be coming out to the side. Try if possible to maintain straight legs here throughout the posture and as you get deeper in to it bring the weight more into your toes. By keeping your quads engaged you allow the hamstrings to stretch further! If you can’t reach your toes you can keep the knees bent – as long as your fold is coming from your pelvis and not your spine you will still get the stretch in your hamstrings. If this is still too much, you can place the hands on the lower shins. Repeat for 5 breaths, straightening the spine on the inhale and folding deeper on the exhale.
This one is great for the hip flexors. As you come in to the posture really lean forward in to the front leg – this allows for a hip opener and a hip flexor stretch. Hold for at least 5 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
From Anjaneyasan, place your palms on the floor and slowly start to walk yourself back to come and sit on the back leg, the front leg should now be straight. Flex the foot of the front leg, inhale to open your chest and as you exhale fold over the front leg staying up on your finger tips on both hands to provide light support to the body so you don’t collapse on to the leg. Hold for at least 5 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose)
Come in to a low lunge positon, then bring your palms to the floor and walk your right foot out so that it’s outside of your right palm. From here lean more forward and if you can place your elbows down to the floor. If this is too much you can stay up on the palms – you will still get a stretch. You should feel this in your right hip and left hip flexors. Hold for 5-7 breaths then repeat on the left side.
Supine twist with IT band stretch
Lay on the floor on your back and bring the knees in to the chest so your knees are in line with your hips. Bring your arms out to the side, straight so that your wrists, elbows and shoulders are all in line. Inhale and as you exhale slowly lower your knees to the right hand side (it doesn’t matter if they don’t reach the floor, it’s more important that your shoulders stay grounded). Once you’re in the twist, bring your left hand to grab hold of your left foot and extend the left leg out straight whilst keeping hold of the foot) you should feel this immediately in your IT band. Turn your head over to the left hand side. Hold for 5 breaths and then repeat on the other side.
Yoga to Strengthen the Body
We can also use yoga to strengthen the core and ankles both of which are key supporting areas of the body when running. For the core, my favorite asanas are Phalakasana (plank) and Vasisthasana (side plank). The key with both of these is your alignment – ensuring that your wrists, elbows and shoulders are all in one line. For the ankles, any standing balance postures will be beneficial.
My favorite is Vrksana (Tree pose) as it also works on opening your hips. Virabhadrasana III is also a good one as it works on the core too. With any balancing postures the key is to have your drishti (gaze point) on something still in front of you as this helps with the balance.
Yoga for the Runner’s Mind
We’ve looked at how yoga can help strengthen you physically, but what about your mind? For me, one of the best things about yoga is the effect it has on the mind. With continuous practice of breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation you can come to still and control your thoughts. This takes time and practice, it’s not going to happen overnight! However even if you can spare 15 mins per day to concentrate on your breath and take some time out to sit still and quietly this will help. If you’re new to meditation I would recommend buying a book or downloading an app as this will guide you through the basic principles.
The easiest way to think about this is to accept that thoughts and fears will enter the mind during your training or on race day itself. Learn to acknowledge them and then to let them float away. Teaching yourself to not dwell on any thought or let it manifest inside the head for longer than a few moments. With a regular yoga and meditation practice you will start to achieve a lighter, happier and more positive state of mind that you want to carry with you at all times. All of these things will help create a clear mind for you to focus on beating that PB, or simply making it across the finish line!
Good luck to everyone running over the next coming months!