Yoga can help runners with both strength and flexibility in crucial areas. But which of the many types of yoga are best to keep your body in perfect shape for the road?
Why should runners do yoga?
Primarily to lengthen tight muscles but also to strengthen the core, feet and ankles; improve running posture; breathe better and even train the mind. The benefits are literally top to toe.
Running is a repetitive movement so particular, specific muscle groups are overtaxed. These include the hamstrings, hip flexors and calves but also the stabilising muscles of the outer hip and thigh, including the often troublesome iliotibial (IT) band.
Yoga helps lengthens out these tight spots, speeding up recovery and restoring a natural range of motion. It might therefore help runners to side step common overuse injuries like IT band syndrome or plantar fasciitis.
On the strength side, yoga helps boost potential weak spots such as the core, and muscles of the feet and ankles which absorb two to three times the body weight on every stride. This is particularly crucial for road runners pounding the pavements. Trail runners, on the other hand, would benefit from yoga’s balancing postures as these improve proprioception – the awareness of the position of our limbs in space (think of hopping nimbly from rock to rock).
Honing the breathing and training the mind are not prime reasons runners turn to yoga – but they are useful additional benefits for all endurance athletes. For example, the mind has a tendency to turn negative and nasty halfway through a race. Yogic mind tricks can help keep it positive and present. Goodbye, gremlins.
Are there any particular stretches that are good for stiff legs?
A simple and effort-free way to ease out stiff legs after a hard run is to lie on your back and loop a yoga strap, dressing gown belt or old tie around the sole of the right foot. Straighten the leg to perform a hamstring stretch.
Now add these variations:
Calf stretch: Shuffle the strap to the ball of the foot and push the heel up (grimacing is optional here).
IT band/glute stretch: Take the strap in the left hand and slowly draw the leg across the body.
Adductor (inner thigh) stretch: Take the strap in the right hand and open the leg out to the right.
Stay in each part of the stretch for 30-60 seconds or 5-10 deep breaths. Repeat on the left leg.
Are there any stretches runners should avoid?
Anything extreme that the body is not warmed up for that might strain the lower back or knee joints. I don’t teach my runners “camel” for this very reason. Runners don’t need to do poses that make them look like pretzels; they just need to rebalance the body. Its about teasing out muscles rather than nailing a double lotus. Keep it functional and simple. If a pose doesn’t feel right, trust that instinct.
Think low lunges, a bit of downward dog (perhaps “walking the dog” by bending one leg and pushing the opposite heel down) and a nice side bend like triangle. Pigeon pose is fantastic but is a pose to sidle up to slowly with plenty of quad and hip flexor warming up, rather than dropping into cold.
Are there any specific types of yoga that runners might find more enjoyable?
Runners, like most athletes, are often drawn either to fast, strong yoga such as Ashtanga or hot yoga, such as Bikram. The type of yoga you choose should depend on the intensity of training. If you are running long or hard three or four times a week I would choose a gentler style such as Hatha or Iygenar (static, long-held poses) as it will allow much-needed time for muscular release and valuable physical and mental downtime. If you are running less or don’t have a race scheduled and need to build strength, a stronger class, such as Ashtanga, will do this.
Hot yoga is popular – but watch out for dehydration, and skip any extreme poses that you would struggle to do without the stretch-enhancing benefits of 35C heat. Obviously a specific yoga for runners class is ideal as it will offer more targeted lower body stretches and less plank-type upper body strengthening which can dominate strong, flowing yoga classes.
Lexie Williamson is a yoga instructor and the author of Yoga for Runners and Yoga for Cyclists. She has also written for Runner’s World, Women’s Fitness, Outdoor Fitness and Trail Running. She runs, cycles and does sprint-distance triathlon.
She will be teaching a class in yoga for runners at the Be:Fit exhibition at London’s Business Design Centre, from 1-3 May. More information at befitlondon.com
Top Photo: A hamstring stretch with a yoga band Photograph: JP Bland/Yoga for Runners, Bloomsbury Publishing